Walking towards the HPCA Stadium in Dharamsala, two sights are very familiar. The first, of course, are the snow-capped mountains in the background, making for one of the most gorgeous sights in world cricket. The other, well, is the face of Anurag Thakur, adorning various posters put up on the roads leading here.
One of the bigger ones is currently adorning the main entrance to the ground, and it refers mostly to the painstaking effort Thakur put in to get a world-class international cricket facility going at this difficult site. Then, there are a few more about, most of them referring to the last major international match India played here – an India-New Zealand ODI, back in October (2016).
Things have changed since. Thakur is out of cricket administration, for good it seems, given the seriousness with which both the Supreme Court and the BCCI’s Committee of Administrators are pursuing reforms. Never mind losing that top-draw India-Pakistan World T20 clash, holding a first-ever Test is still a great moment for this state association, and indeed hilltop town. Yet, the man who was central to the sport gaining prominence here will be conspicuously absent.
If things had carried on like they used to, this inaugural Test here would have made for some spectacle. Back in autumn, when Indore hosted its first Test, then board president Thakur made his presence known, and went on to announce his celebratory plans for “this special week” in March. None of them will come to fruition now. The man, who was so used to be the cynosure of all eyes, has currently been reduced to an attention-seeking sideshow.
An uncomfortable outburst is how you would describe Thakur’s words on social media against Cricket Australia, and indeed the current BCCI administration, for their handling of the sledging barrage. You could question his motive to speak out now – he could have done so easily earlier in the series – but then this awkward Thakur-shaped sulking cloud that hangs over this picturesque stadium – and indeed this Test – would have been lost.
Not to mention, it is not like Virat Kohli needs any help hitting those accusations and insinuations for sixes. “It doesn’t affect me, it never has,” said the India skipper, in the pre-match press conference on Friday. “But I am just surprised that just one individual is affecting so many people. If it helps them sell news, good luck to them.”
His defence to such menacing media strop all series has been better than his form in the middle. Only 46 runs in five innings at average 9.20 – it is his worst possible return from a Test series, even eclipsing the painful tour of England in 2014. This fourth Test could have been that mega stage with a shot at redemption, akin to what players who enjoy cult status pine for. That, sadly, is in some real danger.
Kohli’s potential absence
Yes, with the series pegged at 1-1, there is real probability that Kohli will be sitting out this series-decider. He will undergo a fitness test on Saturday morning, before the toss, and by his own admission in the pre-match conference, he “will play if only 100% fit”. On Friday night then, when team India huddles up in their hotel to sort out final plans for this all-important season-ending Test, taking the field without Kohli will be a pertinent topic on their agenda.
It makes for some wonderment, what the two camps would be feeling at this possible omission due to injury. This Indian team, in recent times, has become synonymous with Kohli. Whether he has matched Sachin Tendulkar in scoring runs or notching up records is still debatable, yet the aspect of Indian cricket currently rotating around Kohli – across all formats – cannot be denied.
He is the leader, the go-to man, the talisman, the weapon of choice, and the very source of their abounding energy. If this Indian team were a nuclear reactor, then Kohli is the core, that fissionable fuel.
In that light, Australia do know they have been playing with fire all series, and somehow have managed to keep a lid on it. It is seen in how everyone remotely associated with Australian cricket has had a say on Kohli’s perceived behaviour. In collusion with the partisan Australian media, it cannot be denied that this has been a well-thought strategy, one that worked like a charm given his lack of runs.
So, what happens if Kohli is suddenly absent from the field? Who will Steve Smith and company look to train their guns on? Australian cricketers – and media – are like honeybees. They need to suck juice out of the main protagonist in the opposition to get their mojo working. However, Kohli’s replacement has a vastly different character, and perhaps this could play into India’s hands.
“Ajinkya Rahane is more chilled out and not as emotional [as Virat],” said Smith in his pre-match press conference. He led the side well in Ranchi.” From an Indian perspective then, the question remains if they can indeed win without Kohli.
Throughout this long international schedule since July in the Caribbean, a period that has been dominated by Test cricket, the main talking point about India’s rise to the No 1 ranking has been their optimal response in every difficult situation. Missing Kohli’s wares, in terms of both leadership and batting, at this juncture is their worst nightmare come true. How the rest of these players respond could possibly be a marker in their future journey together.
Meanwhile, the town of Dharamsala is oblivious to this serious headache facing the Indian team management. As is the case with any international game here, people from all parts of North India are converging, and local business – with the addition of replica India merchandise – is booming. Buses are packed, and flights are choc-a-bloc. There isn’t a single hotel room available.
VVS Laxman flew here on Friday morning. As he took his designated seat in the plane, an Australian cricket supporter shouted out, “Tell us you haven’t got your batting kit along”.
Laxman only smiled back. India will be hoping they don’t need him to defy Australia in Kohli’s absence.