Can Virat Kohli and Co. Stage a Comeback at the P Sara Oval after the Galle Gaffe?

The dawn of a new era in Indian Cricket hasn’t shown any signs of change, if the capitulation on the fourth day of the Galle Test is anything to go by. Virat Kohli is the captain mind you, and despite his staunch intent to transform his side’s style of play—and thereby the results—in Tests, India have yet to overcome the bad habits that have impeded them from realising their potential to dominate world cricket, for many years and given their fans numerous palpitations.

First off, it has been difficult to comprehend what really happened to Kohli’s India on the fourth day of the Galle Test, which they were dominating from the very beginning and had Srilanka on the jaws of defeat since bowling them out for 183 on the first day. The visitors were all over the hosts until the beginning of the second session on the third afternoon, when Dinesh Chandimal—out of the blue, really—played an absolute gem of a knock (162*) while being ably supported by Lahiru Thirimanne (44) and Jehan Mubarak (49), whose contributions cannot be underestimated in the context of the game. India, though, were a bit unlucky to not have Chandimal and Thirimanne, both of whom had umpiring errors save their day and team, before going on to play telling roles that turned the Galle Test match on its head.

Ravichandran Ashwin, who finished the match with fabulous figures of 42-8-160-10, was the standout ‘bowler’ for India, who otherwise had only Amit Mishra offer at least half the Tamilnadu off-spinner’s potency. Srilanka, from 95-5 at one stage in their 2nd innings, were, therefore, able to get out of jail, first, and then take a sizeable lead that gave their bowlers a glimmer of hope, against an Indian side known to collapse in the fourth innings of Test matches.

India’s batting line-up collapsed rather comically on the fourth morning, when even the centurions of the first innings—Shikhar Dhawan and the captain himself—got out playing ordinary shots, putting their side in a situation that, unlike the hosts, they simply could not recover from. Ajinkya Rahane showed grit while possessing the wherewithal to play ‘the’ innings that may have taken India closer to the target of 176; however, Rangana Herath and Tharindu Kaushal were accurate and on their mark right throughout the fourth and decisive day of the Test match, giving India no chance of pulling themselves out of trouble. And as Kohli pointed out after his side had lost the Test by 63 runs: Team India had no one but themselves to blame.

Moving on, can India bounce back in the second Test that starts at the P Sara Oval in Colombo, on Thursday? What India need to do differently to make sure they don’t repeat the mistakes that cost them in the first Test?

Answers to follow…

Galle Test

Kohli and Ravi Shastri, the current team director for India, deserve recognition and credit for their audacity to adopt the team combination none of Kohli’s predecessors favoured; and that list includes Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly, all of whom led India before MS Dhoni took over from Kumble in 2008. India’s new 5-1-5 combination, lest we forget, has only been on display for a couple of Test matches now, but has rendered some major talking points already.

The foremost of the talking points, when it comes to bowling performances, has been the immaculate potency shown by Ashwin with the ball. The Tamilnadu off-spinner has grabbed 15 of the 30 wickets India have taken in their last two Tests, during which four other bowlers have, between them, taken only 15 wickets. Yes, both Tests have been played in the sub-continent and spinners, therefore, have taken 80% (24) of the wickets for their team. But, in hindsight, it begs to wonder how India will cope if Ashwin has a slightly poor Test match and the other bowlers need to step up.

Now, this is a significant talking point because Kohli has made it plain that he will play five bowlers regardless of the conditions, believing in his bowlers to bowl India to Test match wins more often than not. But if that doesn’t happen, then India could find themselves in serious danger, which is mainly down to them playing just five specialist batsmen and the No. 6 being a wicket-keeper who ‘can’ bat but has so far proven unreliable.

This scenario was very palpable at Galle, where India, on a turning fourth day pitch, might have been better off with another specialist batsman in their line-up. Do India need to rethink their strategy, therefore, ahead of the second Test? Rohit Sharma made scores of 9 and 4 in the Test match and is probably not the batsman tailor-made to be India’s No. 3 for both the short and long terms. He looks bereft of the technique, both against pace and spin, required to survive at the Test level and two of his last three dismissals have been evidences of that: Shakib Al Hasan scalped the Mumbai Indians’ skipper with a yorker in India’s 1st innings of Fatullah Test back in June, and Herath, another left-arm spinner, dismissed Rohit, who played inside the line of the deliveries on both occasions, in the same fashion.

Also, India felt Murali Vijay’s absence big time in the second innings of the Galle Test. The Tamilnadu opener has made a name for himself by playing some gritty knocks at the top of the order during India’s tours of South Africa, England and Australia in the last 18 months. Vijay has a strike-rate of 47 runs/100 balls in his 32-Test career so far, but I just think that he would have known exactly how to approach the tricky chase of 176.

Dhammika Prasad and Nuwan Pradeep were allowed to get into a good rhythm and stifle the visitors from scoring at a clip they would have desired to, at the start of the fourth day’s play. Dhawan, who was one of India’s overnight batsmen along with Ishant Sharma, had picked up a hairline fracture on his right hand on the first morning, as he attempted to take a slip catch during Kaushal Silva’s innings. The Delhi opener, therefore, wasn’t his usual self and looked tentative from the outset. Though Herath and Kaushal deserve credit for transforming themselves from their respective poor displays in the first innings and coming to their side’s rescue when they needed it the most, I thought Indian batsmen didn’t apply themselves, absorb pressure and looked indecisive altogether.

Dhawan has been ruled out of the remaining two Tests, and Vijay, who has resumed practice, is expected to replace the southpaw. He will render better solidity to the Indian top order, albeit Lokesh Rahul needs to support him, too. Rohit’s failures in the Galle Test are unlikely to see him drop out of the playing XI just yet, but given the Mumbai batsman’s mode of dismissals, he has vast improvements to make to his batting and subsequently, justify being India’s No. 3.

Also from India’s perspective, Stuart Binny has been added to the squad ahead of the second Test and the Karnataka all-rounder has already joined up with his teammates in Colombo. However, it remains to be seen if Binny will get a go in what is a do-or-die Test match for India, who are chasing their first Test series win in Srilanka since 1993. Binny can come in for someone like Harbhajan, who, despite exuding a good bowling rhythm, has found it difficult to pick wickets and Binny, with his batting skills as well, might just be the answer to India’s conundrum.

Final Thought

When it comes to sports, the significance of previous results is something that cannot be underestimated. And, ahead of the second Test, Srilanka, having registered a highly unlikely victory in the first, have a psychological edge over India, definitely. On paper, however, India still look the stronger side and have enjoyed more positives than negatives in the first Test. Yes, there are plenty of reasons for the eventual defeat in the Galle Test, that none of us saw coming and neither did the hosts themselves. But if Kohli and company continue doing the good things from the first Test while making sure they don’t implode as alarmingly with the bat, India can come back and level the three-Test series.

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