Virat Kohli: India’s Test Torchbearer

India’s tour of South Africa marks the first official Test series for India without the presence and domination of any of the ‘fab four’ of India’s batting. While several contenders have emerged to vie for the top spots, it would appear a clear winner has emerged as the flag bearer for India, particularly in overseas ventures. Setting the trail ablaze once more, Virat Kohli is laying down both, precedent and benchmark, for the young guns of generation next. There is a lesson in his innings at the Wanderers that speaks volumes about the character of the cricketer and his future role in the team.

With the home Tests against the West Indies in November, Sachin Tendulkar completed twenty-four years of international cricket. It also marked the last time India would see (the first and) the last of the fab four. With Sourav Ganguly having retired from international cricket in 2008 and Rahul Dravid, V.V.S. Laxman and Tendulkar having now left behind a cricket legacy spanning two decades, India were heading abroad with a complete team makeover. If the South African bowlers were licking their lips, it was easy to sense the vulnerability that twelve months of international cricket abroad and a relatively inexperienced batting prospect would produce.

The last time India played a Test series abroad, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s team lost to England and Australia by similar 4-0 whitewash margins. Incidentally the Adelaide Test where Kohli scored a fighting century was the last Test India played abroad before arriving in South Africa. India’s late Test win abroad came in 2011 against the West Indies whom India beat by sixty-three runs in Kingston, Jamaica. With a dubious reputation for Test cricket abroad, these would not have been encouraging statistics.

Suffice it to say, filling the boots of these legends would be a daunting task for most young aspiring cricketers. To then fill in for the position vacated only recently by the record setting maestro of world cricket would have been a tall order. Yet for the challenge that it presented combined with the prospect of facing fiery South African fast bowlers in their own backyard, Virat Kohli has not only managed to dominate headlines but also, in many ways, set the way forward for other young guns to follow.

Kohli Cuts SA Hopes in Half

South Africa’s hopes lay in that it was well known that India reserved a certain dislike for short pitched, hostile fast bowling, foreign to the conditions Indian batsmen face at home. With a squad that did not have a single player who scored a century in South Africa previously, it gave the hosts even more reason to be optimistic. Only a handful of players from India have managed to establish their turf in the rainbow nation since their re-entry into the international fold and none has been more emphatic on that front than Sachin Tendulkar himself. With Tendulkar no longer part of the Indian Test equation, this was the chance for the world’s no.1 Test team to further extend their dominion.

India’s history, particularly recent history of Test cricket abroad would have only added to South Africa’s aspirations. It has not always been smooth sailing for India in Tests abroad. India have generally been slow starters and even poor performers when playing Test cricket in foreign conditions. Early initiative was virtually conceded when India lost two wickets very early into India’s innings with only twentyfour runs on board after Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the Indian captain, boldly elected to bat first, a decision that went against the theory about Indians batsmen and short pitched bowling. While generally the sight of the fall of two wickets would have brought some cheer even from the home crowds at the sight of Tendulkar, this time, for the first time in twenty-four years, the there would be no Tendulkar at the crease. Instead the torch had been passed on to Kohli, elevated up the order to take on the mantle to steadying the innings and steering the team to safety. To Kohli’s credit, not only did he do a phenomenal job but also, gave India the impetus they sorely needed at that point. His fifth Test century was the stuff of legends, coming as it did in South African bowling friendly conditions at the Wanderers. The last time an Indian batsman upstaged South Africa’s plan at no.4, it was Sachin Tendulkar with 146 runs to his name at Cape Town in 2011. Tendulkar had previously left his indelible mark on the South African psyche in 1996 at the same venue. For Kohli to negate South Africa’s attempt at hostile assault on a grassy pitch at the Wanderers says a lot about his determination to vindicate the no.4 spot.

Virat Kohli assuaged early apprehensions of an infantile Indian batting line up with a century befitting of a stalwart in the very first Test of India’s tour of South Africa in Johannesburg. In doing so, he became the eighth Indian to score a century in South Africa and the third Indian batsman after Praveen Amre and Virender Sehwag to do so at the Wanderers in Johannesburg in his twenty-first Test while bringing up his career best century of 119 runs to eclipse his previous best, another equally memorable knock for 116 runs in the Adelaide Test in 2011-’12 series. That Kohli had a forgettable one day international series prior to the first Test had no bearing on the otherwise prolific batsman.

Big match players feed on grand occasions. They crave the pressure and the competition that comes from facing the best in the business. Not many have come to South Africa to return with plaudits. Despite the success of the fab four, only Tendulkar singled himself out as the belligerent scorcher with the bat. While Rahul Dravid’s reputation as the Wall remained intact, the fact that neither Sourav Ganguly nor V.V.S. Laxman have a century to their name in South Africa must count as a blip on their otherwise illustrious careers. Yet rather than be fazed by the fact that other more established batsmen have come away without enhancing their reputation did little to stop Kohli from being preoccupied about his success on this tour even during the series against Australia and West Indies, a revelation Kohli made at the end of the first day’s play. That Kohli has not only come out unscathed in his very first Test innings in South Africa but also, laid the foundation for India to seize the initiative that early into the match at a time when India stood precariously on the slippery road to ignominy once more speaks volumes of the lion hearted ambition of the fierce competitor that is Kohli.

In Tendulkar’s Mould

Kohli’s innings of 119 runs in India’s first innings was as much as about the runs as in the manner in which he earned them. The composure he showed at the crease, the presence of mind in knowing the opposition’s game plan and the determination and focus in executing his own game plan instantly drew awe and comparisons to the style with which Tendulkar approached his own game. Those that say that it was not that big a jump for Kohli from no.5 in India’s batting order to no.4 must also remember that the no.4 position remained occupied for the longest time in India’s Test cricket history by a man who virtually conquered every milestone there was to gain. For Kohli the ascent would still be monumental in sentiment if not in hierarchy. In his elevation, he is thrust with the huge responsibility of now being the axis around which would revolve all of India’s future aspirations. If anyone could even come close to replacing Tendulkar at the no.4 position in India’s batting line up, it had to be the player with the best chance to do justice to the role. Without a doubt, Kohli is India’s premier batsman in the team since Tendulkar’s retirement. The authoritative style with which he plays his game, the leadership that he shows in shouldering responsibility in the context of Test cricket, and the manner in which he actually relishes being targeted by the opposition bowlers – perhaps what he sees as a backhanded compliment, works brilliantly in India’s context. Provocation lay in store for Kohli, not only in the form of the rib cage bowling from South Africa’s pacers but also, from the host broadcasters who did not shy from showing Kohli being hit by Morkel only for the captain to read ‘softened up’ from the one day internationals. Yet Kohli was able to sublimate the anger and indignation to hit the hosts back in the hardest manner possible. Although one could draw inferences from his knocks in Perth and Adelaide, his century at the Wanderers, being his latest, is an equally fine example to suggest the class of the player in the mould of Tendulkar. Right through his innings that last 181 balls, Kohli reined in his temperament, the impetuosity of youth never in evidence as he went about carving India’s ascendance over the proceedings. En route he withstood and thwarted hostility from South Africa’s premier bowlers in Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, nullifying the pace, bounce and swing on offer to force errors in line and length from the hosts. He rode out the rough ride and then, dished it out in the classiest fashion possible, pulling out some of Tendulkar’s trademark shots in the pull shot and the straight drive. There was no stare for stare, sledge for sledge, only a classic back foot stroke to silence the frustrated rant and rage of the bowler to the point of submission. Thereafter, any misgivings wide outside the off stump became easy pickings. The counter attack worked beautifully because it gave the rest of the batting line up the opportunity to recover from the early blows. Kohli also showed his mellow side as also his presence of mind in rotating the strike to disturb the rhythm of the bowler. India benefitted from two such partnerships – eighty-nine runs between Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara and sixty-eight runs between Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane. The only blemish in Kohli’s otherwise flawless innings came in the run out of Pujara. However, even that failed to distract Kohli from the task at hand as India’s premier batsman to provide a solid impetus at the top of the order.

While some would say too much sentiment was attached to the innings in public perception because of the fact that Kohli was elevated in the batting order to no.4, the position traditionally occupied by Tendulkar for almost two and a half decades, the validation comes from someone of the eminence of Allan Donald. The former South African spearhead who went by the nickname of ‘White Lightning’ in his playing days heaped praise on India’s dynamic batsman. The current South African bowling coach was the first to admit that yet again South Africa had underestimated the depth of discipline and determination in Indian batsmen, alluding to Tendulkar from the 1996 tour in comparison with Kohli’s feat at the Wanderers. That Kohli’s knock drew applause from the press and the former cricketers alike was vindication enough for Kohli who has also copped his fair share of critics who labeled him arrogant, too in-your-face aggressive, rebellious and brash.

India’s Best Bet

If Virat Kohli is by far the biggest name emerging from the Indian cricket team, it is because Kohli has been quick to separate himself from the rest of the herd. Rohit Sharma’s name has been going the rounds for ages as has Cheteshwar Pujara who is only now getting his fair share of opportunities. Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay could be accused of having flattered only to deceive on several occasions. Young careers have yet to ignite with the kind of promising firepower that will go the distance. Yet Virat Kohli has towered over his peers. His career graph has been a steady rise, his consistency remarkable as is the magnificence with which he has assumed elevated levels of responsibility. That his Test career graph has been a steady rise is evident in how he went about establishing himself on the difficult tour of Australia, scoring a century in the final Test at Adelaide before returning to India and scoring his first Test century for 2013 against Australia in Chennai in February. To follow it up with this fighting innings at the Wanderers only further evidences the fact that Kohli is by far India’s most compact player amongst the current crop of players, never more ready for the challenges of the stage. Virat Kohli’s century at the Wanderers is not only a lesson of survival but also, of how an emotionally charged and fiercely determined young dynamite can rise to the occasion when the challenge is high enough to aspire for the stars. Yet there has been nothing starry eyed about the international centuries he has scored. They have come in tough, gritty situation whether it was chasing, holding off or wresting the initiative. That he has managed to bring out the superlative in his own talent in the midst of what can only be described as tough challenges higher up the order only shows his huge appetite for the challenge that sep The hallmark of his Test career has been the manner in which he has always been eager to go in early, have a predetermined plan in place and then go about executing it in dogged fashion and yet never being bogged down by the opposition. The ability to always stay on top of the opposition’s mind is a quality only the rare possess. The consistent fashion in which Kohli is proving to be a thorn in the flesh for the opposition while becoming India’s mainstay batsman, it is not surprising to believe that Kohli has, in a way, replaced Tendulkar as the fulcrum of India’s batting to blunt the attack early on, establish dominance and take India further on the road to glory and greater aspirations. The greatest quality about a player like Kohli lies in the fact that in his mindset to want to take on the challenge while the going is still tough to then position himself to launch, he infuses confidence in a team when a shaky situation at the crease could easily send the team into a downward spiral. Not many players are good at adapting roles from salvaging situations to dictating terms to the bowlers. However, Kohli’s brand of batting certainly combines that to lethal effect. The opportunity to fill big boots comes only to those who show an intense craving to walk tall. Kohli has quickly made the transition from aspirant to inspirational. Those that thought the series would fail to grab eyeballs because of the apparent absence of Tendulkar may now want to do a rethink. With Kohli showing a new generation of cricketers who can counterpunch and entertain in equally exquisite fashion, one can only wonder if the organizers on both boards are now ruing the fact that there would be no traditional New Year’s Test in South Africa. Kohli could well have his heart set on much more, now that he has found his niche in the hallowed no.4 spot in India’s batting line up.

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