How times change! When India toured the West Indies for a Test series in 2011, a young man went through a harrowing period. The West Indian scribes in the media box were barely able to conceal their laughter when the home quicks bounced at Virat Kohli. Fidel Edwards, of that sling-arm action, would torment Kohli in particular with his speed and awkward lift. Kohli, often airborne and out of position while negotiating those fliers, would be picked up in the leg cordon.
It’s circa 2016 now and Kohli, among the finest batsmen in world cricket, is leading the Indian team for a four-Test series in the Caribbean. The turnaround in Kohli’s career has been astonishing. Now he’s a pathfinder for Indian cricket. The focussed, determined and talented young man used adversity as a motivating force to shatter barriers.
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And Kohli will have the formidable Anil Kumble as the head coach to guide him and the team. On his first campaign with the team in a new role, Kumble, a serial scalp hunter and a respected leader of men in his time, will surely pass on a wealth of knowledge to his side. He would also be a demanding task master, not being someone who could settle for anything less than one hundred per cent from his men.
And who can forget Kumble’s brave and timeless act of bowling with a broken jaw in Antigua in 2002? His face bandaged, Kumble caught the imagination of all with his courage as he bounded in to bowl in the fourth Test of the series. Despite the pain he was in, Kumble operated with skill and intensity, dismissing the great Brian Lara with a telling delivery. Such a ferocious competitor would expect nothing but the best from his men.
Given the combative streak in both, Kumble and Kohli should hit it off. Kumble would also seek to temper Kohli's aggression while retaining the cutting edge of his game and approach.
Kohli’s men triumphed in the Test series in Sri Lanka against a rebuilding host last season, but West Indies in its backyard could prove a tougher adversary. Despite its many problems — the bitterness between a senior group of cricketers and the Board, the financial difficulties etc — the West Indians can put up a fight at home.
The Test series between West Indies and England ended in a 1-1 stalemate last season and the result caused an upheaval in English cricket leading to the sacking of coach Peter Moores.
India would do well not to underestimate the West Indians. The Caribbeans, so explosive in the Twenty20 variety, have a point to prove in the longer version as well. The brilliant individual performances, however, would have to be channelled into winning team efforts.
The venues for the Test series are interesting. The surface for the first Test in Antigua should largely favour batsmen with spinners getting into the act later in the game.
Sabina Park, Kingston, where the second Test is scheduled, should offer more to the bowlers. There could be more bounce for bowlers, both pacemen and spinners. Even then, the pitch will not be as lively as it was in the 70s and 80s when Michael Holding, Andy Roberts and Malcolm Marshall left the batsmen with bruised limbs and egos.
St. Lucia — the third Test will be held here — is among the most sporting pitches in the Caribbean these days. Pacemen could relish the lift the surface might offer.
Port of Spain, Trinidad, where the fourth Test will get underway, has traditionally offered assistance to spinners. But then, odd surfaces have encouraged seamers too at this venue.
The conditions in the West Indies, including the rough grounds, are expected to aid reverse swing than conventional movement, save the new ball and the first hour.
India would do well to opt for the five-bowler theory and get more out of R. Ashwin, the batsman.
This Indian attack has looked better with five bowlers and a bowling line-up of Ishant Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Ashwin and Amit Mishra could ask searching questions to the batsmen.
Ishant bowled splendidly in the West Indies in 2011 and returns a more experienced bowler. If this lanky bowler gets his rhythm and wrist position right, he can prove a handful to the West Indian batsmen.
Bhuvneshwar, quicker and straighter with a stinging yorker, is the bowler to watch out for. He is moving the ball too at faster speeds.
The bustling, attacking Shami, fits into the squad only if India opts for five bowlers. Otherwise it might be too much of a risk to field this injury-returned pacer. If India plays only four bowlers and Shami breaks down, the side will be in serious trouble. The speedy Umesh Yadav is the other pace option India has. Varun Aaron, a genuine quick, is unlucky to miss out though. Bowlers of his ilk are hard to come by and should not be left demoralised.
Ashwin’s off-spin and Mishra’s leg-spin could have the West Indians in a tangle. Their methods are contrasting, but both are aggressive spinners.
India has two options to strengthen its batting during the course of the series. It could field left-arm spinning all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja ahead of Mishra to lend more depth to the line-up.
Or all-rounder Stuart Binny might get the nod ahead of Shami. Binny will be able to bat down the order and don the role of a support seamer.
The series will be important for Murali Vijay, the technically well-equipped opener, who has been such a revelation for India in Tests over the last couple of years.
Vijay had a miserable time in the West Indies five years back and will be seeking redemption.
India will have Shikhar Dhawan and Lokesh Rahul duelling it out for an opening spot. Dhawan, the senior player, could be Vijay’s partner early in the series, but Rahul, a youngster with poise, footwork and timing, could push him hard.
The solid Cheteshwar Pujara at No. 3, the gifted Kohli at No. 4 and the calm, smooth-stroking Ajinkya Rahane following the two, reflect India’s batting strength.
Will the enigmatic Rohit Sharma get a look-in? He might if India prefers the defensive-minded extra batsman route. If he doesn’t get runs in the longest format, the Mumbaikar will be walking on thin ice.
Wriddhiman Saha, a wonderful gloveman and a capable bat, might discover that keeping wickets in the Caribbean, where the bounce could be variable, could be a challenging experience.
The West Indians have some good players of both pace and spin in Darren Bravo and Marlon Samuels. This left-right combination has the potential to hurt India.
Jermaine Blackwood, a thumping striker of the ball, is another danger man in the West Indies line-up.
And all-rounders, skipper Jason Holder and Carlos Brathwaite, can tear into the bowling. Holder has displayed character with the bat in testing times.
This West Indian line-up, however, lacks a stable opening pair with only Kraigg Brathwaite showing a degree of technique and application.
The impressive Brathwaite will be looking for a reliable partner. The West Indies also lacks a stayer in the middle-order, much like a Shivnarine Chanderpaul. This side is prone to collapses.
The omission of wicket-keeper batsman Denesh Ramdin — it’s hard to see the logic behind the move — deprives the side of a wily, experienced customer who can play spin well. The tall and big Shannon Gabriel will be a distinct threat in the attack with his velocity and bounce. He does hustle batsmen. Gabriel, though, could lack support with Jerome Taylor announcing his retirement from Tests and Kemar Roach, blighted by injuries, fading away.
Holder and (Carlos) Brathwaite are useful seamers, but not of the threatening variety. It is here that West Indies will need a second genuinely quick bowler to rattle the Indians.
Devendra Bishoo’s leg-spin lends an additional dimension to the West Indian bowling. Can this attack, though, bowl India out twice in a Test?
The series will be worth a lot to the cash-strapped West Indian Cricket Board. A series involving India always brings with it the big bucks and the WICB would strive to cash in on the opportunity.
The four-Test series in the Caribbean will thus be important from several perspectives.