Indian cricket is going through a tragically ironic phase. The current team, particularly in the Test arena, is arguably the most balanced it has been in its entire history and yet, the home-away skew is as lopsided as ever.
The reasons for this have been debated on end, with the harshest words typically reserved for the administerial bodies responsible for warm-up games (or lack thereof), the absence of a team director and communication foibles by the selectors.
The empirical evidence on the field also points at a Virat Kohli-aside inadequacy of the batting department. Longtime Indian fans will no doubt appreciate the irony (I promised you irony) of finally possessing a well-rounded bowling line-up capable of taking 20 wickets in all conditions only to have a batting lineup unable to bat long periods and capitalise.
As you glance through that list and take note of a diverse and dazzlingly talented set of batsman, it’s natural to feel bemused as to how it has come to this. Conduct a more fine-grained analysis however, and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that India and Kohli are shooting themselves in the foot – more specifically, with their selection policies, which by design hinders player development and is preventing this team from unlocking its full potential.
To understand that, it’s worth talking about the man with the keys to the castle, Kohli himself. While it seems like every day brings forth a new Kohli record, at the risk of sounding like a heretic, there is evidence buried deep within the depths to suggest that he was once but a mere mortal. The goldfish memories of sports fans notwithstanding, it is almost inconceivable to think that the man pushing his average to stratospheric heights once had his at under 40. Indeed, on the back of that horror England tour of 2014, after 29 tests and 51 innings, Kohli averaged a remarkably human 39.46.
KL Rahul is at a similar stage in his career. He has played 51 innings as well, albeit in 31 tests, and is virtually identical in terms of average, runs scored, hundreds made and Player-of-the-Match awards collected. Yet, for all their similarities statistically, things could not be more different.
Rahul has had a tremendously stop-start nature to his career. With India struggling to settle on a stable opening combination, Rahul has been part of a dizzyingly unstructured revolving doors policy. Fitness has certainly played a part in this and it would be churlish to factor that out, but there has always been a sense that Rahul is only a couple of failures away from being dropped.
Kohli began in markedly different circumstances. It coincided with the decline of India’s greatest batting era as the axis of Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman began to show signs of age. Their lack of results attracted all of the scrutiny and cast a long shadow over the rest of the team – a shadow in which Kohli was allowed to grow into Test cricket in relative anonymity. When the knives were directed towards him after the England tour of 2014, he had a vital ally in MS Dhoni who, in what we may well look back upon as a sliding doors moment in Indian cricket, was unequivocal in his belief that Kohli was the man to build his lineup around – and how right he was.
Nobody, in any profession, can perform to the best of their ability with an axe, constantly wielding over their head
It’s worth wondering how present-day Kohli would have managed his 2014 version. His ruthless streak has in the past, affected the likes of Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane and Rohit Sharma so it is likely that the younger Kohli would have met the same fate. As in the cult classic ‘Back to the Future’, when Marty McFly meddles just enough with the past to see his future self slowly start to disappear, one can imagine that dropping Kohli then would slowly start to see his present day records and statistics gradually fade into oblivion.
MS Dhoni was many things, but chief amongst them was an avid backer of talent. Rohit, Ravindra Jadeja and most pertinently, Kohli himself are just a few among a large number of players to have benefited from receiving the longest of long ropes from Dhoni and have served Indian cricket well for it. One hopes that herein, Kohli takes a leaf out of his mentor’s book and identifies the a core set of batsmen he believes in, and backs them to the hilt; not in words, not in press conferences, but on team sheets over series’.
Nobody, in any profession, can perform to the best of their ability with an axe, constantly wielding over their head. Players like Rahul, Pujara, Rahane and Rohit are special players fully capable of winning you series’ overseas, but they need to be backed – and consistently – to do so.
The cruellest bit of irony (last time I promise) is that, arguably the biggest casualty in all of this is Kohli’s legacy. The Fab Four of the 2000s won series in England and New Zealand while leaving as equals in Australia and South Africa with all of them having produced match winning and series-defining contributions. That is what they are remembered by. As a once in a lifetime player, Kohli already has innings that match up to those in terms of quality, but sadly lack in terms of context. We are seeing the prime years of an all-time great go to waste.
There is still time to redress this. An Australian series looms large on the horizon and while the rhetoric tends to repeat itself prior to every tour, it really does seem that this is the best chance India have ever had at beating Australia in their own backyard. Their two tormentors in chief Steve Smith and David Warner are all too visible in their absence and the lack of batting depth otherwise is being ruthlessly exposed. A cynic might claim that only serves to dilute the magnitude of any (potential) success, but the reality is that eventually, everyone remembers the result and not the circumstances.
Do you want proof? Think back to India’s corresponding tour in 2002, widely considered one of the finest performances by an overseas team down under. We remember Dravid in Adelaide, Sachin in Sydney and Ganguly in Brisbane, but who really remembers the opposition? It remains only a minor footnote in history that the Australian bowling attack consisted of Jason Gillespie, Brett Lee, Brad Williams, Nathan Bracken and Stuart McGill. Even the most casual observer would note the conspicuous absence of only the most successful bowling combination in Test match history – Glenn McGrath suffering an ankle injury and Shane Warne serving a year’s ban as part of a drug infraction.
This is Kohli’s moment to seize and carve out a special place in history for himself. He has the tools that no other Indian captain has ever had in the past, but it’s up to him and those around him, to use it to full effect.