The sight of Virat Kohli in a lively mood on Wednesday morning was indeed refreshing. The former skipper of the Indian cricket team was in full flow during a practice session at the Edgbaston cricket ground nets, ahead of the big Test starting on Friday against England. The match is undoubtedly going to be a huge Test for the former India captain, personally.
The team made a quiet and unusual entry in the typical overcast conditions of Birmingham. There had been no fans from the hotel to the ground, nor the hundreds who usually cheer them on from the stands.
A lot has changed for Team India since Kohli’s team took a 2-1 lead in the Test series last year. The fifth and the final match of the series was cancelled at the eleventh hour because of covid cases in the Indian camp and that match is being played now. While Kohli lost captaincy and Rohit Sharma is the new captain, this current team is also missing the likes of Test veterans Ishant Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane, who may have played their last international games for India. Meanwhile, there is still no clarity on Rohit Sharma’s participation in the match.
On the other hand, England has seen a dramatic turnaround in its fortunes after Joe Root stepped down as captain a few months back. While England could manage only a solitary win in 17 Test matches before the recently concluded New Zealand series, the combination of new captain Ben Stokes and new coach Brandon McCullum led a 3-0 whitewash of the Kiwis. England’s greatest-ever pacer James Anderson, in an interaction with select people at the ground, said that the home team is taking the one-off Test against India as part of a 4-match series (three of them finished with wins against Kane Williamson’s New Zealand side) in the first half of the summer.
More than anyone else, this Test is crucial for Kohli, in more ways than one. It was Kohli who as captain was the face of the team last time around. This time, with key players missing or doubtful starters for the match, Kohli’s role is even more important. For Kohli, a tour of England arouses mixed feelings. He was unlucky to have missed out on the 2011 trip (he was dropped after a poor show in his very first series in the West Indies before the England tour). The next trip in 2014 was a nightmare for Kohli the batsman. However, in 2018, he batted like Don Bradman and any doubts about his greatness were put to rest forever. In 2021, even if he didn’t score too many runs, his role as captain was inspirational.
In a sense, the Birmingham Test may perhaps provide Kohli some sort of closure in England. No one could have imagined that he wouldn’t be captaining the Test side today. A win or draw in this match would give India a series win on English soil after 15 years, in what could be Kohli’s last game here. No one is sure if he will don whites again in England.
A happy dressing room?
On most cricket grounds in India, access to players is very restricted for reporters. So, it is very difficult to hear or comprehend the constant chatter during net sessions. However, it’s very different in Birmingham. Kohli was at his animated best and having fun. He asked Ravindra Jadeja to remove his glasses so he could see better, after the left-arm spinner made a mock LBW appeal, a comment that forced even the normally serious coach Rahul Dravid to smile. The former India captain was constantly teasing Rishabh Pant as well. And then, there was some banter with Ravichandran Ashwin and Jasprit Bumrah. By appearances, the give and take conveyed the impression of a positive mindset in the Indian dressing room.
However, the most vivid image of the net practice was how coach Dravid observed Kohli. While Kohli was batting for nearly 45 minutes, the coach was nowhere close. But then he walked over for a minute, positioning himself unusually at cover. Normally, coaches watch the proceedings from the bowler’s end and take note but Dravid wasn’t doing that. He just looked into Kohli’s eyes and the batter responded. It was difficult to understand what transpired; one can only surmise that the coach was absolutely fine with Kohli’s flow.
If the former Indian captain can bring that same vigour and enthusiasm to the game, India’s chances of winning the match, and thereby the series, will be brighter.Vimal Kumar in Birmingham