This was November 23, the day before the second of three Tests against Sri Lanka, this one in Nagpur. For the first, in Kolkata, a seamer-friendly pitch had been produced, and with the conditions being overcast – when it wasn’t raining – the fast bowlers had it good. Virat Kohli said during the pre-match press conference that the Indians had asked for pace-friendly pitches because there was little or no time between the end of the three-format series against Sri Lanka (the last Twenty20 International was on December 24) and the next one in Cape Town, with the first Test on January 5.
This was the headline in the Hindustan Times the following morning: Virat Kohli angry with BCCI’s planning, says preparation for SA tour not ideal. There were screamers in every paper you turned to.
Kohli had – not angrily, only matter-of-factly – followed up his pitch-preference explanation with this: “So we have no choice but be in a game situation and think of what’s coming ahead of us. Had we got a month off ideally, we would have done a proper preparation in a camp sort of scenario. But we have to sort of make do with what we have.”
Kohli and his boys did have it rough. After hardly stepping out of India for a long stretch – except to go to the Caribbean Islands and Sri Lanka, and to the UK for the Champions Trophy – they were travelling for one of the toughest tours around: South Africa. And they were going to play three Tests there with just one two-day practice game before that. All because the money-hungry mandarins in the BCCI had fitted in as much as they could, without a thought for the players, their work pressure, their requirements.
Soon after, we found out that only six of the players going to South Africa for the Tests were in the squad for the three-match One-Day International series against Sri Lanka: Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane, Shikhar Dhawan, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Hardik Pandya and Jasprit Bumrah. And then, only four – Rohit, Bumrah, Pandya and Rahul – were involved in the three T20Is. Which means that all of Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, M Vijay, R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Wriddhiman Saha and Parthiv Patel (who wasn’t in the scheme of things for the Sri Lanka Tests anyway) were not engaged after December 6, when the last Test got over, though some of them were playing in the Ranji Trophy.
All these ten players had just under 30 days to be in South Africa if they had wanted, if the BCCI had wanted. Even accounting for Kohli’s wedding, which must have been planned in advance, surely there was a case for the others to hop across early?
True, the days of long journeys with multiple tour games are long gone but there was a real enough window here for the Indian Test specialists to be in South Africa for a couple of weeks before the first Test. It is still not the best-case scenario. But more the half the team could have had better practice than just one two-day game – which, in any case, has now been scrapped. The Indians decided that playing a two-day game had no real meaning and the players could get better training by having extended nets. Rightly so.
If all of this was not baffling enough, it has gotten even more confusing since.
After touching down in Cape Town, Kohli said on December 30 as clarification for calling off the practice game, “We’d rather have them do two sessions like today, get into the Test match zone, test ourselves. We can prepare the way we want to, but if you’re playing a two-day game then there’s no room for changing the wicket at different times of the day. So here we have the freedom to just put more water on the wicket, roll it, make it harder. […] You’re never sure of whether you’re going to get quality practice games or not. Practice sessions are in our control – the way we want to run them. It doesn’t matter whether we play two practice matches or three, if you’re not in the right frame of mind, it doesn’t matter. If you’re in a good space in the head after practice sessions, that’s good enough as well.”
A two-day game on a pitch unlikely to be anything close to what Newlands will offer and against players who are definitely not going to be Test class – you don’t have to be a genius to see that would be pointless before, possibly, facing Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn.
But there is also doublespeak there.
“It doesn’t matter whether we play two practice matches or three, if you’re not in the right frame of mind, it doesn’t matter.”
So why have people been playing tour games for all these years if it was all about the ‘right frame of mind’? Why is it that teams win more often at home than away? What about when, in late November, Kohli was sulking about not being in South Africa for a month. He couldn’t have meant to plan net sessions there? And, really, did the travel schedule centre around Kohli’s marriage plans?
Addressing that last bit first – the way the calendar is, and considering how much cricket Kohli plays all year, he is entitled to his time off. In any case, he must get married when he feels the time is right. Whenever that is. I only hope the wedding didn’t force the BCCI to schedule the team’s travel as they did. If it did, that’s not on Kohli.
On to the rest: Spending a month – or an extended period – in another country is no guarantee for success. Most recently, England played one two-day game and two four-day games in Australia and then promptly went 3-0 down in the Ashes. The first of those games started almost 20 days before the first Test. But if someone argues that playing no practice games makes no real difference, well, that’s just ridiculous.
This is an issue that could have been dealt with better, even by Kohli.
One hopes the series is competitive, with the powerful South Africans in familiar environs on one side and, on the other, India gung-ho about their chances, all charged up, and bolstered by the presence of a pace attack they have probably never had before. One hopes that the Indian batsmen don’t struggle as they did against Suranga Lakmal & Co on the tricky pitches at Eden Gardens first and then the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association Stadium in Dharamsala. One hopes the first Test doesn’t go away while the Indians are still gauging the conditions.
Personnel-wise, India have a good chance of matching the South Africans blow for blow. But, as Ravi Shastri boomed after reaching Cape Town, “No excuses, no complaints.” If India don’t do as well as their fans want them to, the talk shouldn’t go back to the complaints of November 23.