Wednesday, April 21

A Test-ing time for India, sans Virat Kohli


An India-Australia Test series Down Under with no Virat Kohli is a bit like El Clasico without Lionel Messi. In what is now, arguably, cricket’s most compelling rivalry, Kohli is the central protagonist, the man around who the contest pivots. It’s not just that the Indian captain loves to play in Australia–he has scored more Test runs there than in any other country outside India–but because, over the years, he has made it clear that beating Australia in Tests is a kind of personal touchstone for him as captain. In 2018, he led India to their first Test series win in Australia.

While Cheteshwar Pujara is the batting rock and Jasprit Bumrah the pace spearhead of this side, Kohli is the multi-dimensional force who takes on all opponents on all fronts–be it with his batting, leadership, energy levels or in-your-face aggression.

Kohli and his actor-wife Anushka Sharma are expecting their first child in January, and the captain is set to return home after the opening Test in Adelaide ends on December 21. Given that he would have to quarantine again for 14 days if he were to head back to Australia after the birth, it appears certain that he will miss the final three Tests in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

“It (his absence) will be a big factor, no question about it. He is one of the best in the world,” said former India captain Dilip Vengsarkar.

The Australians love to hate him but he remains the one opponent they want their troops to do battle with. They see a bit of the Aussie cricketer in him; in his no-holds-barred winning drive.

In a video conference with reporters on Friday, Australia coach Justin Langer said Kohli’s absence will be a huge factor. “Virat Kohli is probably the best player I’ve ever seen in my life for so many reasons, not only batting but his energy and passion for the game, the way he fields,” Langer said. “I cannot believe he displays the energy he does in everything he does and I’ve got so much respect for him. I’ve also got respect for him in the sense that he’s made this decision (to return for the birth),” the former Australia opener added.

As Langer points out, the reason for Kohli’s absence is unimpeachable, but what is also certain is that India depends heavily on the captain to win in Tests, especially outside India.

Kohli’s love affair with Australia started in early 2012 when he got his maiden Test hundred at Adelaide. It immediately proved to be the turning point in his career, after a shaky six months since his Test debut. His next tour Down Under, in 2014, was also the most dazzling performance of his glittering Test career. He made the world sit up and take notice with a total of 692 runs at an average of 86.50 with four hundreds. After starting with hundreds in both innings at Adelaide (115 and 141), he smashed his highest score in Australia, 169, in the third Test at Melbourne Cricket Ground. He finished with an innings of 147 at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

In his third foray, in 2018, he was leading India to a historic series win.

“His record in Australia is outstanding. When he is chasing, his record in the second innings is brilliant,” former India wicket-keeper and national selector Kiran More said. “His batting aggression is superb; at one end when someone is batting so well, it becomes easier for the batting partner at the other.

“In Tests, Kohli not being there is huge,” More added, “but it also serves as an opportunity for someone to step up and perform at that level.”

Kohli’s absence improves Australia’s chances of avenging their home series defeat, but ace off-spinner Nathan Lyon said Australia would have preferred to play India with Kohli in the side. “It’s disappointing for the series. You want to play against the best players in the world,” Lyon said. “I believe he is the best player in the world along with Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne. It’s disappointing but they have still got superstars.”

Kohli will lead India in three ODIs, three Twenty20 internationals and the first Test before heading home. The second Test starts in Melbourne on December 26 followed by matches in Sydney on January 7 and Brisbane on January 15, all played under strict bio-security protocols. In an interview to AFP, Australia great Steve Waugh compared the contest with India as a heavyweight title fight. Kohli’s absence “does take away from the series”.

“It’s a bit like a couple of years ago when India won without Warner or Smith in the side,” he said. “You really want to win against the best possible opposition, particularly when this is like the heavyweight title fight.”