For perhaps the first time on this tour, Virat Kohli lost his cool. At a practice session. And his ire wasn’t directed so much at anyone else as internalised, the anger channelled towards himself.
Different batsmen use time at the nets differently. For someone, it is about playing freely without the attendant risk, or fear, of being dismissed. For others, the nets offer the perfect simulatory opportunity to replicate a match situation. And then, there are a few others who approach batting in the nets in much the same manner as they would in a game, with the same intensity and focus and purpose.
Kohli clearly belongs to the last category. His angry ‘aaaaaarrhhh’ upon playing a loose drive to Varun Aaron that caught the outside edge and flew towards where the wicketkeeper ought to have been was the verbal ticking-off that he thought he deserved. For the next few deliveries, he batted with a deliberateness that masked his irritation, his eyes hawk-like on the ball, his feet moving in perfect harmony, his bat coming down ramrod straight, his head as steady as steady can be.
While Kohli the captain is still in his early days, Kohli the batsman is a seasoned product who has tasted individual success in all parts of the world except England. As captain, he can’t afford to be a perfectionist because he is responsible for not just himself but ten other individuals; as batsman, he is nothing if not a perfectionist, driven by a quest for excellence that takes him back to the training ground over and over again.
Kohli the flexible captain and Kohli the perfectionist batsman need to be in ideal sync over the next five days. For the first time since West Indies in 2011, India go into the final Test of an away tour with the genuine possibility of a rare overseas series victory looming large. India have clearly been the superior side across the nine days of Test cricket in this series, but the scoreline still reads 1-1. For India to translate that superiority into a series triumph against a Sri Lankan side battling several odds will require them to string together a second successive away Test victory, something they haven’t managed since January 2010 when they swept a two-match series in Bangladesh.
A relaid strip at the SSC ground, the venue of the last game of this series starting on Friday (August 28), could well be the joker in the pack, but India are learning to try and take the pitch and other variables not in their control out of the equation. There is a coming to terms of the fact that no matter what is put out, they have to give it their best shot – and that has not always have been a particularly Indian trait in the past. The liberal coating of grass that adorned the surface till late on Thursday afternoon might not be around on match morning, but the innate hardness of the track is something that India’s batsmen, as well as pacers and spinners alike, should relish if the surface plays as its appearance would suggest.
As captain, Kohli can’t afford to be a perfectionist because he is responsible for not just himself but ten other individuals; as batsman, he is nothing if not a perfectionist, driven by a quest for excellence that takes him back to the training ground over and over again.
While there is strong belief within the Indian ranks that this is their best chance to win a series in Sri Lanka for the first time since 1993, there is no trace of complacency. Whatever overconfidence there might have been in Galle when one poor session undid all the good work of the preceding six sessions has totally disappeared. And because this side isn’t too fussed about history, it won’t worry too much about the fact that India haven’t come back from 0-1 down to win a three-Test series since that famous showdown of 2001 on home patch against Steve Waugh’s Australians.
India will make two enforced changes, Cheteshwar Pujara returning to the side in the relatively unfamiliar position of opener following the injury to M Vijay, and Naman Ojha taking over the big gloves from Wriddhiman Saha, who has also gone back home, with a hamstring strain. Whether they opt for Bhuvneshwar Kumar ahead of Stuart Binny – India have repeatedly harped on the horses for courses theory – will depend almost entirely on what they make of the conditions in the last few hours leading up to the Test. Bhuvneshwar is the more accomplished bowler while Binny is the better equipped batsman who, it must be mentioned, hardly put a foot wrong – apart literally from when he caught the edge of Kaushal Silva in the first innings at the P Sara Oval, of course – as a bowler in the second Test.
Whereas India have a reasonably good handle on things despite the constant reshuffle necessitated by injuries, Sri Lanka have a great many more issues to address. Angelo Mathews confirmed the inclusion in the playing XI of Upul Tharanga, but it won’t be easy to fill the massive void following the retirement of Kumar Sangakkara. The veteran left-hand batsman didn’t exactly overfill the runs column, but he always held the threat of uncorking a big one. The same can’t be said of the rest of the batting unit which, Mathews and Dinesh Chandimal excepted, has honestly been a little short of Test class.
Mathews would ideally love to bat at No. 4, but there is a bit of a crowd at the top given how many of the batsmen like to bat in the top four. Jehan Mubarak’s Test career hangs by a tenuous thread as the clamour for Kusal Janith Perera to make his Test debut and take over the wicketkeeping gloves to free up Dinesh Chandimal and facilitate his move up the order gathers voice. Lahiru Thirimanne has flattered to deceive, the openers haven’t fired in tandem, the lower order has offered no more than token resistance and spin twins R Ashwin and Amit Mishra have been unstoppable, all of which indicate a massive headache for the overworked Mathews who could also have to make do without the services of Tharindu Kaushal.
Whether they opt for Bhuvneshwar Kumar ahead of Stuart Binny – India have repeatedly harped on the horses for courses theory – will depend almost entirely on what they make of the conditions in the last few hours leading up to the Test.
Despite his profligacy, the offspinner has been Sri Lanka’s most successful bowler with 12 wickets, but is nursing a badly bruised right thumb after being hit on his hand by Umesh Yadav in Sri Lanka’s second innings at the P Sara. But for a side clutching at straws, the availability again of Nuwan Pradeep must come as a welcome development, particularly with Dushmantha Chameera off the boil in the second Test.
Four of the last five Tests at the SSC have ended indecisively, but the relaid strip and the relative inexperience of the sides indicate that this game will swing one way or the other. But which way will it go? Form and all-round strength says India, a proud home record says Sri Lanka. Something will have to give.
India: Cheteshwar Pujara, KL Rahul, Ajinkya Rahane. Virat Kohli (capt), Rohit Sharma, Naman Ojha (wk), Stuart Binny, R Ashwin, Amit Mishra, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Harbhajan Singh, Varun Aaron, Karun Nair.
Sri Lanka: Kaushal Silva, Dimuth Karunaratne, Lahiru Thirimanne, Upul Tharanga, Angelo Mathews, Dinesh Chandimal, Kusal Janith Perera (wk), Dilruwan Perera, Dhammika Prasad, Rangana Herath, Nuwan Pradeep, Tharindu Kaushal, Jehan Mubarak, Dushmantha Chameera, Vishwa Fernando.