Scene 1: The dais was set in Manchester, awaiting Virat Kohli for his first press conference of a long tour. Ahead of the T20I series, he was asked about England’s aggressive line-up, wrist spin, batsmen-friendly pitches and the 2019 World Cup preparation.
There were eight questions before the 2014 tour came up, that too in an indirect reference to Kohli’s poor record here. There was no mention of James Anderson even. Perhaps it was the difference in formats, or maybe the gathered media simply didn’t want to upset him. Overall, the mood was coy, almost like a game of cat and mouse.
Kohli was in no mood to play. “Surprisingly, or funnily enough, I don’t think from the fans’ or outsiders’ (read media) point of view. This was the first thing asked last year when we came for the Champions Trophy (2017), and my reply was I am just looking forward to having a good time here. It doesn’t matter whether I get runs or don’t get runs. I want the team to play well and win,” he said, with a smile and without much of a blink.
Scene 2: A day earlier, during India’s first training session on English soil, Kohli took throw-downs from Sanjay Bangar at the Old Trafford nets. Never mind that the next three weeks were all about limited-overs’ cricket, but he asked the assistant coach to send down a particular delivery. One that speeds off length, on that off-stump line, and induces him into a front-foot drive – it is also that same delivery that squared him up time and again in 2014 as he continuously edged behind.
It took Bangar a few minutes to hit Kohli’s desired length, and in turn, it also took him more than a few throws to get the timing right. There was this one shot – he came forward, foot planted and cover drove from the meat of his blade. Thwack! ‘Oh, yes!!’ cried out Kohli. That could have been the sound of a billion fans back home hitting a collective orgasm. Instead, in the corner net of an empty ground in Lancashire on a lazy Sunday afternoon, this was a batsman in form, geared up for the mighty challenge ahead.
There is a peculiarity about Kohli’s training sessions on this trip. After the usual throw-downs, he enters the pacers’ nets and coach Ravi Shastri assumes the umpire’s position. Unwavering, he watches Kohli go about his routine for the next 25 minutes. After one such session at Chelmsford, a day before India’s only tour game before the Test series, Kohli walked up to Shastri and the two had a long chat. What do you think they were talking about?
If this were Game of Thrones, you could revisit Season One wherein Tywin Lannister is lecturing his son Jamie about the virtues of being a “lion”. “I need you to become the man you were always meant to be. Not next year. Not tomorrow. Now!” That scene made for a stunning mind job.
Isn’t Shastri’s role the same in this Indian team? Time and again, he has professed a coaching trait of working on his players’ psyche and enhancing their thinking. He is less a technical coach, more a man manager. He will big you up, no matter your qualities (or a lack of them), making you believe that you are the best in the world. It is what a father sees in his son, what a fatherly coach talks to his favourite ward about, a world-beater, a champion among ordinary men, whether it be Game of Thrones or otherwise.
Maybe Tywin had to pretend about Jaime’s qualities for the love of his son. There is no pretention with Kohli. He is a champion, period – a master batsman who is more accomplished than he was in 2014, more experienced and technically correct than he was four years ago. Moreover, he knows this. Shastri knows it too.
How important is Kohli for India?
Yet, it doesn’t explain the nonchalance of Kohli’s statement in Manchester. Does the Indian captain – arguably the best batsman in world cricket at the moment – truly believe that his runs don’t matter if India are to win their first Test series on English soil in 11 years?
“I think Virat is telling lies there,” laughed James Anderson, getting in some light-hearted banter even before the series began. “He will be desperate to score runs (this tour), like you would expect.”
His statement made headlines, across newspapers in India and England, on cricket portals, and news television. Kohli didn’t really need his arch nemesis from 2014 to call the bluff.
We live in a cricketing world, wherein a majority of Indian victories are not possible without Kohli’s rich contributions. Certainly not in the limited-overs’ arena, for the Indian batting line-up looks rudderless when he fails. And it is equally the case when they travel overseas in whites. If you need proof, turn back time only six months – Kohli aced South Africa’s fearsome pace attack.
He had done well there in 2013, scoring 272 runs in two Tests. He did well this time too, more than well actually, scoring the only hundred of the series at Centurion. In fact, such was the intensity – and effectiveness – of his two half-centuries on a raging green-top at Johannesburg, that you could count them as two Test hundreds if you want. Most Kohli fans do, and rightly.
Even so, India failed to win that series, and this is the underlying point. In South Africa, Kohli did his job. The bowlers did theirs too in picking all 60 wickets on offer. The remaining batsmen failed to turn up. Along those same lines, India won’t win in England if Kohli doesn’t find support from the other batsmen around him, whoever they are, irrespective of haphazard selection to suit form and conditions.
Meanwhile, the narrative is all about Kohli. From the local to traveling media, to England’s current and former players, to India’s former players and traveling commentators, there is intense spotlight on the Indian skipper. One side wants an Anderson encore, the other Kohli’s resurgence, while the neutrals simply want to grab big tubs of popcorn. It is a strange setting for a mega series, fixated on one batsman’s fortunes.
Perhaps, it will have a shielding effect on the likes of Shikhar Dhawan and Cheteshwar Pujara as they struggle to find form. Perhaps, it will blanket Murali Vijay, Ajinkya Rahane and KL Rahul as they go about their business silently. Or perhaps, it is simply an unhealthy obsession – a trap India will do well to avoid slipping into.