India's dream run in Tests started with the tour to Sri Lanka in 2015. Having lost the first Test in Galle, they came from behind to take the three-match series 2-1. Now ranked No. 1 in Tests, Virat Kohli and his men return to the island nation as they embark on an even tougher journey. With several away series lined-up, this will a good opportunity for the players to get in the groove.
Kohli spoke to the media ahead of the first Test about the team's journey, Hardik Pandya's value to the side, the key takeaways from the last 18 months, and much more. Excerpts:
Your views on the last few weeks? The coach selection process and the appointment of Ravi Shastri?
We have spoken enough about these issues and it is something that we are not focussing on at all now. As I mentioned in the press conference in Mumbai as well there is no new scenario to sync with anything or understand anything, we have worked together before and it has been fruitful and successful. We are just looking forward to the cricket now and in this series showcase our skills and have consistent performances which we have had as a side ever since we started our climb back in the rankings after the tour of Australia in 2014-15.
Have you had a chance to look at the wicket?
We saw the wicket yesterday, today we will get a better idea. I think they rolled the wicket after we had a look in the morning and it hardened up after being rolled and it has been watered. Whatever we saw of it yesterday, I am sure today it would have been rolled in very nicely as well. And underneath the surface it looks very hard, there is grass covering on it to keep the surface bound up, it should be a very good batting track.
With KL Rahul out of the first Test, who will open?
We only have two more openers. Rohit has never opened in Test cricket and we don't see that kind of experiment happening here because we have specialist openers in the team and they will obviously be starting this game.
KL is down with flu unluckily but it is not serious and he will take a few days to recover from that. He is a very established player and he has done very well for us in all formats over the past year. He is a very solid player and these kind of scenarios present opportunities to other players in the team to step up and show what they are capable of. Have a solid performance and stay with the team for a longer period and get more chances to play in the future. So our players look at these scenarios as opportunities.
He has been getting injured quite frequently now. How do you keep his morale up and also how tough it is to redevise your plans?
It's very similar to how you perceive a situation how we as batsmen or bowlers counter difficult situations. You choose to think positively or negatively in that stage and that makes all the difference as to whether you will be able to counter it or succumb to the situation.
What I like to do in these situations is think positive because the moment you panic then that negative energy starts cropping up. I like to see it as an opportunity for the guys stepping in and that's what the guys stepping in believe as well. We have total belief in the guys that are in the squad as a whole and not just the playing 11. So we know even the people sitting outside have the ability to be here in the Test team for India. They are that good and that's why they have been picked.
As I said it's a great opportunity for an Abhinav or Shikhar to string in a strong performance again. It's difficult to keep the players positive when they are injured, I have also been injured recently and it's a not a nice feeling. See the only thing you can do is accept the reality and know what needs to be done. There is not much you can do apart from doing rehab and all those sort of things. This is not an injury and I am sure he is not that disappointed. He has had a major surgery and he has been able to come back. So three-four days more will not make a difference to him because he batted well really in the practice game and he is really looking forward to step back on to the field.
The 2015 series was as landmark tour. Now you are ranked No.1. Do you see this series as a Launchpad for the next 18 months?
It's pretty different sitting here two years after that particular series because that particular series was very important in us coming together as a team in believing that we can win series and not just matches. So that was the beginning of that mindset and we were able to build on that on that mindset in the last couple of years, training a certain way, thinking about the game a certain way, playing together as a team a certain way, I think we have built a really good base for us as a team to be able to do that consistently over the next few years.
We don't see any series as a launchpad for anything, it is about consistent cricket wherever we play and try to string in those performances because of which we are at the top of the rankings right now. We realise what we needs to be done. We are pretty humble in our preparations and do the hard yards every game that we play. Next phase of cricket is going to be challenging but something that we are really looking forward to because we believe we have the kind of skill required to win in different conditions as well. We have all bases covered strongly.
Are there plans in place to play Herath better?
You know, he's a quality bowler. Last time he really dented us in that small chase. It's something that actually was a great eye opener for us. We worked on those things in the next two games and we were able to win the series. He played both the games and the ball was still doing a bit.
I think our batsmen came up with the goods and they had the counter plans in place. So we understand what he brings to the table and understand what needs to be done. I'm sure everyone is taking personal responsibilities to plan their innings in a certain way and play bowlers according to how they bowl and what areas they hit and the shots that are required to counter that. We've come a long way from that tour, as I said, and we believe in our batsmen to deliver the goods when it's required by the team the most.
As you said there will be a good batting wicket. The conditions here are pretty hot as well. How important is to have enough bowling options?
Very important. Also you need to understand, last time we felt in the first Test that we played here we probably were a batsman short and the fifth bowler didn't do much in the game. We have those options open as well. We have great balance in the side. We've got a guy like Hardik Pandya who is a wicket-taking bowler. Every game that he plays, on any surface, he has a knack of picking wickets. He has a great chance of playing as well. That gives us balance. Because in the next two games in that tour we played an all-rounder and that made all the difference. The extra batsmen would give us more solidity. We've taken learnings from that and we'll surely apply those straight away in the series instead of getting a feel of how things will go. You need to have your best strike bowlers in order to pick up 20 wickets.
What are the weak links or chinks in the armour in the side?
Well I don't think there are any massive areas of concern for us. We've been looking to fine tune smaller areas during the course of the game which probably people might not be able to pick up. That can lead us into a situation which is not ideal.
We have given responsibility to the players to identify those areas and work on those areas themselves. Taking the responsibility for the team and making sure that when we are in a solid position they should be consolidate that and put us into position where we can't lose from. We have been able to put ourselves in a position in games, 80-85% of the games, where there's only one winner left.
That's the kind of sustained pressure that we've been able to build. But the key, as I said, is to go out there and repeat those things again and again. You can't expect things to happen by themselves. You need to work hard every ball that you play on the cricket field and that applies to batsmen and bowlers collectively. So, the smaller areas we keep identifying and keep working on them.
You are a great advocate of learning from winning also. Beyond the results what has been most satisfying for you?
Just to see the responsibility taken by such a young bunch of players; to go out there and make a difference for the team. Even the substitutes that sit on the sidelines, their efforts, their energies, their concerns for the team when they are running in to provide to with the essentials. It's great to see them also almost feeling like they are part of the playing XI that's on the field. That's the kind of culture that has been created.
It's taken a while. Whoever steps into the dressing room, immediately feel comfortable because of the way they are embraced and how people are taking responsibility to maintain that culture. The bond within the team is outstanding and that is something that makes me really proud that we are all really close to each other and really enjoy playing alongside each other.
That for me stands out the most because that shows on the field. Even in the most difficult of situations all guys believe that we can do it together and we have been able to overturn situations more often than not just because of that belief and the trust that we have between the players. So, that for me is most special thing apart from cricket performances.
How do you ensure that intensity is maintained against a side like Lanka?
For us we are playing a game of cricket. It doesn't matter which opposition we are playing against. For us it's all about identifying the players that they have, their strengths, their areas of weakness and focussing really on our performances and what we can do as a team. The moment you start focussing on the opposition and try to adjust your intensity according to who you are playing against, then that's a very dangerous thing to do because if you don't respect the game the game will sort you out and expose you.
We totally respect the game, we totally how hard we need to work to win every Test match, every situation, every session and every ball is an event for us. So we are willing to put in the hard yards for that and something that everyone in the team respects. As I said it's something that is built as a culture and I am proud of it and the whole team is proud of it. We take a lot of pride in playing Test cricket for India and doing the hard yards that win the games.