If you had to track the countdown to the first Test, you would be led to believe it is one man against the combined might of the Australian team. Of course, creating a riveting drama is an old and established practice in the media to whip up interest in a contest, but this time it appears singularly focused.
Apart from regular scribes and commentators, former players of the heft of Ian Chappell, Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist have based recent articles/broadcasts on the `Kohli Factor’ - if I may call it that - dissecting his batting style, technique, and the threat he holds out and what Australia’s bowlers need to do to get him cheaply.
Interestingly, the views of these former players on how to control Kohli are so divergent that it suggests the absence of any real weaknesses in his batting which in turn highlights the difficulty quotient for the Australian bowlers.
While such attention may appear lop-sided and even unfair to other players on either side, the hype is not entirely without basis. For one, Kohli is unarguably the game’s biggest star today. Nobody else measures up, certainly in star appeal.
This has become even more acute in the current series. The absence of Australia’s majordomos, Steve Smith and David Warner is obviously a big factor. Others competing for attention - for instance Australian and Indian bowlers who have been splendid performers in recent times - do so obliquely: in how they can restrict Kohli from running amok.
Kohli pulls in the crowds with the rawness of his passion, tempestuousness, strong competitive streak, and overt demonstrativeness, which makes him the most followed player on the field of play, by fans and critics.
However, that is only one aspect of his cricketing persona. The other has to do with his marvellous ability as a batsman. Over a period of time, the second aspect becomes the more important. The star value of Kohli would erode rapidly if his bat was not reeling out centuries and thousands of runs at a better rate and more excitingly than others.
This is what makes Kohli such a commanding presence in the sport today. The 2014-15 tour of Australia was the turning point in his career, and since then he has moved up the echelons rapidly to be universally acknowledged as the best batsman of this generation.
Where Indian cricket is concerned, his exceptional batting has put him on a pedestal enjoyed by a very few: In fact, only Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar come to mind readily. But even here, there is a point of departure, for both Gavaskar and Tendulkar had some support when playing outside Asia, while Kohli has found very little, except in the West Indies which is no longer the force it once was.
This has been shown up agonizingly in the Test matches India have Played this year. In eight overseas Tests, India lost six (winning two), despite the bowlers doing a fantastic job and Kohli himself in roaring form, making a whopping 1063 runs in 10 matches.
The numbers below highlight how India’s batsmen have fared in Tests in 2018 vis-à-vis their career record. Rishabh Pant, Prithvi Shaw and Hanuma Vihari have not been included because they’ve just started out. Those for Shikhar Dhawan have been included to show how deep the predicament has been.
This is a tell-tale of how India’s top order batsmen have slumped this year, leading to setbacks for the team. Mind you, for some batsmen, these figures also include one Test against Afghanistan and two against West Indies at home, otherwise, it would read worse.
The point I want to make is that all else being the same (Kohli being in top form and the bowlers picking up wickets as regularly as they’ve done through the year) India would still struggle to beat Australia unless other batsmen come good.
On paper and by reputation, these are high-quality batsmen. And rich on experience too. Except for Shaw and Vihari, none from the top order has played for less than 5 years at the international level. Some like Pujara and Rohit have in fact been at the First-Class level for a decade or more.
Just as much as Kohli. But while the Indian captain has zoomed ahead, building on his innate ability to excel at the highest level and showing great capacity to lift his game when the situation gets more demanding, the others have either stagnated or begun to languish.
This could be temporary loss of form (though this can’t go on endlessly), some bad luck, stage fright because of the pressure of expectation or whatever. What’s unambiguous is that it has hurt India badly this year and could mar the team’s hopes over the next few weeks too.
This then, is the crux of the series, as I see it: India’s top order must come good. This means Vijay, Rahul, Rohit, Rahane will necessarily be under the microscope. To put it more bluntly, some careers are on the line.
Ajinkya RahaneCheteshwar PujaraFrom the press boxFrom The PressboxIndia vs Australia 2018kl rahulrohit sharmashikhar dhawanvirat kohli
First Published: December 6, 2018, 12:15 AM IST