Virat Kohli has opted for a short stint in county cricket as a precursor to India’s tour of England that begins in July. Some other Test specialists have also been cleared to play county cricket suggesting the BCCI acknowledges its mistake in not giving the team enough preparation time on the recent tour of South Africa.
In the bargain, Kohli will skip the one-off Test against Afghanistan. This may seem an unkind cut for a country only recently admitted to the elite club of Test-playing nations. But from both the individual and team point of view this makes eminent sense.
Over the years, umpteen Indian players have been participated in county cricket, some for livelihood, some to keep themselves occupied in the off-season, some to complete their ‘cricketing education’. The difference in Kohli’s case is that this decision seems seems specifically targeted.
India play five Tests against England this season. Four come up versus Australia at the end of the year. Along with the three played recently against South Africa, this marks a round robin of overseas tours that will give sharper definition India’s — and Kohli’s — stature in Test cricket.
The narrow 1-2 defeat to South Africa hasn’t affected India’s number 1 Test ranking. Losing to both England and Australia certainly will. More than just ranking, it will dent India’s prestige as the world’s leading cricketing nation
The country’s record overseas isn’t impressive. This is something that Kohli has made no bones he wants to correct. But to a very large extent, how India performs devolves on his own form, and particularly in England.
Since 2011 when he made his Test debut, the only country where he hasn’t been successful in the longest format is England. In 2014, when India toured there last, in five Tests (10 innings) Kohli scored a paltry 134 runs.
These are unflattering figures for a batsman who has scored hundreds of runs and multiple tons everywhere else, taming the best bowlers with his audacious and authoritative strokeplay, winning matches off his own bat. In England in 2014 Kohli had proved to be terribly susceptible to the late swinging ball. In inning after inning, he fell cheaply, unable to either read or cope with the movement in the air which bowlers like Anderson, Broad and others were able to get.
In the four years since, Kohli has tightened his technique, become mentally tougher, and grown so remarkably in stature that he ranks among the leading batsmen — if not the best — of his generation.
Yet, compunction about his technique still persists among purists, skeptics and critics. If he can’t make runs in England, can Kohli be called an all-time great, they ask? It’s a poser that undoubtedly occupies top-of-mind space in the Indian captain too.
Kohli is nothing if not a deeply proud and ambitious cricketer. He will be desperate to show that 2014 was an aberration. It’s not just about being sensitive to criticism. He wants to prove to himself first, then the world, that he is the best.
But, as mentioned earlier, it’s not just about personal redemption. It’s also about what it means to the fortunes of his team. In South Africa, Kohli was India’s leading batsman by far. Had others in the top order been even half as good, the fate of the series could have been different.
The leadership position is something that Kohli clearly covets: not just as captain, but also the team’s best batsman. This is something he has strived for, through a demanding fitness regimen and hours in net practice.
He would hate being a laggard when it comes to batting in England. He wants to be in the vanguard, lead from the front, set the tenor and the tempo to help India win what promises to be an exciting, competitive, but also difficult series.
What’s impressive is the seriousness with which Kohli has approached this challenge. As the game’s leading exponent – in box-office value and otherwise – he could easily take the position that he doesn’t have anything more to prove. But he clearly doesn’t wear his superstardom – or take his considerable clout — lightly. In that, there’s a warning to not just his opponents, but also his teammates.