At the end of the last training session in Centurion, Ravichandran Ashwin was left clutching his right shoulder. One of those spiteful deliveries that Sanjay Bangar bowled in the nets appeared to have taken off from a good length. It was nothing a good ice pack wouldn’t cure but served as a parting reminder of the travails that lay ahead, even on a pitch that is supposedly expected to lack movement off the seam.
“Those are things you mentally need to tune yourself to get over and mentally adjust, accept that this is going to be a major part of batting in South Africa.” Virat Kohli said in his press conference. “There are other pitches around the world as well but here the bounce can be steep. It can be quite steep from length also. Last time as well when we came here we experienced that in the ODI series initially. But by [the time] Test matches [came around] we were all well equipped and we knew exactly what the wicket was going to behave like. We played them much better. So the first game gave us a lot of exposure to that.
“I feel that definitely the batting order through mistakes we committed in the first game and through the experience we gained in the first game, we are certainly in a much better shape to come at their bowling attack in this game,” he added.
One of the batsmen to thrive on bouncier surfaces, Ajinkya Rahane, was curiously left out of the team in Cape Town according to the criterion of form. There were calls questioning the omission of the middle-order bat, who in Kohli’s words had been the team’s “most consistent and solid player away from home.” Kohli backed his decision to play Rohit Sharma and offered no assurances of a possible comeback for his deputy.
“It’s funny how things change in a matter of weeks, or just about five days. Before the first Test no-one thought that he should be in the eleven and now suddenly people are looking at the other option,” Kohli said. “For us as a team it’s all about finding the right balance. If players fit in in the kind of balance we want to go in with as a side, then they will fit in. We certainly don’t go on opinions that are created outside, and talk of the town and all those sort of things.
“He’s a quality player, he’s done well in South Africa, all conditions actually away from home. He’s probably been our most consistent and solid player away from home. I explained the reasons why Rohit started ahead of him. I’m not saying that Ajinkya cannot or will not start in this game. Possibilities are all open at the moment and we shall decide after practice.”
It is clear that one way or the other, to bring back Rahane in the side, India will have to flirt with the balance of their batting line-up. Because Rohit was picked on form, it is unlikely he’ll be dropped to make way. An alternative line of thought would have Parthiv Patel open the batting and take the gloves, going by his extended drills on match eve. Finally there is an option of playing Rahane in place of a spinner, Ashwin, who is unlikely to get much assistance from a pitch historically unkind on the slower bowlers.
But Kohli said disrupting the bowling unit for batting troubles would be unwise and instead called on his batsmen to take up additional responsibilities of adding those 80 extra runs.
“The balance is as easy or as difficult as the performance of the team. We are very happy with the way the bowlers went about the business,” Kohli said. “The batting didn’t come out well so I’m not worried on the bowling front at all. We have been in a very good space and we believe we can get them out twice again in this game. You definitely need that to win Test matches but you also need a solid batting performance.
“Especially when you are playing away from home, you need that 60-70-80 extra runs compared to back home because there your bowlers will be stronger. But the way they showed their skill-sets and their character in the first game, it motivated us as a batting group also to support them and play together as a unit and get some good results out there.
“People need to apply themselves much better. Whether we are playing five batsmen or six, you still need to apply yourself. It doesn’t mean that if you are playing six batters, you can afford to go out and play loose shots. You still need to have a solid technique and go out there and be ready to face bowling spells which are going to be difficult. We need to embrace that,” he noted.