Virat Kohli has played 14 Tests, averages 38 and is yet to cross 1000 in the longest format of the game.
He does seem to have had a much longer and more fruitful stint than that — especially when we review his claims to the top job. Yes, 90 One-Day Internationals (ODIs) with a phenomenal average of 51 do occupy a major space in our perceptions, clouding the reason and tilting the balance somewhat dangerously as far as his Test credentials are concerned.
Kohli’s future unquestionably holds huge promise. He is phenomenally talented, can destroy attacks and when he is in full flow, can hit boundaries at will — all of which has been vividly seen in ODIs.
In Test cricket, however, he emerges as a major force mainly due to the depletion and dimming of the batting stars in the line-up. He is yet to get anywhere close to the batting brilliance in Test cricket that is generally associated with an Indian middle-order batsman since the last two decades.
He has everything going for him in that direction — talent, youth and, when not mouthing profanities after a hundred, growing maturity. But, in plain terms, he has not made his grade as a Test batsman yet. He has shown snatches of brilliance, nothing more. He has not yet obtained the consistency that is the hallmark of a good Test batsman.
It is natural for him to emerge as a successor-in-waiting after MS Dhoni decides to shed his burden, or his mantle is twisted out of his hand. When there is a litany of losses, it is very normal for the wisdom of the crowds to point towards him.
We can point towards Graeme Smith’s extraordinary success as a leader from the moment he stepped out of his cricketing cradle. But, leading South Africa and becoming the captain of India are diametrically different — they do not even merit comparison.
Kapil Dev, a man who led India when he was 23, points out the dangers crisply. “I didn't know how to manage the seniors when I became leader at the age of 23. I didn’t know what to tell the seniors then. By the time I started learning the tricks of the trade, I was removed from captaincy. I can assure you that it is not easy to captain a side with seniors.”
Besides, by the time he became the captain at a very young age, Kapil Dev was already one of the very best all-rounders in the world, with almost 2000 runs and 200 wickets. Kohli has none of those credentials.
Kapil goes on to add, “That South African team didn't have superstars like the current Indian team has and there is no point comparing.” What he leaves out is that in South Africa, television channels do not criticise every move of a captain. Ex-cricketers do not appear on shows as ridiculous as “Match ka Mujrim”. Millions of fans don’t follow the game with the steadfast belief that victory in cricket is their birth-right.
With the Indian team in rebuilding phase, a young and extremely promising batsman loaded with this enormous responsibility and thrown into a cauldron of boiling demands can soon end up with his cricketing future going up in flames. One would not want the future of Indian batting retiring hurt that early.
The Pataudi effect
People cite the example of Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi. True, he was barely 21 when he led the country for the first time — and is said to be one of the most astute captains India ever had.
This comparison in this case is even more stretched. Pataudi was a Nawab, born into royalty, in a country that still revelled in genuflection to rulers. To get allegiance — of both team and followers of the game — had much to do with his title, his palace in Bhopal and his larger than life image.
Of his first 26 Tests Pataudi lost 13 and won two — a record much worse that what Dhoni has managed in the last year and a half. If a commoner without his rank had been at the helm during that period, he would have been crucified, and torn to shreds in public.
He managed to continue and bring changes to Indian cricket, ending with nine wins and 19 losses. Kohli’s start can be as disastrous as Pataudi’s, given that the team is in a transitional stage. He does not have a regal title to fall back on when the results are negative, to blind the furious fans with flashes of his royal sceptre. The voices that now state that they don’t mind losing a few games for a better future will hardly be that patient when that eventuality does arrive.
Pataudi was a brilliant captain, hailed in spite of consecutive losses. Indian cricket is not known for such patient acceptance. The next captain who approached Pataudi’s tactical brilliance on the field never had a moment’s piece after that loss against Bangladesh crashed India out of the 2007 World Cup. Rahul Dravid decided that the pressures of the job were not worth it.
If one of the best Indian batsmen of all time surrenders to the pressures that come with the job, is it fair to push Kohli into the role even as he is finding his feet in the longest format of the game?
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)
First Published: December 21, 2012, 10:42 am