'The positive approach that we wanted was there. We played the kind of cricket we wanted to play. Wins and losses are part of this game. We didn't play for a draw. We played for a win. We lost,' stated Virat Kohli post a heart-wrenching loss in Adelaide in 2014.
That's how he made his intentions clear. It was his first Test as the skipper of the side. The team could have easily settled for a draw. But, for Virat, it was more than a Test match. For him, it was a test of his character and values that he wanted his men to imbibe. He led from the front. The tone was set for the rest of his tenure.
And ever since then, the words 'positivity' and 'intent' have been as common in Indian cricket as his cover drives and emotions on the field. That's how he envisaged his Indian team. One of the most ruthless cricket teams in the world. The values of Virat Kohli are so ingrained in the team that even when he wasn't present with the team during the epic Gabba win, one could make out, it was Virat's men, mirroring his approach, fearlessness, and creating history.
However, just like how one size doesn't fit everyone, there cannot be one solution to every conundrum. Post the World Test Championship loss at the hands of New Zealand, Kohli was back to his one-stop solution for India's batting weaknesses - the 'optimism' talks. "The endeavour would be to try and score runs and not worry about getting out in testing conditions. That's the way you can put the opposition under pressure, otherwise, you are standing there hoping that you don't get out and you are not being optimistic enough. You have to take calculated risks against a quality bowling attack like NZ," he said in his assessment.
Now, it was perplexing given the fact that if there was any team that showed the most aggression, intent, positivity, or whichever way you want to put it, it was India. And it spread across both departments - batting and bowling. Four batsmen from the top six in the side - Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, Virat Kohli and Rishabh Pant - were all known for being naturally aggressive.
When New Zealand went down the five-pace man attack, in overcast conditions, the Indian openers responded by literally taking a forward step, which was highly positive. Gill was so confident that he didn't mind taking a step forward against a 6 feet 8 inches tall Kyle Jamieson. Moreover, they took on the short deliveries and weren't afraid of going for their shots. The way both Rohit and Gill got out was a testament that India were anything but diffident/passive.
And it wasn't just restricted to the openers. Virat Kohli himself played a masterclass of his own. And he didn't mind taking on the attack but was as aggressive in leaving and playing the ball late and right under his eyes as well. Rishabh Pant and Ravichandran Ashwin got out playing booming drives. Now, the world knows that you don't hit out of Wagner's bouncer barrage but rather play him out. But Ajinkya Rahane, nearing his fifty, didn't mind taking on the short balls from Neil Wagner that brought about his downfall. The preceding delivery to his dismissal, even with a fielder back, he had taken on the challenge though he mistimed the pull and had to settle for two. With the field well set for the short stuff, he could have opted out of the challenge but he didn't. That was a show of optimism.
Even in the second innings, Rohit and Gill's dismissals were not a result of a lack of intent. For Shubman Gill, his footwork has been dodgy. Bowlers have tried to attack the stumps against him. He was bowled/LBW four times out of six times in home Tests against England, three of which were affected by the pacers. Gill was looking vulnerable against Tim Southee's in-dippers and his dismissal looked inevitable. If anything, it was footwork that could have got him out of the jail. For Rohit, it was just a classic misjudgement of line and length. Meanwhile, the likes of Kohli, Pant, Ashwin, and Shami, were all trying to play their shots. Surprisingly, Ashwin, who was part of the epic blockathon at the SCG, was guilty of playing one shot too many. Even Pant, who had shown considerable maturity be it the Gabba Test or during his ton in Ahmedabad, was dancing down the track to the fast bowlers.
More than the intent to score runs, which Kohli circled after the game, it was India's lack of adaptability, preparation (match practice) and reading of the conditions, that backfired for them. Perhaps wrong planning too, that India didn't play cautiously on day six post the lunch session after they had already lost three big wickets. It was a time when conditions were comparatively better to bat and survival was a plausible option. It was the WTC Final after all, and a draw would have also resulted in a win - joint-winners. Not only on the batting front but there was also unrelenting aggression even when the bowlers were on.
When India's premier quick Jasprit Bumrah wasn't bowling as efficiently in the first innings, Kohli brought on Shami just after Bumrah had bowled four overs. He was intent on breaking the opening partnership. Similarly, he was quick on attacking the left-hander Henry Nicholls with an Ishant Sharma over just two overs before the lunch session on day five playing on Ishant's strength against the southpaws and leaving Nicholls befuddled, with him getting out on the third delivery of the over.
Even when New Zealand were chasing 139, Kohli didn't leave any stone unturned and gave his bowlers attacking fields even with a remote possibility of a win. Even when New Zealand's Ross Taylor went on a little counterattack, he didn't introduce Ravindra Jadeja. He was trying for a win even with no possibility at one time. The left-armer, who's the best defensive bowler on the side was brought on to bowl as late as the 28th over. While Ashwin also got attacking fields when he was into the attack.
Kohli had emphasized taking calculated risks post-game. But had the team exercised it during the game and not gone overboard in terms of going for a win, with the bat or, with the ball (post-Taylor's attack), when there was hardly much left, it might not have been such a bad idea. Picking a draw when there are not many chances of a win as opposed to risking a defeat wouldn't have been unwise. India had done something similar in the Sydney Test earlier this year. After Pant and Pujara's wickets, they shut shop and salvaged a draw to stay on equal footing in the series.
But having said that, this is Virat's team and the instinct to win isn't surprising and whether the team's intent was right or wrong can still be debatable. But his thinking that Indian batsmen lacked intent during the game is questionable. And trying to fix something that ain't broken might well be a step in the wrong direction, especially for a skilled side like India. There is where the Kohli-led side can draw a leaf out of New Zealand's book. They nailed the same conditions with a contrasting approach, especially with the bat.
Case in point - Kane Williamson. He was the best batsmen in the game and scored arguably the most crucial 101 runs of his career but took as many as 266 deliveries for it. That makes up for a sedate strike rate of 37.9. What he did the best was to assess the conditions better than anyone, adapt to them, and deliver the goods. In both innings, he weathered the storm and showed better patience and caution than anyone else in the game.
Take into consideration the following stat - at one stage in the first innings, Williamson's "Expected Score for the balls bowled to him was 62-3" - reported CricViz. He missed his fifty by one run but had he got there, it would have been his slowest-fifty of all-time in Tests. His strike rate took a big fall from usually 51.76 to as low as 37.9. But, yet no one's runs proved as effective as his and it would forever be part of the golden history of New Zealand cricket.
New Zealand and Kane Williamson's approach can be good learning for India, especially with the five-match Test series coming ahead of them against England when they will be further probed on seaming-wickets. That there's no one way to succeed in England or any conditions. Caution and patience are still relevant virtues even when we live in times where a tournament with 100 balls per side will be commencing soon. After all, the essence of Test cricket lies in adapting the best to the conditions and this is where India can work on going into the England series.