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Comment

What will it be like to take on Kohli and Co on their own patch?

A Test match in India is no place for the faint-hearted, neither is it to be missed, for it will be among the richest experiences of these players' lives.

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
02-Feb-2021
Can you handle the heat?  •  AFP

Can you handle the heat?  •  AFP

Imagine for a moment that you are walking out to bat for England in Chennai. You have played a few Test matches and made a hundred along the line but you have yet to establish certain selection for every match, everywhere. In other words, your name is in the mix as a good option rather than as a convincing solution. You have worked yourself to the limit of expectation in the days preceding the match, planning especially for the Indian spinners, upon whom the narrative is so often built in these steamy parts. Chennai is incredibly hot and equally humid, which is fine for some but not for all. Virat Kohli, pretty much the most animated and gifted opponent in the world, is captain of India. An aura is around him, as are the disciples, fresh off beating the Australians at their own game in their own backyard without him. They are keen to impress.
You take guard, asking the umpire for middle stump in a strong voice. You mark that guard and then cough a little to clear your throat. You are nervous - of course you are, I am nervous writing about it. You look up from the crease, spinning the bat handle in your fingers, and are aware not so much of the close fielders, whom you took in immediately on arrival, but of the way they are looking at you and of things they are saying among each other.
You assume these are things about you, but you don't know that, you just assume. There are many languages spoken but you understand none of them. Hindi leads the way, of which you have an inkling from people around the dressing rooms and hotels but by no means an understanding. The others? Forget it. Suddenly one of those fielders, the short leg, say, drops in an English phrase. It is not about you, it is about the pitch and the problems it has been causing, but you know to whom it is directed. You survey the leg side, because short leg was the first to attract your attention, seeing gaps as well as fielders. You see Kohli at midwicket and think better of looking to get off the mark in his space.
He walks towards you, seeming to ask questions with his eyes. "What have you got?" "Are you frightened or just as nervous as you look?" "Can you read Ashwin? The field is up, will you risk taking him on?" "If not, who will blink first?" "You look out of your depth. We shall see… who you are, what you are, exactly what you have got."
This is the mood once referred to as mental disintegration by Steve Waugh, which became a soundtrack to the modern game and is running free in your imagination. Kohli hasn't said a word. He is resetting the field now. The truth is that the IPL has brought players closer together. You turn away, annoyed at allowing yourself to feel such claustrophobia, such weight. It is not there, you tell yourself. But somehow it is. It is then that you realise you are asking these questions of yourself. "C'mon, get a grip and toughen up" is your response.
You see a gap at cover but you remind yourself not to drive through the off side against Ashwin unless the ball is wildly overpitched, which it won't be. You remember that Ashwin was getting the better of Steve Smith just the other day on pitches much less responsive than this one. You watch Ashwin and respect him; you don't mess with him but neither do you bow at his feet. If the chance comes to attack him, you take it. In the meantime, you back your defence.
You are talking to yourself now and your heart is pumping fast and hard, soaring to 200 and beyond. First slip says something to silly point, whereupon leg slip responds with laughter. Kohli is near you now, joining in. He pushes silly point to midwicket and promptly comes in tight there himself. He shouts something to Ashwin, who agrees. He wishes you good luck. Then he lowers himself to a crouch, aggressively claps his hands and prompts a frenzy of urgent calls to Ashwin from his team-mates.
Your mouth is dry now. Sweat trickles from the back of your neck to the point of your back between, and a tad beneath, your shoulder blades. You try to scratch this point but cannot quite reach the exact spot. You can, of course, but not right now. Your mind is turning this stuff over, playing tricks with it and distracting you from the task you have long dreamt of successfully completing. You smile inwardly, thinking it almost funny that such ambition brings so much fear. Not physical but mental: the fear of failure.
You need to step back for a minute and bravely you do so. Ashwin pretends to have started his approach to bowl and theatrically pulls out of his stride. The fielders turn up the volume. The India captain looks hard at you, lips tight and thin, eyes narrow. It is as if he is boring through your soul. You step away and take undemonstrative deep breaths, irritating the close fielders with your ability to hold a beat. You like that. Once again, you smile to yourself, an unseen smile that this time signifies the start of battle.
You settle into your stance, eyes level, hands soft on the bat, shoulders loose. The calls for Ashwin begin again. He's in now, a tall, strong and seemingly confident man, ready to take you down. You squint a little and then widen your eyes in a final adjustment to the yellow light of the afternoon sun, while reminding yourself to stay still and watch the ball.
You first pick out that ball in his hand and follow it as if your life depended on doing so. It is released at the high point of his action and bowled "up" on a threatening line outside off stump. You see it perfectly, pick its length and move forward to defend. At the last millisecond of its journey before landing on the baked and shorn surface of the MA Chidambaram Stadium pitch, it dips just a fraction. Then it spins like a top and bounces violently into the meat of your thigh pad before flying into the air and the region of that man at short leg, who throws himself like a gymnast to clutch it centimetres from the ground. No!
They all appeal, Kohli with near manic contortion. He made an extraordinary hundred earlier in the day, a great player with points to prove. Every element of his game was perfectly in tune and every moment of his time at the wicket an exhibition. They say Kane Williamson and Smith are as good. No way, you think, not after what I saw today. Now he is pleading for your wicket, first ball.
Not out, says the umpire.
What!
Not out.
Kohli immediately reviews.
Your heart sinks.
The third umpire takes an age, even checks for the lbw. The minutes tick by. Your hands are increasingly clammy. Your partner says you didn't hit it. You say you know that but will the third umpire?
The big screen is ready. Your heart arrives in your mouth - a mouth now so dry, you can barely speak. Your heart is fighting to break free from your chest.
The decision is given.
Not out.
Momentary silence. You close your eyes and exhale. Your heart speeds up and then with a single further deep breath, slows down to manageable.
Everybody returns to their position, at which point the Indian players up the ante. You wonder what this would be like with a crowd. You thank your lucky stars there isn't one. You figure one against 11 is a better chance than one against 50,000. On the other hand, you wouldn't mind knowing what it felt like, to have that many people turned against you in such a cauldron. This whole thing is so damn intense as it is... But add the atmosphere, that cacophony of sound, and imagine it then.
You remember that Tony Greig played to the crowd, just loved it, and told the Indian umpires they were the best in the world. No fool, that Greigy. Right now, you too think the Indian umpires are the best in the world. You remember that David Gower charmed his way round the country having first ridden out various political storms and that Alastair Cook won over India with the resilience in his batting and the sheer brilliance of Kevin Pietersen alongside him. You are reminded that all things are possible.
You settle back into your stance. Ashwin approaches but then stutters at the crease, like the old VHS tapes that caught between play and pause. It is a trick he uses to unsettle the batsman's trigger movement. You are ready for this; you have prepared. He releases the ball an iota late and it drops short. In one swift, sweet move you step back and thrash it to the cover boundary for four. The shot is replayed on the big screen. Perfect: 10,000 hours and now perfect. Oh my days.
Game on, against one of the great Indian teams, on their patch.
Commentating on the denouement of the 1977 Centenary Test in Melbourne, as Dennis Lillee was tearing in to clean up the England tail, John Arlott said something like, "The seagulls are as vultures, recruited by Lillee to feast on the corpse of the English batting." And that is exactly what the England batsmen will feel when surrounded by close fielders on a turning pitch in Chennai or Ahmedabad.
A Test match in India is no place for the faint-hearted, neither is it to be missed, for it will be among the richest experiences of these players' lives. Three times in the last 45 years England have won series there and those responsible still look back in wonder.
Greig did so in 1976-77 with plenty of chutzpah, the swinging ball - yes, John Lever took 26 wickets alongside Derek Underwood's 29 - and the huge amount of self-belief that came from an innings win in the first match, in Delhi. His lads, good pros all, won the next two as well to go three-up before India had woken up. For what it's worth, at the press conference on arrival, Greig did indeed loudly proclaim that India had the best umpires in the world.
Gower was, of course, splendidly calm under pressure and there was a lot of it in 1984-85 - not least surrounding the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the prime minister, and Percy Norris, the British High Commissioner. The first thought was that the tour would be called off, but England stayed and won. Mike Gatting made even more runs than Cook in 2012-13 - 575 to 562 - as England eventually unravelled Laxman Sivaramakrishan.
Cook plays down his role in the fabulous series win that came from being one down after one. The fact is, he played out of his skin, as did Pietersen. Their partnership in Mumbai was as good as it gets, maybe as good as it has ever got among England performances abroad. After which two really good spinners, Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar, went to work alongside that fellow Jimmy Anderson, who belied the notion that he was all about English conditions - a game he is still playing.
It is well documented that the team that bats best in the first innings in India tends to go on and win, especially if the pitch is spinning. So there is a simple formula: steel yourself to go big first up. Each has his own way but a clear plan is important, for these are not innings to be played off the cuff. Defending against spin is a technical skill requiring precision. Attacking spin is all about commitment. Go half-hearted and you go home; go all the way and you have a good chance. The Cook-Pietersen partnership is the template.
Of course, England do not have the quality of spinner that took them to victory on previous tours. Joe Root will need to be crafty and flexible and all of them will need to stick to the rule book when bowling at Kohli. This man is a fantastic batsman, among the finest there has been, and he is hungry, having missed the best bits of the tour to Australia. You just have to bowl at a fourth stump, even a fifth - hang it out there and try his patience.
It is doubtful that even one of the Sri Lankan players would get into the Indian team, which sums up the size of the task - maybe Lasith Embuldeniya, now that Ravindra Jadeja is injured, or Angelo Mathews at No. 6, but only maybe.
Without crowds and with the biosecure restrictions on daily life, a tour of India will lose something of its magic. The sterile environment will make it a more demanding experience than it would be otherwise, and therefore, the perspective and collective spirit of union we saw in Sri Lanka will be tested. Anyone and everyone can play their part in that by constantly reminding one another that, whatever the circumstances, India is a truly wonderful country and its people their fans. It is an achievement even to be touring at this time. The players are the lucky ones, for these are the days of their lives.
It is a series to savour, played by two likeable and talented teams. The match-ups are a story in themselves - Kohli vs Root, Bumrah vs Archer, Pant vs Buttler/Bairstow/Foakes, Ashwin and co vs Stokes, Rohit and Shubman vs Anderson and/or Broad. Lovely, bring it on.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator. He is hosting radio coverage of England's 2021 tour of India on talkSPORT 2