Leaks plugged, the Indian boat reaches an island of opportunity

If Sri Lanka, that reportedly inspired the word serendipity, offers joy and peace to the Indian team, it could help Virat Kohli and his men turn a corner. The dressing room needs to be happy, and a few victories starting with the Tests and in the subsequent ODI series and lone Twenty20 may well banish the recent Chinese whispers from the change rooms.

Handing over the baton? The new head coach Ravi Shastri and captain Virat Kohli at the press conference in Mumbai before the Indian team left for the Sri Lanka tour.   -  VIJAY BATE

India last turned out in Test whites on March 28, earlier this year. At the rarefied heights of Dharamshala and under Himalayan skies, Ajinkya Rahane’s men defeated Australia by eight wickets to secure an acrimonious four-match series at 2-1. Regular skipper Virat Kohli missed the decider due to an injury and since then much water has flowed down the Ganges or the Cauvery, depending on which side of the Vindhyas you live.

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After close to four months, India will play a ‘three-Test’ series in Sri Lanka starting with the contest at Galle from July 26. But it is not that the national cricketers were idle in the intervening period. They traversed India in coloured clothing during the IPL summer, then donned their blue shade and played the ICC Champions Trophy in England and a limited overs series in the West Indies.

Ajinkya Rahane and Virat Kohli have been playing at the top level for some five years.   -  AP

On the field they did well except for the blip of losing to Pakistan in the Champions Trophy final, but off the field, Indian cricket was the stuff of screaming negative headlines. The washing of dirty linen in public with regard to a rift between Kohli and the then head coach Anil Kumble; the leaks that surfaced in sections of the media and the former India captain’s dignified exit through which he clearly stated that equations between him and the captain were untenable due to the latter’s reservations; and an exasperated Ramachandra Guha’s resignation from the BCCI’s Committee of Administrators, meant that Indian cricket was in the news for the wrong reasons.

 

It is in this context that the interaction between the media and the combine of Kohli and new coach Ravi Shastri over the last week has largely focussed upon dressing room dynamics. The captain-coach chemistry has never been analysed this acutely across sports pages or in drawing rooms as it has been done over the past few months. The mirror doesn’t offer a pretty picture and yet the Indian team and its support staff will do well to balance their inward gaze with the long look outside because the season that beckons them is one that is tilted towards overseas tours. Starting with the current one in Sri Lanka, followed by the year-end trip to South Africa and other visits that will stretch all the way to the World Cup in England in 2019, India, be it in whites or in blue, has a challenging road ahead.

It is indeed a relief that the current coaching staff have been pencilled in till the England World Cup. It is a trick that the BCCI missed (whether it was intentional, remains a moot point) while appointing Kumble as the head coach last year when he was keen on a three-year contract. A longer tenure offers security to the backroom strategists and it also helps them firm up their plans with the team. It also helps that Shastri and Kohli have a rapport.

Opener Shikhar Dhawan is in because Murali Vijay is out and Rohit Sharma, who hasn’t been as successful in the Tests as he has been in the limited-over internationals, has been given yet another chance to redeem himself.   -  AP

In his prime, Shastri was a pin-up boy of Indian cricket, attuned to fame, its fringe benefits and its pitfalls. Kohli is sailing in a similar boat and that could help him and the coach bridge their age-gap. Both are obsessed with winning, a drive which Kumble too has abundantly, and that would mean the current duo will have its task cut out against mounting scrutiny. There is no avoiding the perception that Kohli orchestrated a bloodless coup against Kumble. And the faster he overcomes that public relations disaster and focuses on his batting and on guiding the team, the better it is for him and his men.

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It might be easy to dismiss Sri Lanka as a weak outfit that just lost an ODI series to Zimbabwe and then salvaged some pride in winning the one-off Test. But a retrospective gaze reveals a strong India in 1986 featuring the Sunil Gavaskars, the Kapil Devs and the Dilip Vengsarkars losing a Test series to Duleep Mendis’s troops. Yes, the retirements of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara has left a gaping hole, and to make it worse Angelo Mathews quit as captain with Dinesh Chandimal and Upul Tharanga taking over his mantle in the Tests and limited overs formats respectively. Chandimal, however, will miss the first Test against India owing to indisposition. But Sri Lanka at home, despite the lukewarm show against Zimbabwe, can test the best of opposition.

Sri Lanka is in the throes of transition while India has made its peace with change and its core group of Kohli, Ashwin, Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara have been together at the highest level for five years and more.

In the months and years ahead, India has to firm up its opening combine. Now it is a musical chair between Murali Vijay, K. L. Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan with the vagaries of form and fitness triggering changes. Vijay, however, is out of the Sri Lanka series with an injury and Dhawan has been named as his replacement. Rahul, though, will not figure in the first Test. The fast bowlers ranging from Umesh Yadav to Mohammed Shami, have acquired a certain rhythm, and it’s vital that they stay in supreme shape. Ashwin is undoubtedly the leader of the spin pack with the niggardly Ravindra Jadeja and chinaman Kuldeep Yadav being his foils.

Umesh Yadav, with his pace, should ensure that no Sri Lankan batsman gets to the stage of seeing a cricket ball as big as a football.   -  AP

Most of the cogs are in sync and the Sri Lanka tour could also offer another shot at revival to Rohit Sharma. Undoubtedly a talented cricketer and a big player in ODIs, Rohit, by his exalted standards, somehow has been off-colour in Tests. Last season he did show glimpses of his ability before an injury laid him low and starting with the Tests in Sri Lanka, he can show to the world, his ability that Kohli believes in so much so that even a triple centurion like Karun Nair missed the flight to Colombo.

The surfaces in Sri Lanka, slow and turgid, will aid wily spinner Rangana Herath, who will lead his side in the first Test as a stand-in for Chandimal, and in recent times, India has had issues in countering spin.

Its batsmen are obsessed with proving their mettle against pace while taking for granted their ability to play the sultans of the slow art. If Sri Lanka, that reportedly inspired the word serendipity, offers joy and peace to the Indian team, it could help Kohli and his men turn a corner. The dressing room needs to be happy, and a few victories starting with the Tests and in the subsequent ODI series and lone Twenty20 may well banish the recent Chinese whispers from the change rooms.