INDIA TOUR OF SOUTH AFRICA, 2018
India might have reason to believe that their intent calls robbed them of a potentially match-winning total © AFP
Through this series, Virat Kohli has spent as much time sermonising the benefits of displaying intent as he has indulged in double net sessions. If his batting has been the lone bright spot in an otherwise forgettable display, it probably has more to do with all the hours of preparation as opposed to a universal ideology, which clearly has been decoded to mean different things by different individuals.
In fairness to the Indian captain, he did spell it out for the uninitiated before the Wanderers Test: “Intent can be leaving the ball or defending the ball as well,” he said. “With your body language you can get to know how a person is feeling. That’s precisely what I meant. Look, that’s always going to be a big factor. When you are playing in conditions that are not your own, your belief and your body language in each minute of a Test match matters. And as a collective unit. So that is something that we have discussed and that is something the guys are looking forward to embrace.”
With the benefit of hindsight, those were interesting comments made in light of India’s general progress on the first day in Johannesburg – billed a fresh start for a team that had suffered a setback. From Kohli and Shastri’s body language ahead of the toss, there were no indications that they were feeling a bit adventurous although no one put it beyond them. Kohli won the toss on a green top and instantly showed intent by electing to bat after picking a five-man seam attack.
In isolation, it wasn’t a preposterous decision. Only once in the last 15 Tests has the team winning toss opted to field first here. The common theory in the Highveld – at Centurion and Johannesburg – is that the pitch starts slow and quickens up through days two and three. As Pujara ascertained after Stumps, the expansion of those vertical cracks on a length will make the fourth-innings chase a very difficult proposition. Perhaps India used the Wanderers template of 2006 when Rahul Dravid took a bold decision to bat and let Sreesanth and Zaheer Khan run riot on Day 2 to bowl South Africa out for 84 and setup the famous win. Or maybe they went only as far back as Cape Town a couple of weeks ago when Faf du Plessis did the same.
However, the circumstances around this game and the series add further grounds for introspection. For starters, India have identified the batting to have been the weaker suit with the bowling generally receiving universal acclaim for having taken 40 wickets so far. To that regard, playing an extra seamer on a pitch with consistent and significant assistance only dialed up the pressure on an already under-fire line-up. Add to the fact that this was not a Wanderers track with just bounce and pace. Overnight thunderstorms had significantly spruced up the pitch and the opposition had clearly setup to bowl first on (at least per du Plessis).
Assuming Kohli and Shastri factored for all the aforementioned criteria and decided the best course of showing intent was to fight fire with five-man pace attack of their own, then it perhaps casts some doubts that they are not as confident of their best four fast bowlers to give them 20 wickets on a helpful track as they’ve portrayed. So to account for an off performance from either a Mohammed Shami or a Japrit Bumrah or one of the others, they were willing to put an already struggling-for-confidence batting line-up under more duress.
Which brings us back to intent. Clearly it’s not a one-size-fit all batting philisophy. Kohli rode his luck – he was dropped on 11 and 32 attempting attacking shots – but never shied away from planting his front foot out for a cover drive whenever an opportunity was presented. His 54 in the context could well turn out to be a match-winning gem like Sachin Tendulkar’s first-innings 44 had been at Wanderers in 2006.
On that day, India got 249 with Ganguly, Dravid, and Laxman chipping in with vital contributions. Cheteshwar Pujara, who got a half-century himself, reckoned that 187 was as good as 300 on another wicket. Then India might have reason to believe that their intent calls robbed them of a potentially match-winning total.
Murali Vijay, who put himself among the best openers in the world, just by judiciously letting deliveries outside off-stump go, now finds a need to chase them. On the opening day of the Test match with the ball jagging around substantially, he reached out for a wide one with minimal feet movement and got caught. He’d been guilty of the the same at Cape Town and Centurion as well.
Even in the knowledge that India were down to what was a longer-than-usual tail, Parthiv Patel didn’t stop himself from attempting an adventurous cut off Morne Morkel without accounting for his extra bounce while Hardik Pandya thought it heroic to die by his intent sword without adding a run. Even on a wicked surface, those dismissals slotted under the much-abhored ‘soft’ category. If not for a VRV Singh-esque effort from Bhuvneshwar Kumar (30), India might well have folded under 150.
Pujara seemed afflicted by the intent bug himself when he ran himself out twice in Centurion, but a return to his preferred staid mode of batting saw him shrug off a 53-ball drought at the start of his innings to score a crucial half-century.
When asked to describe what intent meant to him, he summed it up best: “Each and every player is different,” he said. “Virat is someone who has been batting really well in all formats of the game. He has lots of shots, and the way he batted today, I don’t think any other batsman could have batted like that. He’s in form, he scored a hundred in the last Test match too. He was timing the ball really well. I was finding it difficult initially, as I said earlier. For me intent is something where you defend well, you leave well, and you play on the merit of the ball. Ultimately what matters is you score some runs for the team and put up a decent total.”
If nothing else, this series has celebrated the importance of the little contributions with the bat. If Johannesburg 2006 was indeed the template, then India have fallen short by about 50 runs. If they end up on the wrong side, they will have to scrutinise some of their decisions on the opening day.