India vs South Africa 2018: Making sense of Virat Kohli's prep-talk
Sri Lanka's resistance in the second innings of the Delhi Test brought an end most fitting to a match that had been in the news for reasons other than cricket. The outcome of the game seemed to be a foregone conclusion at stumps on day 4, with Sri Lanka tottering at 31/3. But against all apprehensions and soothsayings, Sri Lanka brought their 'A' game to the centre on the final day and lost only two wickets while playing out 87 overs.
For a series that had been vital only because it preceded India's first Test tour outside Asia in two years - if the West Indies tour in mid-2016 is excluded - a 1-0 scoreline speaks as much about the opponents, who were seen only as punching bags before the big knockout brawl, as it does about the problems India still need to address.
Notwithstanding that, the next time India step out in the whites it would be at the Newlands, Cape Town for the New Year's Test - which the CSA just about managed to wrestle from the BCCI's arms.
Which brings me to the time span of just under a month that remains before India embark on a journey that has often lead to their 'wheels coming off' in the past. Amidst the talk about preparing green tracks in Nagpur and Delhi, it was quite easily forgotten that preparing pitches isn't akin to a one-night stand. No surface can be magically converted into a seamer over the span of a night or a week.
If the intent really was to give the team enough preparation time for the South Africa Tests - given that the BCCI and CSA didn't agree on playing a tour match or two before the first Test - the final two games of the Sri Lanka series could have been played on surfaces that have been assisting bowlers, like Mohali. Given that didn't happen, India had to make do with whatever they were served, and they would like to believe that they did a decent job.
"The kind of wickets we wanted to prepare on before going to South Africa, we haven't been provided with those kind of wickets," Mohammad Shami said after the third day's play of the Delhi Test. This was in connivance with his captain, Virat Kohli, who, in the subtlest of ways took a dig at the BCCI for a cramped schedule that allowed the team practically no time between the last T20I against Sri Lanka and the first Test in Cape Town.
"...unfortunately we get only two days before we fly to South Africa after this series gets over. So we have no choice but try to 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 had said ahead of the Nagpur Test.
"As usual cramped for time, which I think we needed to assess in future as well because we very easily assess the team when go abroad but we don't look at how many days we have got to prepare before we go to a particular place to play. Everyone starts judging players when results come after Test matches. It should be a fair game, where we get to prepare the way we want to and then we are entitled to be criticised," the captain's anguish was lost on nobody.
That it took a stern reminder by the captain of the national team for the BCCI to think about 'rest' in addition to their oft-used terminology of 'rotation' and give Kohli and other Test regulars a one-month break ahead of the overseas endeavours explains how high do proper scheduling and workload management rank on the board's agenda.
It was surprising that Shami, a fast bowler, had to come out and express his disappointment at the kind of wickets dished out for the last two Tests. Not that he didn't have anything to complain about - although Indian fast bowlers did a more than commendable job bowling on dead pitches in Nagpur and Delhi - but the sterner challenge, as far as the team is concerned, would be faced by the batsmen.
A dress rehearsal was on display during the first innings in Kolkata wherein movement off the surface in conditions best suited for fast bowling had created plenty of problems for the Indian batsmen.One may expect such passages of play in South Africa, the kind we witnessed on the first three days at the Eden Gardens, and should take a lot of heart in the way Cheteshwar Pujara battled it out in the first innings and how Kohli registered one of his better Test centuries in the second.
But the question still remained - would India have been better off playing all three Tests in similar conditions? Certainly, you'd say. But the BCCI certainly didn't feel the need.
With uncertainty looming large over the participation of Dale Steyn, AB de Villiers, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel, this could be India's best chance to win their first Test series in South Africa - although it would still be an uphill task. Improvement in the slip cordon should make the first step if they are to achieve that because their bowlers - and this is a welcome change - have been winning them games in home conditions, which are largely hostile to their trade.
Indian fans would expect that Kohli, Pujara, Shami, Ravichandran Ashwin, and Bhuvneshwar Kumar would be well-rested before the first Test begins but there would also be a worry of them being exposed to Kagiso Rabada and co. almost immediately after stepping foot on South African soil. India have managed to win a Test in two of their last three tours to the country, and would hope to better that stat this time around. The preparations for it, however, have been far from ideal.