'Kohli needs to stay confident' - Jennings
Virat Kohli and Ray Jennings go back a long way. In 2008, Virat Kohli's Under-19 team was bowled out for 159 in the World Cup final, he had seen some of Ray Jennings' South African boys "playing football and relaxed as if they had come for a picnic" during the break. He had heard Bradley Barnes, the wicketkeeper, say they had sent India packing.
After pulling off a win that day, Kohli made it a point to be in the faces of the South African players as he swore with a stump in hand. Jennings, the South Africa coach, congratulated Kohli, shook his hand, and was Kohli's coach at Royal Challengers Bangalore a few months later.
Over the last five years, Jennings has worked closely with Kohli and, along with Anil Kumble, has been credited with moulding the batsman's attitude; he knows Kohli's game well. In those five years, Kohli has progressed impressively in international cricket, becoming adept at chases in ODIs, and showing he can cut it in Tests as well.
Jennings feels these two Tests in South Africa will be a difficult examination for Kohli, especially considering his performance in the ODI series - 31 runs in two innings. Both his dismissals followed shortish deliveries, which raised some flags. Jennings believes if there is a weakness in Kohli's game, it is against quick bowling, and South African conditions won't provide the Indian batsman any respite.
"It's going to be quite a difficult test for him," Jennings said. "South Africa in South African conditions will try to exploit his weaknesses. When you look at Virat Kohli as a batsman, he's a superb player of spin. If there is any weakness, it's while facing fast bowling. He will definitely be tested in South Africa, like he has been during the ODIs. He has to rise above that challenge in these conditions. It's a pity that it's only two Test matches because if he does well, people will say it's only two Tests. If he does badly, they'll say he failed in only two Tests. That is, unfortunately, the issue."
Jennings has spotted a weakness or two, but is in no mood to help the South Africa think-tank either.
"I have seen one or two things in the last two innings," he said. "I'm sure he's good enough and Duncan Fletcher is smart enough to rectify those issues. It's unfair for me to publicly talk about those weaknesses. You know I've grown up in South Africa, and I'm very aware of what people need to do to do well here. It's incorrect for me to put it out in the media because, obviously, the South African team and people like that will try to exploit those things."
Jennings feels that, along with Cheteshwar Pujara, Kohli is going to be key to how India do in the two Tests, especially because of the vast gulf between the two bowling attacks.
"I think India do have four-five players who are key," Jennings said. "I think Pujara is good. You have [MS] Dhoni. Their batting has more key players than the bowling. In South Africa, the Indian bowling needs to step up a little bit to level the playing field, because if the South Africans prepare green wickets and exploit the Indian batting, and the Indian bowlers aren't up to scratch, they can't exploit the South African batsmen."
Kohli, a No. 3 batsman in ODIs, has been batting at No. 5 for India in the Tests. Now with Sachin Tendulkar gone, there might be a chance to move one step up. According to Jennings, it won't make much difference for Kohli as long as he doesn't move up to No. 3. If he were the coach, he would want to keep Kohli confident despite the failures in the ODIs.
"I know Virat is a very moody and confident type of player," Jennings said. "So the most important thing for him right now is to get his mind into that confident state. To make sure he feels good about himself.
"I know Virat likes hitting a lot of balls and making himself feel good. If you see him walk very confidently to the wicket, he's a very destructive player. He needs to be in that mood. And you know players get built up with performances and things like that. After a few failures, you don't feel bad about yourself, but you are not confident about your skills. A confident player can deliver his skills while an unconfident player tends to hold back and finds it difficult to score runs. That to me will be a very important thing for Virat to look at."
Asked if Kohli might have a problem with the short ball - there were moments of discomfort in the West Indies in 2011, and he has copped a blow in the ODIs here - Jennings said it was all about getting used to the pace and bounce of the short ball in South Africa.
"The short ball in India is different to the short ball in South Africa," he said. "The important thing is, Virat and all the Indian players need to come to terms with the short ball in South Africa. It's all depending on how long they spend on the wicket and get used to the pace.
"I think when you look at India, it's a type of tour where you needed to come here two or three weeks before. While India has the slowest wickets in the world, South Africa has probably the quickest wickets in the world. As an Indian group of players, they should have come here a little earlier and planned a little better, if they consistently want to perform because by the time they get used to the wickets, the tour can be finished.
Jennings noted that the Indian batsmen have been rattled a bit, but said it was not unexpected.
"If you drive a car that goes a 100 kilometres an hour, and then I put you in one that is going at 170 kph, of course, you will be rattled and be troubled till you get used to the car going at 170kph," Jennings said. "In South Africa, the wickets are quicker. You are playing on our soil, where the ball swings differently, swings quicker and moves off the wicket quicker.
"When you compare the bounce, in India you need to put the ball a lot shorter and it lollipops to you. In South Africa, you don't need to pitch it that short. It comes up to you quickly. So it's a lot more intense and the conditions need to be adapted to before people start playing competitive cricket. If not, India will always find it difficult over here. They experience and adapt to the conditions over time.They will get better and better but, by the time they are really good, the series might be finished."
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo