India v West Indies: Entree ahead of heavy Test workload

NEW DELHI: Virat Kohli is getting used to changing perceptions of himself, most strikingly, as well as of India’s Test team+ . Since he took over as full-time skipper post MS Dhoni’s retirement from Test cricket in December 2015, Kohli+ has overseen three draws, one loss and five wins. These have included series wins in Sri Lanka – India’s first in nearly 23 years – and at home to knock South Africa down the ICC rankings. For eight weeks, India were No 1 in Tests and now, at second, they are about to begin a four-match series in the West Indies that acts as an appetiser to the busiest home season in their history.

For Kohli, this tour is a return to the beginning. It was in the West Indies in 2011 that he made his debut as a Test batsman, c Baugh b Edwards twice in his first match, and ended the series with 76 runs in three games. He has grown in stature and physique in the five years that have passed, maturing into the leader of the Test side and one of the game’s most feared batsmen. His batting average is 44.02, with England the only other country where he has failed in entirety as a Test batsman. Trust Kohli – the lean, mean batting machine of 2016 – to improve on his numbers in the West Indies across these four matches.

And yet whatever runs Kohli scores as a Test batsman, he will ultimately be judged on his captaincy. He has shown during his tenure that he’s ready to back a five-bowler approach because in his mind, Test matches are won by taking 20 wickets. It has worked for the most, but this has plenty to do with the rank turners prepared in India. There is a risk attached to playing five bowlers with an evolving batting order, and you need not look beyond Galle last year to see the perils of that approach. Kohli won plaudits for his leadership against Sri Lanka and South Africa, and how against an inexperienced West Indies he must retain that intensity and look to shut out the opposition from all quarters. The man at his side as India’s new coach, Anil Kumble+ , knows a bit about how to do that. Watching Kohli and Kumble in tandem promises to be a tasty subplot not just to these four Tests but to the challenges that lie in wait when New Zealand, England and Australia come visiting.
The series begins on Thursday at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in Antigua, where there is hardly any grass cover on the pitch. Indications from the Caribbean are that India will again go in five with bowlers, or four specialists and one allrounder, most likely the seam-bowling option that Stuart Binny offers. Such are the conditions that R Ashwin, India’s No 1 spinner, has spoken twice about having to bowl ‘boring’ spells on sluggish surfaces to stifle the West Indian batsmen.

In the circumstances, the onus lies on India’s batsmen to provide the support required for the bowlers to operate in unencumbered manner. Murali Vijay has struggled in the West Indies before and Shikhar Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane+ and Wriddhiman Saha have not played a Test in the region. Should KL Rahul get the not instead of Dhawan as Vijay’s opening partner, he too will have plenty to prove.
West Indies, on the other hand, are short of serious experience and remain in the lurch as a Test outfit. They are ranked eighth, just ahead of Bangladesh, and have not won a match in May 2015. The most experienced player in the lineup will be none other than Marlon Samuels, with an average of 33.22 in 10 Tests versus India but whose last series produced 32 runs in five innings. Then comes Darren Bravo, with the same number of Test centuries as Samuels (7) and with problems against Ashwin, who has claimed his wicket five times in past encounters. The skipper Jason Holder has his hands full trying to inspire the team as captain, fast bowler and batsman.