Transitions happen, but they can't be forced. That's the view of Virat Kohli, who is captaining India's Test team at a time when their three middle-order mainstays, himself included, are all 33, and have all endured prolonged lean patches even as younger contenders such as Hanuma Vihari and Shreyas Iyer knock ominously on the door.
Having missed the second Test against South Africa in Johannesburg with back spasms, Kohli is set to return for the third Test in Cape Town, which begins on Tuesday. He will most likely take the place of Vihari - who batted solidly in both innings in Johannesburg, scoring 60 runs while being dismissed once. Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane may have felt some pressure after low scores in the first innings, but they brought all their skill and experience to a tricky situation in the second innings, both scoring half-centuries while stitching a counterattacking third-wicket stand of 111.
"I obviously cannot pinpoint when we will have a talk about transition," Kohli said, when asked whether the team management had had any conversations about a longer-term transition in the middle order. "I think the game itself pans out in a way where transitions happen naturally, so it cannot be forced by individuals, I feel.
"And if you look at the last Test, both Jinks and Pujara, the way they batted in the second innings, that experience is obviously priceless for us, and especially in series like these where you know these guys have done the job in the past and when you are playing overseas, in tough conditions, these guys will always step up with impact performances.
"We saw that in Australia as well, the last time we were there (2020-21), we're seeing that now as well in the last Test. Crucial knocks. Crucial knocks in crucial situations, in crucial scenarios, and that has a lot of value.
"So I feel transitions do happen, but they happen naturally, and a conversation cannot be forced around a transition is what I've experienced and what I feel. When the transition has to happen, everyone knows in which direction the team is moving, and that is a very natural progression, so I think we should leave the transition to unfold itself, and not necessarily force individuals in difficult situations or tricky situations and I truly believe in that."
"MS Dhoni said to me very early on that there should be a gap of at least 7-8 months between two mistakes, only then will your career grow in international cricket. I internalised that within my system, that I won't keep repeating the same mistake. And that happens when you reflect on your mistakes, which I know Rishabh does..."
Like Pujara and Rahane, Kohli has averaged below 30 since the start of 2020. He isn't worried, however, and says he has made enough meaningful contributions in tough situations to know that the bare numbers don't necessarily reflect how well he's played.
"It's not the first time [my form has come under scrutiny]," Kohli said. "It's happened a few times in my career - England 2014 was one of those phases. But look, the thing is, I don't look at myself from the lens that the outside world looks at me with, and eventually the standards that we're talking about today, that I'm being compared with, have been set by myself, and more than anyone else, I take a lot of pride in wanting to do the best thing for the team that I can, and wanting to perform regularly for the team, and hence I've been able to do that for a long period of time.
"You have to understand, in sport sometimes, things do not go the way you want them to go, but at the end of the day I realise, as a player, as a batsman, that I've been involved in very important moments for the team over the last calendar year or so, and for me that is a matter of a lot of pride, that I have been part of very important partnerships when the team needed me, and eventually those moments have been crucial for us in many Test matches.
"So sometimes your focal point has to shift; if all the time you're going to look at yourself and judge yourself on the basis of numbers and milestones, I don't think you'll ever be content or happy with what you're doing. I take a lot of pride and happiness in the process that I'm following, and I'm at peace with how I'm playing and what I'm being able to do for the team when there is a tricky scenario, and as long as I'm doing that, and taking a lot of pride and motivation to be in those moments, I have nothing else to worry about, because the reality of the situation is that you eventually want to make impact performances for the team, and my best effort is always to do that, and I truly believe that I don't need to prove anything to anyone.
"It's just that when you're in the place where I am, you are going to be constantly judged, and that is the job of the outside world. I don't look at myself like that.
The fourth member of India's middle order, Rishabh Pant, has also come in for criticism lately, after he was out for a duck in the second innings in Johannesburg, charging out of his crease at Kagiso Rabada. Kohli was sure Pant would reflect on his manner of dismissal and learn from it. He recounted a bit of advice from MS Dhoni - Kohli's predecessor as captain and Pant's as wicketkeeper - that helped him at a similar stage of his career.
"We've spoken to [Pant] at practice," Kohli said. "When a batsman plays a shot and gets out, he knows first of all whether the situation merited that shot or not, and as long as, as an individual, everyone accepts their responsibility, progress will happen.
"We've all made mistakes in our career. We've been dismissed in important situations as the result of our mistake, or because of pressure, or because of the bowler's skill, so it's important to understand what the mindset was at that moment, what was the decision you took, and what was the mistake you made. If you identify those mistakes and accept them, you'll improve, and you'll make sure you don't repeat that mistake.
"MS Dhoni said to me very early on that there should be a gap of at least 7-8 months between two mistakes, only then will your career grow in international cricket. I internalised that within my system, that I won't keep repeating the same mistake. And that happens when you reflect on your mistakes, which I know Rishabh does, and he will definitely keep improving going forward and he'll make sure that in important situations, he will stand there for the team and put up a big performance."
Coming into this tour, India faced a test of their balance, with the allrounder Ravindra Jadeja out injured. Jadeja's batting ability had won him the lone spinner's slot ahead of R Ashwin in England, where India played four fast bowlers. Kohli said Ashwin's contributions with both bat and ball in South Africa have ensured India haven't missed the balance Jadeja may have brought.
"Jadeja's value, everyone understands and everyone knows over the years what he's done for the team, but I think Ash has been playing that role beautifully as well for us," Kohli said. "If you look at his batting contribution in the last Test and the way he bowled in that second innings, 19 runs in 10 overs and picking up a wicket when he could have had two or three, I think that's an outstanding contribution to the team.
"Ash knows that his game has come forward leaps and bounds, especially bowling overseas, he understands that himself, from Australia onwards, and he's in a very comfortable space where he's willing to contribute for the team and he's doing so in the right intention, in the right way.
"So look, when you have these two quality cricketers, one or the other it really doesn't matter. Unfortunately Jadeja has had an injury but Ash has done the job in his absence and we have full faith that Ash can continue to play that role of spinning allrounder for us in any conditions that we play."
Kohli has confirmed that Mohammed Siraj, who injured his hamstring in Johannesburg, won't be fit to play in Cape Town, but he did not reveal who between Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav would replace him.
"We are yet to sit down - myself, the head coach, the vice-captain - to decide what we want to do about [Siraj's] replacement, and I say that because of our bench strength. It's difficult for us to figure out who will play because everyone is at the top of their game, bowling well, batting well, and these things become a point of discussion, contention, and you have to obviously have a healthy discussion around a decision like that, and just agree that everyone feels balanced about it, so yeah, we're yet to have that discussion, but I would rather be in this position where we are yet to decide who's going to play rather than having to figure out other options in terms of managing our balance and stuff like that."