2011: A 22-year-old Virat Kohli was on his first trip to England. A silent start to his Test career in the Caribbean in the months prior to the visit to the United Kingdom meant he was confined to the warmth of the pavilion while his teammates were left to freeze out in the middle – one defeat after another.
Kohli, though, was a different ODI batsman. He had already built a reputation of a young man with a mature appetite for runs. After just one half-century in the first four games, his newly formed reputation was up for debate. A century in the final ODI at Cardiff helped him to save face, but could not prevent another India defeat. Kohli’s first encounter with England was bittersweet.
2013: The Champions Trophy took India to England within two years. It was the format Kohli had sent waves across the world in. He was also the ace chaser now. Every target felt inadequate with him set to bat second. He was already one of the finest one-day players, and was expected to make it an event remembered for his exploits with the bat.
India lifted the trophy. He finished as the fifth-highest run-getter, but had scored less than half of the 363 scored by Shikhar Dhawan, who sat atop the pile. He had a decent run, but one fifty in five games was not a Kohli-level return. Kohli’s affair with England was not, thus, not yet the talk of the town.
2014: By now, Kohli had visited each of Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, and came back as one of India’s best batsmen from each tour. By now, he had conquered three of the four surfaces the Indian batsmen had known to struggle upon. Only England remained. He was an integral part of the Indian middle-order when the tour of England knocked in the middle of the year. Another country waited to be mastered by Kohli.
Instead, Kohli’s first nightmare as an international cricketer followed. The English pacers took turns to pitch the ball on or just outside off and shape it away from Kohli. One of the brightest young batsmen in the world came across as a novice when he decided to fish at each of those deliveries with an embarrassing gap between bat and pad. As if it were played out on loop, Kohli’s
Dismissals followed the same trend – he poked at balls outside off and was caught behind. India were crushed for the second tour on the trot, but Kohli’s painful manner of being dismissed was remembered as the image of the tour. The one-day series too came and went, but not much changed. By now, Kohli’s marriage with England had been declared a disaster.
2017: Kohli was now the captain of the national team. He bullied New Zealand, England and Bangladesh at home in the build up to Australia’s visit early in the year. His imperious form had sent a shiver down in the Australian camp even before they stepped off their plane in India. It was as if they would step into a slaughterhouse where Kohli would decimate them.
India clinched a series closer than most expected, eventually. But, Kohli’s bat had fallen silent. Never since the 2014 tour of England had Kohli appeared as helpless. 15 was his highest score in the three Test matches before injury ruled him out of the final Test. But he had now. He was the best batsman in the world before the series started. But as the battle wore on, he would fall to deliveries which were not even met by his bat, like the instances he had to return to the pavilion after he had shouldered arms to the Australian spinners. It had taken a while to return, but this was Kohli’s nightmare 2.0 in international cricket.
The IPL debacle
The Indian Premier League that beckoned carried hope for Kohli’s rise from the wretched form. In fact, it was Kohli’s only hope to resurrect his failed relationship with England, where he heads to with his troops to defend the Champions Trophy.
But the promise that the IPL carried for India’s captain destroyed as the season went on.
By the time the Royal Challengers Bangalore visited the Wankhede earlier in the month, Kohli’s team had been defeated in almost every game they played. And, he had spoilt everybody with a barrage of centuries in every format of the game to such an extent that his four half-centuries in the IPL this year stood out as a disappointment.
Though he threatened to hit top form after his return from the injury that had ruled him out of the Dharamsala Test against Australia, he never took off.
Kohli, in fact, had vowed to take the field during the IPL only if he was sure of his fitness; because he already had one eye on the Champions Trophy and his desire to finally conquer the English conditions. “The priority is Indian cricket with the Champions Trophy coming up and I don’t want to take any risks. I have not set any date and I will only return when I am 120 percent fit,” he had asserted to the host broadcaster at the start of the IPL.
With the Champions Trophy, which was only a month away, in mind, Kohli commenced his pursuit of Kohliesque form. Against the Mumbai Indians at the Wankhede, he made a cautious start. He allowed his opening partner Mandeep Singh to be the aggressor. He had spent time in the middle and laid a foundation for his return t form.
Then Mitchell McClenaghan overpitched a slower delivery on Kohli’s pads. This was his zone. This was his ball. On most days, Kohli’s wrists would have taken over from there. He would have leaned forward and a quick flick of the wrist would have dispatched the ball to the fence.
Kohli’s wrists did begin the routine, but the lack of form showed. He hit the ball straight into Rohit Sharma’s hands at short midwicket instead of the boundary, For a moment, he could not believe it. He stood there, looked skywards and could not get himself to move. But he had to, towards the dugout. For, his ordinary run had continued in another Bangalore loss.
It had been the story of Kohli’s team in the IPL. It had been Kohli’s story for a while now. In fact, it has been one of his longest barren runs. It may also possibly be the first time that he will embark upon a foreign tour on the back of an elongated poor run.
It may not be the red cherry at the Champions Trophy, but the venue is still England. He has a title to defend. He has MS Dhoni’s legacy as one of the most successful one-day captains to carry forward. And, amidst such towering asks, he must find his own form.
The Champions Trophy task
On the eve of the team’s departure for the Champions Trophy, Kohli reflected on what had been a tough few months. “After the kind of season we (India) have had, when you have a tournament like that (IPL) it teaches you about yourself as a person at a few levels. From the mindset point of view, it made me realise that you can’t possibly do everything in every game. Sometimes people might start looking at you like that, but as a human being you need to understand your limitations and you need to take a backward step,” he dwelled.
“As I keep getting older, I think those things need to be a learning as well because you don’t want to burn out too quickly. I was pretty fortunate that I got to experience that kind of a time. It teaches you a lot as a captain, it teaches you a lot composure-wise. You take away a lot from failures, and that’s something I have always cherished.”
The point that stands out from Kohli’s words is that he has learnt from the challenges. The opponents, hence, must rejoice in the lack of runs from Kohli’s blade at their own peril.
In the final IPL game, which would be his last knock before the Champions Trophy and its warm-up games commence, he had already found a semblance of form as his half-century afforded the Royal Challengers a consolation victory. If Kohli can build on that knock, it may not be too stiff a task for him to turn the tables of form overnight. And with it, he could possibly make it a liaison to remember with England.