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No benefits and burdens of the opposition in India's Kohli era

No benefits and burdens of the opposition in India's Kohli era

When Virat Kohli fronted the press on the eve of the third Test, it wasn't to be a routine affair as such meets often are. And no, it had nothing to do with the tense final day at Lord's last week.

"With England's key players missing, is this India's best chance to finally win a series in England?" came in a question early in the press conference to Virat.

"Does that depend on the strength of the team?" the India captain asked in response. "Even when the key players are playing, we think we can beat anyone in the world. We don't wait for the opposition to be weak. I don't think that is the right question to ask a team that's been playing such good cricket over the last so many years, that we depend on the teams in front of us being weak to have an opportunity to win a series. That's not how we play and how we approach every series."

Kohli's defence of India's approach and achievements have their rightful place, especially in the backdrop of what the team achieved from similarly debilitated circumstances in Australia. But it's worth taking a glimpse at the past when the roles were reversed.

"England have caught India at a good time," Geoffrey Boycott had famously said in 2012. At the time in Nagpur, when England were celebrating their first win in India in 28 years, India were without Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, their two all-season men who had retired only a few months ago. In fact, it was only India's second home series without the seasoned duo.

India's first home assignment without Dravid and Laxman was earlier in the 2012-13 season, when India's youngsters stood up and steered past New Zealand in a two-Test assignment, but against a much stronger England team over the course of a four-match series, the cracks of inexperience were laid bare. Ravichandran Ashwin, in only his third series on home soil, picked 14 wickets but at an average of 52.64 and a strike-rate of 101.5. That remains his worst bowling average in a home series by over 22 points.

Inexperienced, and led by a captain who was under the pump after two 4-0 whitewashes overseas, India's circumstances made them susceptible but England still had to mop their part of the floor. Reintegration of Kevin Pietersen, scars of bowling spin from previous tours and a dismal record in the subcontinent -- it wasn't a very pretty list of things to overcome. And despite the issues, they found a way to be better than India when it mattered.

It's fair to say that India might have caught England at a good time this time around. There's no Ben Stokes, no Jofra Archer, no Chris Woakes, no Stuart Broad and now no Mark Wood either. The batting barring Joe Root is out of order and James Anderson, for all his skills and experience, isn't quite able to offset the lack of runs. In fact he has first struck in the 41st and 44th overs of the two innings he's picked wickets in, an aberration of sorts in his otherwise peerless record at home.

India, as you'd expect from a team that's 1-0 up, have a much more settled look, but it hasn't come to this without them answering some of their own problems: an unsettled opening pair, an out of form middle order and an injury that put a spanner in the works of their team balance. They've answered most of these questions emphatically over the first two Tests, including getting the team selection right which was a sore point from their last tour. It was a lesson learnt the hard way for India in 2018, when picking Kuldeep Yadav as the second spinner at Lord's left them with fewer wicket-taking options on a seam-friendly pitch. With a 4-1 pace-spin combination this time, India finally seem to have cracked the formula. So far, so good.

Going into Leeds, the only question remains whether Ravichandran Ashwin, he of 413 Test wickets, will get a chance on what Virat feels is a "surprisingly" bald surface at Headingley. India did play two spinners when they won by an innings here in 2002, but is that slice of history even playing on Virat's mind? "What's happened here, what hasn't, it's something that we are not focused on at all because all our energies are just focused on what we want to do as a team over the next five days." So no.

Virat has even moved on from last week's banter at Lord's that culminated in a vigorous finish with Anderson's offstump. "I cannot give you the details of the words that were spoken, I think it's for the cameras and the stump mics to pick that up for both teams equally and then be analysed," Virat said. "What is said on the field and what's done in the moment, gives you extra motivation, but I don't think it is necessary to be discussed afterwards because it happens in the (heat of the) moment. And when you're playing competitive sport, these kinds of things happen, but it's what you do after that situation, or how you get up from that situation is what matters. For us this is a new Test match, this is a fresh beginning."

It will indeed be a fresh beginning for India at Headingley, where none of the current players have played a Test before. Not that history has ever held this bunch back anyway. It will be another frontier, another occasion where Virat Kohli's India will try and catch England "at a good time."

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