The contrast between the two teams preparing to take the field at the Oval this Friday could not have been starker – buoyant hosts (in spite of a fast bowling spearhead nursing a bruised nose) taking on a battered bunch of visitors boasting performances that would warm the cockles of their opponents’ hearts. What started as an impossible pipe dream for M.S.Dhoni’s men has quickly metamorphosed into a lurid nightmare.
While the batting performance has displayed a shambolic degeneration after the bright sparkle at Nottingham and Lords, floundering against pace and flummoxed by spin, the most disconcerting and disturbing aspect has been Virat Kohli’s apparent lack of form. A batsman once described by the legendary Vivian Richards as one who reminded “Viv of himself”, Kohli this series has been a pale shadow of his ebullient self. More often than not, this free flowing, attacking and prodigious right hander has been the pivot around which India’s successes revolve. However on this tour Virat Kohli has been miserable with the willow. His mode of dismissals has been eerily consistent. An otherwise cavalier blade which meets the ball with candour and confidence is now unhesitatingly reduced to the state of a reluctant piece of wood hanging limply just waiting for a delivery to make contact with the outside edge. The rasping drives, resounding pulls and racy flicks have all but disappeared. This expletive muttering enforcer, the clichéd angry young man of Indian Cricket looks drained of ideas, devoid of passion and deserted by footwork. Poise at the wicket has been usurped by a peculiar impatience.
While it would be ludicrous to even remotely moot the possibility of Kohli being dropped from the Indian team on the basis of his most recent performances, or to ‘rest’ him – an irritating and condescending euphemism substituting ‘drop’, it is also extremely imperative in India’s interest that this champion batsman gets back into his stride sooner rather than later to bolster a middle order that has been most un-assuring on this tour. Nikita Khrushchev once said “call it what you will, incentives are what get people to work harder”. What Virat Kohli needs is precisely what Khrushchev suggests – an incentive – an incentive that will be viewed by him in an almost incendiary vein and shake him out of this inexplicable reverie.
Such an incentive can bring about by a slight alteration of India’s current batting order. Apart from Murali Vijay and Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the one batsman who has been admiringly consistent in this series has for the touring side has been Ajinkya Rahane. The architect of a fascinating rear guard action at Lords, this unassuming right hander has exhibited calm, courage and composure. Looking assured and sure of himself (barring the odd momentary lapse of concentration at Headingly which made him heave wildly at a long hop from Moeen Ali thereby bringing both an untimely and ungainly end to his innings), Rahane has been a rare thorn in the flesh of the English bowling attack. For a team to put up at least a respectable total, logic dictates that the batsmen in form ought to play/face the maximum number of deliveries. More often than not in this series, Rahane has had to construct his innings in the company of the lower order (although Bhuvaneshwar Kumar’s talent with the bat precludes him from being categorized under the ambit of bunnies), having to skilfully rotate the strike and lash out when necessary.
Hence India would do well to promote Rahane up the order and bring Kohli down by a spot. This would not only ensure that Rahane spends more time at the crease and in the company of established batsmen (although the term ‘established’ is a misnomer for a team which does not last even a whole day), but would also have the effect of riling Kohli’s ego. This might just be the spurt required to make the star batsman regain his bearings and form. While for Rahane, who has been used to facing the new ball, this ought not to impose any insurmountable hurdle, other than the irritating niggle of being juggled around the batting order, Kohli might be bolstered to have a relook at his technical foibles and taking immediate rectification measures.
The fact that the proposed arrangement is purely a temporary one might come as a dampener to Rahane especially if he continues in his rich vein of form. He might also perceive an element of injustice if Kohli were to regain his favourite position once he bounces back into form. However since the interest of India prevails over personal preferences, this measure if proved successful would only augur well from the perspective of the prospects of Team India.
Till such time it is yet another Test Match; yet another trial by fire.