During the captains’ joint press conference on Thursday, a lighthearted moment came up when a kid asked, ‘which player from another team would they want in their sides for the upcoming 2019 ODI World Cup?’
An anticipated hush reverberated across the packed room – even journalists hadn’t been able to conjure up a stumping question like that. Then, attention turned towards the answers – Eoin Morgan played it safe, as did Jason Holder and Gulbadin Naib. Faf du Plessis and Kane Williamson wanted bowlers, while Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes were in demand from both Pakistan and Sri Lanka, respectively.
Also read: A guide to the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019
When his turn came, Bangladesh skipper Mashrafe Mortaza looked across the room. “That guy!” he said, pointing at Virat Kohli.
A few nods went around the room – it was arguably the most honest answer of the lot. Yes, Buttler and Stokes are mercurial game changers; yes, Jasprit Bumrah, Pat Cummins and Rashid Khan are all dependable bowlers. But, how can you not want the best batsman in the world – the man who, in the T20 era, has dominated the ODI format like no other – in your side if afforded the chance?
Ten thousand-plus runs in quick time. A staggering ODI average of 59.57. 41 hundreds, within touching distance of Sachin Tendulkar’s all-time record. 25 centuries in run-chases. Walking out to bat, with the weight of these accomplishments behind him, he’s the batsman everyone would want to have on their side.
Peerless approach to ODIs
When it comes to mastering all three formats, here’s the batsman who has no peers.
Kohli’s technique may not be unparalleled in modern-day white-ball cricket. His template for scoring runs certainly is.
Start with a flurry of boundaries; rotate strike and channel through the middle overs, never let the run-rate fall as you set up the platform for a final push; and just in case you are still there at the death, unleash such timing in the garb of clean hitting that can make power-hitters blush.
And then, there’s his intensity — the bedrock of everything Kohli does on the cricket field, whether it is an international/IPL game or simply a net session.
In that respect, two of his knocks from the past year stand out. The first against South Africa in Cape Town, wherein Kohli accumulated a hundred just through his running between the wickets prowess; and the second against Australia in Ranchi, wherein he willed his way to three-figures even as the rest capitulated around him in a tough chase.
Time and again, Kohli has batted on a different plane than other Indian batsmen. You only have to look back at the tours of South Africa and England last year. In fact, even his 24-ball knock against New Zealand in the warm-up on Saturday is a pertinent example. As he creamed boundaries through covers, the pitch seemed benign for a brief while.
Kohli doesn’t stand out because of his meticulous preparation or fitness alone. It is also about competing, a thought he tries to imbibe in his team. Every ball, irrespective of where or when he faces it and from whom; the 30-year-old simply has to fight. He knows no other way, and he succeeds, despite expectations from a billion souls back home.
Playing day in and day out has perhaps steeled the modern Indian cricketer against the pressure that comes with this job. Kohli takes it a step further – it is almost a switch, which he can flick on or off.
“He knows when to turn off the game. And to do that he built a life outside cricket, and that’s what helps him switch off, which in turn helps channel all that intensity whenever he is playing,” a team official told this writer last December.
That conversation had happened at a hectic time for the Indian captain. Kohli’s gamble of fielding an all-pace attack in the second Test against Australia at Perth had backfired, despite his superlative hundred on a raging green top. And herein, the obvious question arises. How does Kohli segregate the batsman in him from the captain? Is it as easy as flicking a switch?
It isn’t a hidden fact that any cricket captain has to ponder over a hundred things. Some revel in it, like MS Dhoni. Captaincy seemed a natural extension of whatever he did on the cricket field – in fact, it still does. Whether marshalling field placement for India in white-ball cricket or taking control for Chennai Super Kings, the former India skipper has been phenomenal.
In comparison, Kohli, at times, seems burdened. Captaincy perhaps doesn’t come as naturally to him as it does to Dhoni, or even Rohit Sharma for that matter. And yet he was seen as a leader, whether at the Under-19 level or early into his senior years, because he towered over his peers.
That’s another shade of Tendulkar in Kohli for you – for years and years, the maestro had tried his hand at captaincy, willing his peers to a common challenge and failed. Kohli’s lack of success at Royal Challengers Bangalore is the best portrayal of his captaincy struggles, and it draws a parallel with Tendulkar’s failure as Indian captain.
If Dhoni’s success and Tendulkar’s failure as captains are two extremes, then Kohli swings from one end to another. Partly, it is down to constant changes, tinkering with team personnel, the constant flux – it is almost as if the 30-year-old wants to redesign team combinations at the drop of a hat.
There is nothing sinister about it; he is just searching for answers. In turn, it increases the margin of error, across formats. It is akin to driving a Ferrari the way it is meant to be – fast. It also increases the probability of a crash.
Yet, in the past two years, India have only lost two ODI series – England (2018) and Australia (2019). In that same time frame, Kohli has surpassed himself – averaging 83.92 since taking over ODI captaincy in January 2017 as compared to his earlier career average of 52.93. Alternately, in the Test arena, he scaled new heights in South Africa and England, while leading India to an unprecedented series’ win in Australia.
“In Indian cricket, captains tend to be judged by their World Cup performances. The various good results before or after that don’t matter much,” Rahul Dravid had once told this writer.
Call it coincidence, or destiny, India’s star batsman – arguably the best in this business – leads them into the 2019 ODI World Cup. It suffices to say that his dual role anchors Indian team’s hopes as also expectations from a billion people back home.
By that marker alone, Kohli stands on the cusp of immortality