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Bench Strength and Depth in Squad Make Kohli's India a Top Team

Dileep Premachandran |Cricketnext | Updated: August 14, 2017, 6:50 PM IST
Bench Strength and Depth in Squad Make Kohli's India a Top Team

Virat Kohli with the trophy after India whitewashed Sri Lanka 3-0 (Getty Images)

Pallekele: Just over three years ago, India left Lord’s with a 95-run victory and a 1-0 lead after two Tests of a five-match series. Matt Prior quit the team, Alastair Cook looked ready to throw in the towel, and the English media wondered just how much worse the summer might get. Then, before the third game at the Rose Bowl in Southampton, Ishant Sharma’s ankle gave way.

It was Ishant’s short-pitched barrage that had hurried England to defeat at St. John’s Wood, and without him to lead the attack, India’s fortunes went the way of a lead balloon. Well beaten in Southampton, where Moeen Ali took eight wickets, they were then destroyed at both Old Trafford and The Oval, which featured embarrassing innings defeats inside three days. In Ishant’s absence during the third and fourth Tests, India tried the likes of Pankaj Singh, Varun Aaron and Stuart Binny as the ‘allrounder’.

But with fitness levels also not up to scratch and the replacements struggling to hack it at the highest level, England’s batsmen rediscovered their collective mojo and meted out punishment. The gulf between the first-choice players and those on the bench was glaring, and India paid the price as a series that began so promisingly ended with the stench of abject failure.

In this Pallekele Test, Ishant and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, so instrumental in that Lord’s win, sat in the visitors’ dugout, surplus to requirements. Ravindra Jadeja, the No.1 bowler according to the ICC rankings, was suspended. No matter. Mohammed Shami picked up match figures of 5 for 49, Kuldeep Yadav and R Ashwin took four-wicket hauls, and Umesh Yadav packed off Upul Tharanga and Niroshan Dickwella in the second innings.

The India A team won a tri series in South Africa recently, and the Under-19s are currently wiping the floor with their English counterparts on their home turf. It isn’t just the senior national side that has enviable depth.

“I would like to believe that has been our strength in the last couple of years,” said Kohli after this emphatic innings-and-171-run victory in eight sessions. “That’s why we’ve been able to get the results that we have because we have played different players on different occasions, but everyone has been fit and ready to come and do the job.

“Mostly, we have played people depending on the conditions where we feel they will be most effective. Shami and Umesh have done really well in the last home season as well for us, both with the new and old balls. That’s the reason we backed them in this series also. It’s great to see both of them still bowling with lot of heart, putting in that effort. In the last Test and even today, the way Shami bowled, it was great to watch the effort.

“You can see the desire to make something happen for the team. Actually, the breakthroughs from the fast bowlers in the last home season as well was the key for us. That depth has really helped us capitalise more situations in favour of the team and end up winning Test matches and series. That you can say has been the defining factor.”

Sensibly, India are going to wrap Shami up in cotton wool after this series, not wasting his energy on the ODI series to follow. Far greater challenges await in the Test arena, and there’s little doubt in his captain’s mind that Shami is the gun strike bowler. “I certainly rate him, top three for sure,” said Kohli. “Because of his wicket-taking ability and the kind of impact he has on games. When he makes up his mind to come out and give it his 120 per cent, then he can bowl like this – 145 clicks on a regular basis and troubling the batsmen.

“It is not just reckless bowling. He is a quality bowler, he has all the ingredients of becoming a consistent world-class bowler, provided the fitness factor can be maintained and hopefully he is not hampered with any more injuries. He is a very valuable bowler for us and when he is on song, it’s delightful to watch. We all really enjoy standing on the field and watching him bowl like that. He is very special.”

And it’s not just on the pace-bowling front that India have options. When Murali Vijay returns to the squad later in the year, India will have to choose between him, KL Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan – man of the series here, after being a last-minute replacement for Vijay – and the left-hand option offered by Abhinav Mukund for the two openers’ slots. Rohit Sharma, now 30 and with just 21 Test caps to his name, continues to bide his time after the unfortunate injury that ruined his last Test season just as he was building some genuine momentum.

Kuldeep has made a huge impact in both Tests he has played, and Jayant Yadav, so outstanding against England at home, must wonder what he must do to find his way back into the XI. Far from replacements being found out as they were in England in 2014, the recent entrants into the side have only given the team management major selection headaches.

Insecurity can be an unwelcome spin-off of such success, but this team’s culture is such that almost no one seems unhappy or under siege. The old hierarchies have been obliterated. “Culture can only be built when everyone buys into it,” said Kohli. “And the way that can happen is when you don’t have any judgements. People coming in … if you don’t look at them with a critical eye, watching everything they are doing and trying to pick on small things … I think that is something that we have gotten rid of totally.

“In this team, we are more like a bunch of friends playing together rather than a senior or a junior. We don’t even think of the number of games X has played or Y has played within the change room. It is all about who you see every day. You can joke around with anyone inside the group and that something that makes me feel proud of this particular unit. The way we have embraced each other and accepted each other, with our different personalities and individuality, that is the reason why people coming in feel like they don’t have to do anything different from what they know already.

“It gives them an opportunity to go out there and believe in themselves and you never know. If you keep the environment like that, then people will take lesser time to go out there and become mature cricketers because they don’t feel any pressure from the group itself. That I feel is something we are all proud of because we have been able to create that together.”

In the process, they are creating history, going where no Indian team has gone before.

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First Published: August 14, 2017, 6:50 PM IST

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1 India 3499 125
2 South Africa 3589 112
3 Australia 3499 106
4 New Zealand 2354 102
5 England 3511 98
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