“So, watch me bring the fire and set the night alight.”
He may not have been there in the flesh when India were breaching the supposedly “impregnable” Gabba last year, but somewhere, the mind went back seven years to 2014: to Virat Kohli’s first match as captain of the Indian Test team in Adelaide.
It was the first match of the Australian summer, resuming after the emotional upheaval of the Phil Hughes tragedy. Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s thumb injury hadn’t healed; Kohli had to take over. India were coming into the series on the back of a 3-1 series loss in England – a bright start squandered in a series that became more and more depressing as it progressed. The last time they were in Australia, they had been blanked 4-0, back in 2012. Baptism by fire indeed.
Australia still won, of course. But for two breathtaking sessions, on the last day, our jaws dropped and we watched, transfixed. Set 364 to win in 98 overs on the last day, a draw was, at best, the best option, a loss the most likely one.
‘No sort of negativity is welcome’
The captain had other ideas though. “At no point did we not think about chasing the score down,” Kohli would say later, in the post-match presser. “No sort of negativity is welcome in this group”. For any of us listening, it was there, plain for all to see – the template that would go on to define Indian cricket in the next seven years.
Back to Adelaide. In a glorious partnership forged with Murali Vijay, Kohli took India to 242/2, seemingly on the cusp of something special. Australia looked shellshocked. Where was this fight, this verve emanating from? Instead of just trying to survive, this Indian team were taking the fight to them, in their own backyard. The script was being rewritten, much like it would be seven years later…but then we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Of course, Australia being Australia recovered. Vijay fell for 99, the middle-order spluttered (yes, some things never change!), Kohli fell for 141, one of his finest-ever Test knocks, and India fell short by 48 runs, bowled out for 315.
In his first Test match as captain, Kohli had laid down a marker – win or lose, this Indian team would be uncompromising in its fight. A marker which was then taken to its truest fruition; a world-class pace-bowling attack, two series wins in Australia, and an almost series win in England.
Forget the numbers, just that legacy above makes Virat Kohli, without doubt, India’s best-ever Test captain.
An unlikely custodian of the longest format
In hindsight though, when we look back at Kohli’s proud legacy, we will realise that it was not just India who were lucky to have him. Cricket, but more specifically, Test cricket will forever be in his debt.
He simply loved Test cricket. The “death of Tests” is perhaps the most overused trope in the game but it was true that the longest format needed a fillip. When superstars like Chris Gayle went around saying they “wouldn’t be so sad if Test cricket died out”, there was some discomfiture. The best format of the game needed fire and brimstone – and Kohli stepped up.
Time and time again, Kohli backed Test cricket to the hilt. He didn’t need to do that – he had enough anyway to deal with. But underneath that blazing persona, Kohli was a purist. He simply enjoyed Test cricket – all of it, the battle on the first day in seaming conditions, the tactical battles with spinners on dustbowls, the single-minded focus on survival when a draw was the best option
It came out in his captaincy. If Kohli was captain, every ball was an event. You could hear him the entire day chuntering away, trying to break the opposition down and in his animated celebrations and the send-offs. Yes, he could be reactionary, but it made for fantastic drama. One thing he could never be accused of was letting the game drift. Unlike his predecessor, you could take one look at Virat Kohli and know the match situation. He recognised and elevated the simple and yet most fulfilling aspect of what makes Test cricket so special – the humble survival of bat against ball.
“Where do you end?”
Significantly, Kohli recognised when the game needed to change, and, perhaps more importantly, when it didn’t. He was among the first, and arguably, among the most high-profile advocates for day-night Tests from the Indian camp back in 2015. Contrastingly, he was also as firm in his distaste for four-day Tests. “Next, you’ll speak of three-day Tests,” he said, asking rhetorically. “Where do you end?”
Nowhere, Virat, all thanks to you. Test cricket is alive and well. Because when a superstar like you cares about something so intensely and so passionately, it has a cascading effect. It leads to fans and broadcasters tuning in and discovering the joys and intensity of five-day matches. It leads to young kids looking up to you and wanting to emulate you in their whites. It leads to young fast bowlers coming up the ranks, believing that they aren’t just there to make up the numbers on opposition pitches, but weapons of mass destruction in their own right, capable of turning games in a matter of minutes.
“Shaam tak khelenge…! (We’ll play till evening…)”
Thank you, Virat. For being the dynamite that lit up Test cricket. It’s time now for Kohli the batter to take centre-stage. And may it last for as long as possible.