The five-Test series against England, set to begin in Nottingham on Wednesday, is being billed as a litmus test for Virat Kohli and Co. Ahead of the series-opener, former India captain Sunil Gavaskar discussed some of the key storylines.
What are the lessons to be learnt for India batsmen from the WTC final?
Well, basically the conditions for the WTC were really hard for batsmen from both the teams as we saw. Even the New Zealand batsmen struggled to get going. I think those were completely alien conditions for India. New Zealand can play a lot of cricket in similar conditions and that’s why they prevailed in the end. But looking at the month of August and September, it’s unlikely that same conditions will be there for the series. You might get an odd day that’ll be overcast but generally in the month of August, you get a lot of sunshine so I don’t foresee too many problems. Like in any game played anywhere, as an opening batsman, you’ve got to give yourself a little bit of time for about 45 minutes till the ball is new. You need time to assess, whether the ball is moving, how much is the bounce and then you c an unfurl your strokes after about 45 minutes.
Who do you think should start with Rohit as India’s opener?
I think with KL Rahul scoring a hundred in the three-day game, he should be the person that they should consider to open the batting. Mayank Agarwal has had an outstanding season in 2019 but the last tour to Australia, he struggled a bit. Whereas with a hundred under his belt, I think Rahul will have lots of confidence. He is the person I would look at opening the batting, not having Pujara going up to open the batting. Also, don’t forget, the last Test match that Rahul played in England (in 2018), he got a hundred at The Oval. With that in mind, it might be a good idea to look at Rahul as an opener ahead of Mayank.
Will Ben Stokes’ absence make it easier for India?
Oh, definitely. No question. Ben Stokes has been the game-changer with both bat and ball, so him not playing is a huge plus as far as India is concerned. There’s also the absence of Jofra Archer and Chris Woakes. Woakes who had scored a hundred and taken five wickets in 2018 in the second Test. So with the absence of these three players, definitely England have weakened. It actually is very helpful for India. No doubt about that.
Does Pujara need to tweak his approach while batting?
Pujara has got to the international level playing a certain way, he has got to trust that method. If the team doesn’t trust that method, I think they have to look for somebody else. But this is a method that’s worked for him, worked for India. He has held the fort at one end while the strokeplayers at the other end have been at liberty to play their shots knowing that there is a solid player at one end. I think he’s got to believe in himself and carry on playing as he knows best because he has done a fantastic job for India over the years.
How challenging is it going to be to select pacers with five Test matches to be played in six weeks?
What happens is when you have Test matches spaced over a little longer period, it allows a little bit of a break for the players and I think the bowlers need a break more than the batsmen. If you three-day matches in between the series, it allows the out-of-form players play slightly lower level of cricket and work on their areas and get in form. It allows the players who are not in the XI to stake a claim for the next Test match. That’s not the way modern tours are drawn. Today’s tours are basically only Test matches and that’s all. The only plus is the weather in England is not going to be as challenging as say in Australia where it can be really hot. With that, it’ll be hard on the fast bowlers but at least the weather can be a little cooler, they might be able to get through without too many issues.
What are your thoughts on the mental health issues given the COVID scenario?
It is definitely tough, no question about it, particularly in the current situations where you are confined to limited space, limited friends, limited acquaintances. What would help others who are possibly undergoing similar situations is to know the actual reason for these mental health issues because that would help. Is it fear of failure? Is it the burden of expectations? Is it just looking at the opposition, I am not going to fulfil my role that is expected of me? Or is it fear of physical injury? These are some of the things that can cause you mental stress and trauma. So if Stokes would come out and say this is the exact reason, it will help many younger players who might be going through the same situation and that would definitely mean they would be able to cope with it knowing that it’s not just them but even a great player like Ben Stokes is having a situation like that, it’s a lot easier to cope. Then they will be able to approach the right kind of people in helping to cope with the mental health issue and then, they will be and the sport will be better off when that happens. When you say mental health, it’s a general issue and nobody knows the exact reason. I hope somebody would be able to pinpoint the reason and then it will help others.
What’s your take on India fielding a specialist wicketkeeper in Wriddhiman Saha or should they opt for Rishabh Pant who is a batsman-keeper?
It depends on your combination. If you are going to go in with five batsmen and a wicketkeeper, then I think you would look at somebody like a Rishabh Pant. Also it depends on where you play, if you are playing in India, for example, where the ball turns a lot more, so more of the wicketkeeping skills are required, then you would look to go in for somebody as outstanding as Wriddhiman Saha. Otherwise if you are looking at playing in England where the wicketkeeper has to stand back and collect the deliveries against most of the pacers, then I would still go in for somebody like Rishabh Pant.
You had predicted the Australia Test series to precision. Can you predict the scoreline for this series?
My prediction is… again this time I am making it contingent to the weather. If the weather in August… I left England about 10 days ago and the weather was absolutely brilliant. It was hot most of the time. I am being told it is raining a little bit. If the hot conditions are there for 22 out of possible 25 days, then I think India will win 4-0. In case you have a situation where the weather is going to be a factor, then I think India will win 3-1, but I think India will still go on to win, because England is now a very depleted side and their batting, as we saw in the series against New Zealand is being brittle.
Who do you think will win the battle between Virat Kohli and James Anderson this time around?
I wish I could predict an accurate answer. But looking at the way Kohli adapted in 2018, looking at the way he was so certain around off-stump, his shot selection was so immaculate, I just think Anderson as a fast bowler getting three-year older and Virat Kohli getting three years more experienced, and I think batsmen are at their peak around this 28-33-34, I do believe that Virat Kohli will come out triumphs like he did in 2018.
What is the key to batting in England?
We have a batting coach over there, who I am pretty certain will be able to tell them (on) how to bat…but my experience, the closer you play to the body, the late that you play the ball in England, that pays you lot more dividends, it helps to control your bat speed and once your bat speed is controlled, then you are in better control of your shots, whether it is defensive shot or scoring shot, these are the two things that I was told by the great Sir Len Hutton, also I think Vijay Merchant said to me before I went there to play, play close to body as possible and play as late as you can, so you will be able to cover the moment…
Can you elaborate on the importance of openers, especially while batting in England?
It is very important because the openers lay the foundation, openers actually pave the road for the others. Openers are the ones who often, I am not talking about Virender Sehwag, but I am talking about generally the openers, who pave the sort of local road and make in into a highway for the Ferraris and Lamborghinis to come in and drive. So I think it is very important for the openers to do that. Openers are the ones who will do all the hardwork, the benefits of which number 4, 5, 6, 7 will reap.
How challenging is it to play at your best while dealing with life in a biosecure bubble?
I have never played in a bubble, so I don’t know but I can tell you it is not easy, because your contacts are limited, everything around you seems pretty much the same. In fact, when you meet the same people, your are meeting same kind of your teammates are there and after a certain time, it is like you want a little bit of change but you can’t get it. It is not easy at all, even as far the food is concerned, if you are staying in a bubble in a particular hotel, it is only that kind of food, there is nothing that you can do on your own to ask, so it is definitely not easy, it is very tough to play in a bubble.
How does Hanuma Vihari approach his batting since he could be considered only if India needs to add an extra batsman?
It depends on what situation he goes in to bat. If he goes in to bat when India are 400/4 or 450/4, he will be a lot free to play and open up and playing his shots straight away. But if he goes in when India are 80/4 or 120/4, then he will look to repair the innings and make sure that whoever is batting with him at the other end, they build a partnership, take India to 300. I think he will have to adjust his game accordingly, according to the situation he goes to bat in and he is capable of doing that. We have seen in the past he is capable of switching between playing aggressively and playing watchfully. We have seen him do that, so he is capable of it and the fact that he played in England, earlier part of the season, will certainly be a big plus. He may not have got heaps of runs, but the very fact that he was around there will certainly be in his favour.
How do you look at the fact that Kohli and Pujara both have not notched up a Test hundred for a long time?
I think it is a great incentive for both of them. Both of them are run-hungry batsmen. Both of them want to get big hundreds, so the fact that they have not been able to get a three-figure mark for some time is… Once they get to it, they will need to go past and make up for fact that haven’t got one for some time. But I don’t think it is going to play on their minds, it doesn’t play on your mind. No batsman thinks that far ahead. A good or great batsman only thinks about the next ball, they don’t even think of the previous ball, and both these batsmen without doubt are very great players.
Considering the amount of runs that Prithvi Shaw has scored in limited overs’ cricket over the last six months, do you think he is ready for Test cricket?
We don’t know at the moment, but the improvement that he has showed, he was looking to play closer to the body, no gap between bat and pad. He worked hard on coming back from Australia. These are very encouraging sings and having scored in white-ball, the confidence is there as far as he is concerned. If there were couple of county games in between these Test matches, he could have been able to play in those county games and we would have been able to see how he has played that adjustment, but sadly there is no county games. In case he gets a match, he is not going to be available for the first two Test matches being in quarantine. In case he gets a chance in the remaining Test matches, we’ll just have to wait and see how he does.
(Watch India’s tour of England from August 4 live on Sony Six and Sony Ten 4 from 3.30 pm)