Will Virat Kohli cross the final frontier in England this summer?
For all his brilliance, the Indian cricket captain may still not be considered an all-time great if he doesn’t score runs in England as prolifically as he has elsewhereUpdated: May 11, 2018 18:03 IST
Opinion is sharply divided on Virat Kohli’s decision to skip the Test against Afghanistan in mid-June and play for Surrey in county cricket instead, as preparation for the five-Test series against England begins in August. The Afghan cricket establishment is obviously unhappy. This is their inaugural Test, a momentous occasion, which has come after a whirlwind rise into the elite group. The match undoubtedly loses some sheen if the contemporary game’s biggest star skips it.
The Afghans are not alone in their dismay. Former Australia captain Michael Clarke has called on Kohli to somehow fit in this Test between his county commitments, arguing that representing and captaining the country is above all else. In a utopian world, Clarke’s argument would be flawless. But the world of sport in the modern era is far more complex, with idealism and pragmatism in constant tussle.
Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka, for instance, skipped the Davis Cup tie against Kazakhstan in February this year. These two were instrumental in Switzerland winning the Cup in 2014. Their absence led to a 1-4 drubbing by their otherwise much weaker rivals. Federer aspires to play into his 40s and is managing his workload accordingly, including skipping clay court tournaments. Wawrinka has set his own agenda for longevity.
Closer home, India’s badminton teams for the Thomas and Uber Cups — to be played from May 20-27 in Bangkok — do not feature P V Sindhu, Kidambi Srikanth, Ashwini Ponappa, Sikki Reddy, Satwik Sairaj and Chirag Shetty. They have all been rested — for injury, fatigue or some other reason — to be ready for the Asian Games, which is seen as the bigger challenge where Indian badminton is concerned.
Issues of fitness, workload fatigue, livelihood and ambition — personal and collective — play a significant role in decisions made by sportspersons today. To view it through the prism of emotionalism is sometimes to miss the point.
The argument that Kohli has used his superstar status for personal ambition has limited validity. Of course he has been able to pick and choose because his position as player and captain is secure. But this argument can be swung the other way quite easily.
Why would anybody miss what appears to be easy pickings against a rookie side? If personal ambition, career average and captaincy record were all that mattered to Kohli, he should be eager to play Afghanistan.
In a wider context, his decision to play county cricket not only makes sense, but is also admirable. He is not shirking the Test or scooting off to make a few more bucks. In fact, he is eschewing seemingly easy laurels to prepare for a tougher challenge.
There is a twin objective to his decision, I would like to believe. Personally, Kohli would dearly want to succeed in England. He’s toured there in 2011 as a rookie when he didn’t play a Test, and in 2014 where he played all the games, but achieved little, averaging a measly 13 with 39 being his highest score.
Weather conditions and pitches in England pose serious challenges to the best batsmen, and in 2014, Kohli’s technical ineptitude against high quality swing bowling from James Anderson and Stuart Broad was badly exposed.
For all his brilliance, Kohli may still not be considered an all-time great if he doesn’t score runs in England as prolifically as he has elsewhere.
His driving ambition is to not falter again, for which he is willing to put in the hard yards in county cricket.
The value of acclimatisation and adequate preparation was brought home to Kohli in the last series against South Africa. For all the brave noises made by him and coach Ravi Shastri about why practice matches were not so important, the team was badly caught out.
But while Kohli sees the county stint as important education in his ambition to be recognised as the world’s finest, this can’t be viewed in isolation. How this could influence the team’s prospects must be taken into account.
In the last seven years, he has been arguably the team’s premier batsman in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. His batting this summer is crucial to India’s fortunes.
A bad loss, as happened in 2011 (beaten 0-4 when India were ranked no.1 as now) and 2014 (1-3), would most likely topple the team from its top rank. This, in turn, could have serious implications for the series against Australia, as the 2011-12 tour showed.
To miss the Test against Afghanistan, therefore, is no disrespect to the visitors by Kohli. It is rather an honest acceptance of current shortcomings — in himself and Indian cricket — irrespective of how this pans out.
Ayaz Memon is a senior journalist who writes on sports and other issuesThe views expressed are personal