India are ready to play "difficult" Test cricket. That is the message their captain Virat Kohli has sent out on the eve of their departure for the 81-day long tour of the UK. Kohli has made it clear that what happened on the last tour in 2014, when India lost the Test series 3-1, will have no bearing on the five-match Test series this summer. By the time the Test series starts in the peak of the English summer on August 1, India, according to Kohli and head coach Ravi Shastri, would be feeling at home, having been in the country for more than the month.
India's tour will begin with two T20Is against Ireland from June 27, before heading to England for more T20Is, an ODI series, and then the Tests. Shastri said playing the shorter formats first will be "ideal" preparation for them, giving them a month to acclimatise to the conditions, and Kohli added that by the time they play the Tests, they will be "so comfortable that we won't even feel like we'll be playing an away series".
"The last time we played [in England], we felt that collectively as a team we didn't perform consistently in all three skills," Kohli said in Delhi before departing for the tour. "Because of that, the batsmen feel the extra pressure, or the bowlers feel the pressure because they feel batsmen aren't doing enough. But when both click together and whether it's swinging or seaming, bounce or turn, if you have momentum, any conditions feel favourable and if you don't have the momentum, flat pitches may also feel tough.
"But yes, the conditions are going to be different, we will have to respect that. By the time the Tests come, we'll be so comfortable that we won't even feel like we'll be playing an away series. So once you spend time there, you get comfortable and that's the biggest factor. If you are at ease mentally, it will show in your performances."
Shastri, on the other hand, said India were focusing more on the pitches and the conditions instead of the opposition. He went to the extent of saying they were not even looking at it as an away series.
"From the preparation point of view, it is ideal [to start with T20s and ODIs," Shastri said. "They will get to play T20s first, then ODIs, the Tests will come a month later. The first game against Ireland is on the 27th (June) and the first Test starts on the 1st (August). So there's a lot of time to acclimatise.
"For us there is no away, every game is home game because we don't play the opponent, we play the pitch. Our job is to conquer the pitch. Wherever we go - it could be Bombay, it could be Delhi, it could be London, it could be Johannesburg. It is 22 yards that we have to try and conquer, and that is the endeavour. The boys know that they will be rated if they adapt to different conditions. So, if the other team has to adapt to those conditions, so do we. It's not a question of where you're playing, for us every game has to be a home game. You see those 22 yards, you say, 'how am I going to take 20 wickets on those 22 yards, and how am I going to score 350-400.' Keep it simple."
India's schedule in England is in stark contrast to their most recent tour to South Africa, when they arrived only five days before the first Test. The players even chose to train on their own instead of playing warm-up matches. At the time, Kohli had said they were "very well prepared" but later Shastri admitted that 10 more days of preparation in South Africa would have made a difference. India lost the first two Tests, but won the third and then went on to dominate the ODI (5-1) and T20I (2-1) series.
"When we were playing the Test series in South Africa, after a couple of Tests, people really thought we were outplayed. And then we won the third [Test] and won the series that followed," Kohli said on Friday. "Then people really understood how well we played in that series. We as a team knew internally we had played well and that led to the success in the ODIs and the T20s as well because we took the confidence into it. People on the outside might not be able to see the small things that happened when you're playing a particular Test match of a series, but the point about teams not travelling well… I think we're one of the teams who are looking forward to other countries and playing.
"I think that makes a massive difference and that showed with the mindset of someone like Jasprit Bumrah bowling 144kph in his last spell of the third Test. And that's where fitness comes in. When you have people that are hungry, fit and ready, you're not only competing but you're winning. That's the difference between getting emotional and letting go of a policy and holding on to it and actually taking the hard calls and moving ahead with the system. I think all those things have come together really nice and as I said, we're looking forward to playing difficult cricket. It can be anywhere, even in India, because that is the only way we feel we'll be able to test ourselves as a team and judge ourselves as players and as a team. It's a very exciting time for all of us."
Kohli said he is back to peak fitness having spent time off the field post IPL. A neck injury, which he picked up at the back end of the IPL campaign with Royal Challengers Bangalore, had denied Kohli a much anticipated county stint with Surrey, a deal which was done at the last minute.
Kohli admitted that playing for Surrey, even for just about a month, would have been ideal preparation for him to not just adapt to English conditions but also keep him mentally charged going into the Test series. The last time India played a Test series in England was in 2014, a tour Kohli will not spend too much time thinking about. In 10 innings in that series, Kohli scored 134 runs at an average of 13.40.
Kohli said the key thing for him was to enter the Test series fresh and not exhausted, and that not playing county cricket may have helped him in that regard. "In hindsight what has happened was the best thing for me because although, yes, I wanted to go and experience the conditions, that is a place we haven't played so much. There's a big gap of four years and you sort of forget how the conditions were when you played the last time.
"So I wanted the more difficult phase of those conditions. Now we are going to enter the heatwave. I wanted the damp and the wet conditions, which Puji [Cheteshwar Pujara] played in, Ishant [Sharma] played in and I saw Varun [Aaron] play in as well.
"But in hindsight when I look at it now if I was 90% fit in my body and used to the conditions compared to feeling 110 (%) now and going in fresh I would much rather be in this position. Because in hindsight when I thought of it, I thought I need to be fresh for the tour. I need to be looking forward to it rather than thinking 'oh, I have been in that place for four months now'. And you don't want that feeling because the Test series is in the latter half [of the English summer]."
Since last year Kohli has stressed on managing his workload in order to be match-fit for a longer career. He played in the IPL having skipped the Nidahas Trophy in Sri Lanka and then missed out on the Afghanistan Test recuperating from the neck injury, which he said he has completely recovered from.
"I am absolutely ready to go, went through the fitness test as well so body is feeling fine. I am actually very excited to get back on to the field which is a very rare thing when you play so much cricket. But these sort of breaks really help as mentally they make you fresh and make you excited to go back on to the pitch again."
Having fought their way back in the closely fought Test series in South Africa, Kohli said his team was now hungry and keen to play the Test series in England. "This is another series as far as I am concerned individually. But for us as a team this is a very exciting time because we are actually looking forward to playing more difficult Test cricket after what happened in South Africa. That I feel is the best thing that can happen to any side. You don't want to go to England and say 'oh, the Test series is one month [away]'. We want it to be actually be sooner. It is just a great phase for Indian cricket."