NEW DELHI: India embarked on a nearly three-month tour of Ireland and England on Saturday 23 June to play all three formats of the game spread across 80 days and captain Virat Kohli feels that he is “100 per cent fit” and “fresh” for the tour, having recovered completely from the neck injury that had kept him out of action since the Indian Premier League (IPL).
According to ICC, The tour includes two T20Is against Ireland on 27 and 29 June followed by an England leg taking in three T20Is, three one-day internationals and five Tests from 3 July to 14 September.
“I am 100 per cent ready to go,” Kohli told reporters during the team’s pre-departure press conference in Delhi. “The neck is fine now. I have had six to seven sessions in Mumbai. I have had the good practice. I went through the fitness test as well so the body is feeling fine.”
Kohli, who is one of the few cricketers to play all three formats for India regularly, said that the near month-long break from the game has helped him mentally.
“Actually I am very excited to get back on to the field, which is a very rare thing when you are playing so much cricket. I think these sorts of breaks really help and mentally, they make you fresh and excited to go back on to the pitch again,” he said.
The 29-year-old was supposed to turn out for Surrey in the first round of the County Championship to prepare for the Tests, a format in which he averages a modest 13.40 in England, but his stint was cancelled due to a neck injury he picked up during the IPL.
He was permitted to miss the Afghanistan Test for the Surrey stint but spent the time at the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru instead, trying to get back to full fitness. Is he disappointed to have missed out on a county stint? Not quite. “In hindsight, when I look at it now, I think what has happened was the best thing for me,” Kohli said.
“Although yes, I wanted to go and experience the conditions, and that’s the place we haven’t played so much – there’s a big gap of four years, and you forget how the conditions were when you played last time.”
Even as Kohli recovered from injury to be fit in time for the tour, his teammates Cheteshwar Pujara and Ishant Sharma plied their trade in county cricket, turning out for Yorkshire and Sussex, respectively.
“I wanted the more difficult phase of those conditions. I wanted the damp and the wet conditions, which Pujji (Cheteshwar Pujara) played in, and Ishant (Sharma) played in,” Kohli said.
“But in hindsight when I look at it now, if I was 90 per cent with my body and used to the conditions compared to feeling 110 now and going in fresh, I would much rather be in this position because I thought I need to be fresh for the tour, I need to be looking forward to it rather than thinking that I have been in that place for four months now, and you don’t want that feeling.
“The Test series is in the later half, so things turn out to be the best way they can, and I think this is the best thing.”
Though the spotlight is all the more on Kohli as a captain and a batsman – he has made 134 runs in 10 innings in England – he stressed that how the team performs as a unit is paramount, something he believes was on show during India’s last overseas tour of South Africa.
“It’s not just my performance, if I don’t get runs in any of the games on the tour and someone else is getting 100 or 75 or 80, we still win,” Kohli said. “But yes, as the captain of the team I’d like to put in performances myself and I like to take the team along, motivate them and boost them in any way possible.”
Citing India’s success in the ICC Champions Trophy 2017, Kohli reminded that the discussion about his poor form on the last tour of England in 2014 had gone too far. “I think a lot of people have held on to the last tour for too long. I think we have had the Champions Trophy in between too, which has been totally forgotten,” he said.
India’s first challenge will be in white-ball cricket and they will be up against the No.1 side in the MRF Tyres ICC ODI Team Rankings, England, who recently broke their own record for the highest team total in ODI cricket by smashing 481/6 against Australia at Trent Bridge.
Kohli emphasised India’s strength in limited-overs cricket during the middle-overs: wrist spinners. In Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal, India have two spinners who have been instrumental to the team’s success in the shorter formats, most recently in South Africa, where India won the ODI (5-1) and the T20I (2-1) series after losing the Test series 2-1.
“I have played white-ball cricket when there was only one new ball allowed and reverse swing used to be a massive factor during the latter half of the innings, which I think as a batsman was more challenging,” Kohli said.
“Nowadays, I feel it is very difficult for the bowlers with two new balls. If the pitch is flat, they literally have no way out, unless you have wrist spinners in your side, who can do the job in the middle overs.
“Not every side has that cushion so they find it difficult. We have wrist spinners so we probably haven’t felt that factor, but I am sure it becomes very difficult for the bowlers who can’t get purchase off the wicket when the balls are nice and hard.”
While the squad for the Tests is yet to be named, there was a minor change to the squad for the ODIs, when Ambati Rayudu, who failed a fitness test – the ‘yo-yo’ test – ahead of the series, was replaced by Suresh Raina. The change had sparked a debate on the relevance of a player’s fitness levels versus their talent. For head coach Ravi Shastri, the mantra is simple: ‘You pass, you play.’
“You may have the ability, but if you’re fit, you can enhance the ability. That is why we emphasise on this yo-yo thing,” Shastri said. “The philosophy is simple: you pass, you play. This is not going to go away. The captain leads from the front. The selectors are on the same page. The entire team management is on the same page on this.”
Kohli added to his coach’s words. “When you have people that are fit and hungry and ready you are not only competing, but you are winning. That is the difference between getting emotional and letting go of a policy rather than holding on to it and running the hard yards,” he said.
Unlike India’s last overseas tour of South Africa, where they hadn’t played a single practice match ahead of the Test series, the team arrives in England well in advance and that gives enough time to the players to acclimatise to the conditions.
“I think it is ideal as far as the preparation is concerned because by the time Test matches begin, the boys would have already spent one month on the road,” Shastri said. “The first T20I against Ireland is on 27 June where as the first Test will begin on 1 August, so there’s plenty of time to get acclimatised to the conditions.”
The preparations aside, do India have a specific strategy for England? Not quite, according to the captain and coach. “It is the same strategy that we had during the South Africa tour, the Sri Lanka tour before that and the home season. The strategy doesn’t change depending on performing or nor performing in one series,” Kohli said.
Shastri added, “For us, an opposition is an opposition. We stick to our basics to try to improve on that. Our aim is to strive for consistency. The last tour to South Africa was a good one and the emphasis will be on trying to repeat that kind of consistency.”