Opinion: Time running out for Virat Kohli to leave lasting impact as captain
Fox Sports, broadcasters of India’s impending tour Down Under, have put out a promo for the Test and limited overs series (here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gk42e75Mjms) that revolves entirely around Virat Kohli.
This is interesting because it is unusual. Promos are necessarily gimmicky to whip up interest in a contest, but normally, while highlighting some stellar players, focus on the visiting team and its prospects.
Very few cricketers (Garfield Sobers, Viv Richards, Imran Khan, Ian Botham, Sachin Tendulkar are some names that come to mind) have been put on such pedestal. This reflects Kohli’s dramatic rise in stature in the past few years.
The Indian captain is the biggest drawcard in cricket today. His effervescent, oftentimes tempestuous personality is only a part of the pull he exercises at the box office. The major part pertains to his batting.
The last tour of Australia (2014-15) was the turning point in his life. Kohli scored a whopping 692 runs then, making the quantum jump between the good and the great, and in the years since, has since added more depth and heft to make his portfolio truly remarkable.
His aggregate and average as it stands today (6,331 runs from 73 Tests at 54.57) mark him out as extraordinary. In the last three calendar years, he has topped 1,000 Test runs every time: 1,215 in 12 Tests 2016, 1,059 in 10 Tests in 2017 and 1,063 in 10 Tests so far in 2018, with 13 centuries to boot.
TOP OF THE WORLD
These stats bespeak his growth and virtuosity. This year has been particularly telling. Kohli has virtually been a one-man show in South Africa and England, two tough countries to score in, with 879 runs in 8 Tests.
Not only has Kohli produced a bounty of runs, but done it with such dominance that he is now universally acknowledged by critics and fans as the pre-eminent batsman of his generation, his popularity not restricted by geographical boundaries.
(Which makes his intemperate and churlish rebuke of a fan when he launched his new app last week even more incomprehensible. Thankfully, Kohli later came up with an explanation laced with levity that defused the situation. If not entirely contrite, hopefully at least chastened.)
Just 30, Kohli is mid-way through his career and at the peak of his prowess. What more peaks he can conquer boggles the mind. Yet, there is one area in which his cricketing exploits remain modest: captaincy.
NOT SO GREAT
Overall, his record as captain is impressive: 24 wins against 9 losses in 42 Tests would be hugely creditable, except that performances outside Asia and the Caribbean remain poor. In eight Tests this year in South Africa and England, India won just two and lost six.
This is one facet of his career that would still concern Kohli. Not all great batsmen have been great captains, and time is running out for him to remedy the situation as the current cycle of overseas tours comes to a close.
The next cycle may be too late. More than just runs from his bat, therefore, how he leads the team is the more important this time.
While Australia are in turmoil and disarray, mired in trite concepts like ‘Elite Honesty’ (why not just say we’ll play fair?) and sorely missing Steve Smith and David Warner, at home, they can be hardy and unrelenting.
Their bowling attack is intact and formidable. The batting is vulnerable unless Smith and Warner have their ban reduced (there is a strong move towards that), but even so, on home pitches they are expected to fare better than overseas.
India’s bowling has been the highlight of their Test cricket in the past year apart, of course, from Kohli’s batting. But all other batsmen have struggled and will be under pressure. That will inevitably be transferred to Kohli.
How he handles his own form, uses his bowlers and peps up his shaky batting to make substantial contributions – all towards closing a match and not squandering chances -- is Kohli’s big, make-or-break challenge to be recognised as an influential captain. It has to do with resolve – personal and collective -- and tactical leadership, not just hope, hype and bombast.
This series presents him magnificent opportunity not just for redeeming a year of unfulfilled promise so far, but at creating history. India have never won a series in Australia.
It’s a daunting task, but if Kohli can achieve this, the title of ‘king’ will be ratified by deed and results, not hyperbole. And with no promo needed to amplify this.
(The writer is a senior cricket analyst. Views are personal)
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