Virat Kohli is back in international cricket after a break, during which he skipped the T20I series against New Zealand completely and then essentially chose to step off the treadmill and spend time working on his game rather than jump right back into Test cricket. While India played the Kanpur Test, Kohli worked with former India batting coach Sanjay Bangar in Mumbai, which is where he lives.
Kohli is now back refreshed and recharged, and emphasised on the need to look after one's mental well-being in this bio-bubbles era of cricket. "It is very important to understand that it is crucial to refresh yourself mentally," Kohli said a day before the Mumbai Test. "When you play so much cricket at a certain level for so long, it gets taken for granted that you will keep turning up series after series and perform with the same intensity in every match.
"Since the situation has changed [with bio-bubbles being introduced as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic], a lot of people have spoken about how difficult it is in bubble life. Our players' understanding and management's communication is good, we have spoken a lot about how to manage the workload. More than workload, giving them mental space.
"From my personal experience, I can tell you that practising in an environment where you were not in a structured environment and there weren't 50 cameras trained at you… we could do that previously, we would have windows where you could step aside and individually work on your game or take some time off where you are not doing the same thing every day. That makes a lot of difference.
"To maintain the quality of cricket, to maximise the ability of the cricketers, to keep them in a good space, it is very important to consider this. Not just our team, but across the world, players are in the mindset to manage the workload, more from the mental point of view rather than physical."
Kohli has now gone two years of international cricket without a century. This period has included the break because of the pandemic and his paternity leave, but 12 Tests and 15 ODIs is the longest he has had to wait for a century. Was there anything specific he felt he needed to work on during this week spent away from the spotlight? No, said Kohli.
"It was just to stay in the rhythm of playing red-ball cricket," he said. "The idea was to get repetition and volume, which is important in Test cricket. It is just about getting into the mould of switching in-between formats, something that I have always tried to do. Whenever I get the opportunity to get some time to work on setting up for different formats. It is more so mentally than doing anything technique-wise. The more cricket you play, you understand your game more. It is just about getting into that headspace that you want to play in a certain way in a certain format. It was purely based on that."
There is no soft landing for Kohli. Straight off the bat, he has to make a tricky call on who should make way for him in the XI. Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara have had low returns for a while now, and Shreyas Iyer has amplified that with a century and a half-century on debut. Kohli didn't give any information on what changes to expect, but spoke on dealing with such tough calls on a human level, mainly handling the person who is left out.
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"You have to obviously understand the situation of where the team is placed," Kohli said. "You have to understand where individuals stand at certain stages during the course of a long season. So you have to obviously communicate well. You have to speak to the individuals, and approach them in a way where you explain things to them properly. Mostly it has been combination-based whenever we have done changes in the past.
"We have explained it to the individuals, and they have understood the mindset behind going in with a certain combination. It is not a difficult thing to do when there is collective trust and belief in the group that we are working towards the same vision. Along the line, there are ups and downs, and we understand that as cricketers and sportspeople in general.
"It is never a thing that you say that I am absolutely okay or happy about being told that the combination doesn't allow me to play. That is the dynamic of team sport, and we prioritise the team first, and making sure we take care of individuals along the way. That's something we have done consistently as a Test team.
"We have backed the set of players that have done the job for the Indian team the last five-six years. We maintain and continue to maintain they are the integral part of the larger scheme of things, of the core group of the Indian Test team. They have always been players we have relied upon on many occasions. And they have done the job. It is upon realising and being aware of what's happening, and then we find the right space and the right way to approach people. Obviously with the management, the coaching staff, discussions happen in a rounded manner."