Mohammad Kaif was a part of the Indian teams, which current head-coach Ravi Shastri considers inferior to the present Test team. The statement has created a huge controversy in the Indian cricket fraternity, especially after the recent back to back dismal performances in South Africa and England. However, Kaif, who is currently a part of Sony Networks’ Hindi commentary team, believes these types of senseless comparisons should not come into the fray now. Instead, it is time for learning from mistakes.
He recently had a candid chat with CricketSoccer, in which the former Indian middle-order batsman talked about various aspects of Indian cricket.
Here are the excerpts from the conversations.
CricketSoccer (CS): Prior to this series you predicted India as favourites to win the series. But now we are on the verge of losing the series 1-4. So, how do evaluate the performance of this Indian team?
Mohammad Kaif (MK): I still feel it is an opportunity lost for India. We [India] had the team, there are experienced batsmen in the squad. We went there as the No. 1 ranked team in the ICC Test rankings. And if you look at England’s form prior to the series, they were really struggling. [They] Lost a Test match against Pakistan at home. There were issues in their team as well. Initially, it seemed they did not have a quality spin option as they did not pick Moeen Ali in the XI. So, yes on paper we had a far superior team. But I feel our batting and slip catching had let us down.
In hindsight, our bowlers did an exceptional job. If you see someone like Bumrah [Jasprit], the way he bowled after regaining his fitness, was truly a spectacle to watch. Despite not playing the first two Tests, he did not look rusty at all. Even Shami [Mohammed] and Ishant’s [Sharma] efforts have been one of the positives to come out for India from this series. Ashwin too bowled well in the first Test.
CS: Apart from Virat Kohli no other Indian batsman has managed to put up a consistent show with the bat in the Test series despite coming here early and playing the limited-overs matches. What according to you is the reason behind this?
MK: There is no denying that ball has dominated the bat throughout this series. So, conditions have been tough for both teams and batsmen from both sides have struggled. If you have followed the series, you can see that even a 60-70 over the old ball is moving in the air. Especially at Lord’s, those were extreme conditions for any batting unit. Coming to England, as a batsman you always expect such challenges. But again, I did not expect our batsmen to fail so miserably that none of our openers managed to score a half-century so far in the series.
I feel, we should have won the Birmingham Test. The pitch over there was better there compared to Lord’s and I can say this from my personal experience of playing there as international as well as a county cricketer. I feel as soon as Virat got out, the rest of the batting did not show any application. So, when you lose the first game like that, the moral of the entire team goes down. Team management tends to make changes in the XI and it obviously creates a confusion amongst the players. Like Pujara [Cheteshwar] was not picked in the first Test then Dhawan [Shikhar] did not play the next match.
I believe to win a big tournament, you have to have a settled line-up. Otherwise, things get tough and that’s what has happened with Indian in this series.
CS: Talking specifically about Virat, compared to his last outing here in England back in 2014, he has made a significant improvement in his technique. Can you please talk about what technical adjustment he has brought about in his game this time around?
MK: Well, he [Virat] has made two changes in his technique what I can see. First of all, unlike last time, he is not giving his wicket away playing cover drives. In 2014, he was getting out to Anderson [James] outside off-stump because his bottom hand was tight. As a result, his bat face was closing and the ball which he should have played through the cover or point, he was playing towards mid-on. This time Virat has improved in this aspect. He is using his top hand brilliantly and controlling his shots while playing those cover drives.
The other change he has made is bat tapping. Last time, he was getting late while tapping and coming to the position. This time he is getting into the position early and to earn that extra second in order to read the ball in the air and this is very essential for any batsman on seaming conditions. And above everything, he has the class and experience as a batsman.
CS: Coming back to the team, do you think the continuous chopping and changing in the XI has an effect in the performance of the Indian players?
MK: Honestly, it does make a difference. Irrespective of the stature, every cricketer seeks security. For example, if you are dropping Rahane, the vice-captain of the team, [In the first two Test matches in South Africa], then it sends a message that nobody’s place is secure. This kind of policy doesn’t work on tough tours. In India, at times you can get away with it but overseas you can’t plant this type debuts in batsmen’s head. And this insecurity showed in this tour, when India chased under pressure and batsmen got exposed.
If you ask any batsman in the team, nobody will accept it. They will say, they can handle any situation. But deep down he knows, if he fails he may have to sit out in the next match. It is not the ideal situation for any batsman.
CS: You have spoken about the brilliance of the Indian bowlers earlier. However, when it comes to polishing the tail quickly, they haven’t been much successful. Do you think tactically the captain and the bowlers should have done something different in this aspect?
MK: I think we are allowing the tail score runs by setting defensive field. Whenever the lower-order is batting our mentality is saving runs instead of attacking them with the close-in field, like we do against the top-order. So, they [the tailenders] play out the good ball and rotate the strike with easy singles as the field is back to save boundaries. Like you have seen, Buttler [Jos] did not play attacking game [In the first innings at the Oval], until Stuart Broad was with him. He only played those expansive shots when James Anderson came to the crease.
So, I feel more than the blaming bowlers we should review our field-strategies against the lower-order. I am sure when you have noticed that when Virat stopped those singles, Broad tried to hit over the top and got out against Jadeja [Ravindra]. I feel we have to do this more often.
CS: You have been a part of Sourav Ganguly’s as well as Rahul Dravid’s teams which had excellent outing overseas. So, how do you react to Ravi Shastri’s recent comment regarding Virat Kohli’s team being the best Indian touring side in Test cricket in last 15-20 years?
MK: See, if you compare with the players [of Ganguly’s or Dravid’s team with the current ones] there is a huge difference. I mean, I was part of the 2002 tour of England when we drew the series. In 2006, we won a series in West Indies under Dravid’s captaincy. Those teams had legends like Sachin [Tendulkar], Sehwag [Virender], Laxman [VVS], Dravid, Ganguly and we won overseas because they had the capability and technique to get runs over there. Compared to them, the current players are more habituated playing an aggressive brand of cricket because of their exposure to T20s.
Also, most of the time we play at flat pitches and coming from there quality players do adapt technically when they play on seaming wickets. In this team, only Virat has done that. So, let’s not compare the players, to be specific the batting. I feel, in this team apart from Virat Kohli no other batsman can come close to those legends in terms of quality.
CS: Finally, you have played alongside and against Hanuma Vihari at the domestic circuit. So, following this excellent debut, how do you evaluate his cricketing prowess?
MK: Yes, in Andhra Pradesh I have played with him in domestic cricket. I was his captain. In fact, let me tell you, in one of the Zonal One-day matches, I was playing against him and I planned bouncer strategy against him. The way he handled it, was really impressive. Technically he is a very sound. If you look at his innings [at the Oval], unlike many other Indian batsmen he has show prowess when defending on the front-foot. Even I feel he has negated the in-swingers really well.
In domestic cricket, I guess he has a batting average close to 60 [59.79 to be exact]. I believe he is ideal Test match material because he prefers playing four-day matches and bat for a day, day and a half. In fact, he is known for playing long innings. Even has tipple-hundred as well. Most importantly, he is mentally a tough character. Very happy to see he gets picked at the right time.