India's stern, four-fold examination
India are playing a brand of cricket that attempts to go against the grain and rewrite the rules. Five bowlers, twenty wickets, responsibility on the batsmen to hack it and score enough.
The first attempt at this experiment led to a wildfire victory at Lord's in 2014. That victory was built on the back of an insane Ravindra Jadeja half-century, followed by the Indian bowlers pounding the ball into the pitch, hypnotising the England batsmen into helpfully landing everything into the hands of leg-side fielders at the boundary.
Since that win, it's been slim pickings - six defeats in the nine Tests that have followed.
If 'five bowlers' was a marketing strategy, like selling soap, its blueprint by now would have been torn up, its managers sacked and, maybe, the product would have been pulled off the shelves. But this is cricket, which can tip-toe around the 'process' and 'restructuring' until things get tight. On Thursday, as India step out for the second Test against Sri Lanka at the P Sara Oval, consider the screws tightened.
India's fighting talk makes for impressive soundbites but the fact remains that they trail 0-1 in a series in which they were well within a 1-0 lead. The second Test will put India's bouncebackability under stringent examination. It is the most useful quality a young team can own, particularly when, as time goes by, their inexperience morphs from a valid reason into a cover-up of structural weakness. If Galle left India perplexed, there are a set of questions they will have to provide clear answers for in Colombo.
Has the five-bowler plan gone off the boil?
Perish the thought that any such admission will be made. The most Ravi Shastri acceded to was "four-and-a-half" (bowlers) and Stuart Binny's call-up was explained as a desire to provide balance. He has been called in on the eve of a Test on the most seamer-friendly conditions in Sri Lanka, as well as its most result-oriented venue. Do the math. While Kohli did not flatly confirm that Binny would be inducted into the eleven, he spoke about the possibilities of what Binny could do in great detail - that he could be a new-ball swing bowler with the ability to strike as well as a middle-overs man with control.
"Everywhere around the world you look, they have a spinning allrounder or a fast-bowler allrounder, so Stuart is the best in that particular category of seaming allrounder. We need to give him more chances, more confidence, improve him, so we can use him at any stage to provide balance to the team," Kohli said. "As a batsman, I think he has become more confident. As a bowler, I think he will certainly improve with more games that he plays and the more he is given those spells. I think it is all about making him grow as an allrounder and I see him giving great balance to the Indian team."
The P Sara Oval pitch, which offers carry and movement, happens to be the home of a wondrous Indian victory in 2010, one crafted by an India No. 6. Except this was no seaming all arounder, but VVS Laxman, perhaps the most magical No. 6 in cricket after Garry Sobers. It's really not fair on Stuart Binny.
Can India get over the line and begin to seize the day?
India's inability to climb on top of oppositions has now become endemic and is usually planted firmly in the lap of the bowlers. Like in Eden Park in 2014, where India were trying to draw a two-Test series after defeat in Wellington. They had a first-innings lead of 246 runs against New Zealand and had them at 94 for 5 before a Brendon McCullum triple century saved the day for the hosts. In Adelaide later that year, it was put down to the inexperience of the batsmen. Then came Galle, where they dominated three-quarters of the game. Kohli responded to the question with earnestness. It was, he seemed to believe, losing track of the trees for the woods.
"As a team we obviously want to win… If a couple of things don't go your way, you suddenly lose focus on what needs to be done," he said. "We forget what made that particular incident happen and we forget how we made it happen."
Winning was, he said, being able to do repeatedly what had been done to earn an advantage. Of having the "mental strength" in difficult situations. "The guys need to be brave. It is very easy to go into a negative space very quickly," he said. "Teams or individuals that stay in a positive space turn the game around. I think those are the match-winners."
He cited the examples of Dale Steyn, Mitchell Johnson and Ben Stokes in the Ashes. Two bowlers and an allrounder, and examples of individual brilliance at the same time. He said he could talk the talk, "put it out there but I cannot bowl for a particular guy and a particular person cannot bat for me." A team's fortunes can be turned around by individual pieces of flair and magic - like Dinesh Chandimal for Sri Lanka in Galle. So team talks and plans and unity aside, India must find a singular piece of brilliance to take total control of a situation and transfer the spark along the line.
What is to be done with Rohit Sharma?
Kohli and India's team director Ravi Shastri are met with Rohit Sharma questions at every media briefing like a formality meant to warm up proceedings. The India No. 3's poor track record in Sri Lanka is well known. Talk of his dazzling A-game showing up at the crunch moment usually forms part of some black-humour set. Rohit fits the "the Australian way" of an attacking No. 3 bat, but he has been unable to go beyond neutral gear in this series. In many ways, the No. 3 spot is seen as a direct contest between Rohit and Cheteshwar Pujara, who is a very composed batsman, a fine player of spin and a sponge when it comes to soaking pressure. India are loathe to 'chop and change' after a single defeat - however catastrophic it may be - and the only way they can fit Rohit in, is to have him bat lower in the order and possibly bring Ajinkya Rahane at No.3.
Will Kohli crack captaincy or captaincy crack him?
This captaincy lark sure looks over-rated. Yes it has status, you look mighty smart in a blazer going to a toss, and the commercial branding benefits make players' managers sing. The rest of it - what a hassle. Without extra benefits, Virat Kohli has a perfectly fine career going as middle-order bat, a suitable successor at No. 4 for India in Tests, gourmand runs in ODIs, a World Cup and a Champions Trophy to his name. He is an ambitious captain and energetic, but defeats and the inability to lead a team to a win is a dead-sure recipe for burn-out. Galle left him "personally very disappointed". He now has four centuries in his four Tests but with two defeats and two draws. He said he kept his captaincy and his batting apart: "I don't connect the two. I don't like to mix the two together." The four centuries he said were "irrelevant" to the captaincy situation, because his hunger for runs was a constant, and his ambition for his team still burnt strong.
What he had learnt from Galle, and the pressure situations in which his batsmen had caved in, was for batting partners to "communicate". He said under-pressure batsmen "tend to go into their shell and don't communicate well enough." It was up to their more comfortable partner to step in.
"Batting in partnerships doesn't necessarily mean scoring runs together but it also involves motivating your partner, understanding his game and giving him options to tackle situations," he said. "People need to speak. Unless you speak, you will not get a solution."
An awareness of individual frailties that the game can produce could help Kohli, the captain, take another step ahead as man-manager. But to carry that through, he must start winning.
There's a phrase that cricketers sometimes use when referring to the moment when it comes down to all or nothing, like it is at the P Sara.
They call it sh** or bust.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo