Virat Kohli and his teammates in Hamilton, New Zealand, January 2020 (Photo: AP)
Late last year, just before the start of the India-Australia Test series, former Australian cricketer and once controversial India coach Greg Chappell, who has long keenly observed cricket in this part of the world, described Virat Kohli as “the most Australian non-Australian cricketer of all time.”
As an international cricketer, Kohli has now travelled to Australia four times. And there has been no country where the image of a modern cricketer has gone through such a turnaround. From the 2011-2012 series where a young Kohli got on the nerves of spectators like no modern cricketer has, flipping the bird, cursing often, and even getting fined for his conduct, and where as a batsman, save for the last Test, he appeared as if he did not even belong at this level. To the next series, where he put in one spellbinding performance after another, and then one after that, where he led India to its first ever series win on Australian soil, and that same crowd which booed him, began to cheer for him as a cricketer built in the same mould as their own.
Australian cricketers pride themselves on the passion they exhibit on the field, a kind of combativeness that both animates and, occasionally, threatens the game. And in Kohli, so unlike any Indian cricketer to have visited that country, Chappell and the rest of his country see an Australian in Indian colours. Kohli, however, was quick to dismiss Chappell’s suggestion. He wasn’t Australian, he said shortly afterwards. Just the representation of a new India.
Which begs the question: just what exactly is this ‘new India’? How different are he and his colleagues from those that played, say, at the start of this century? Is Kohli a radical departure, if not in his skills, then at least in temperament from the era of the equally gifted but staid and dour personalities like Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid? And when exactly did this new India arrive on the cricket field? Did it start with Kohli, or did it move incrementally, from his forebears at the Lord’s team balcony when Sourav Ganguly infamously removed his shirt, through the era of the cricketer superstar from the hinterlands, MS Dhoni, and now to him?
It would be foolhardy to say which of the eras was more gifted, but there is a noticeable ease with which the current team under Kohli moves through the world. Even though many will point out that their achievements are limited, there appears to be little doubt in their minds about their newness, their special place in history. This has also coincided—and there is certainly a link here—with India becoming the undisputed nerve centre of cricket in the world.
The team has had its special moments—Test wins in England and South Africa, and most of all, the series win against Australia two years earlier. But this team, led by coach Ravi Shastri, has often been too quick to describe itself as the best ever Indian team, earning its members some deserved opprobrium.
When the Adelaide Test disaster unfolded where India fell to its lowest innings total of 36 runs, it appeared yet again proof of this team’s misplaced opinion of itself. This wasn’t a new India, it wasn’t even an old one. Had cricket come to an end last year on December 19th, there would have been no choice but to review the calendar year, even one so severely truncated, as one of the most humiliating ones for Indian cricket. It is not every day that an international team, let alone one so fancied as this Indian team, gets blown away in a single session, reduced to an inter-school-like innings score. All that would be remembered of 2020 for Indian cricket would be that scorecard, that string of soul-crushing single-digit scores registered against such fancied multimillionaire cricketers. The force of that humiliation was just so much.
And yet this is not how the year ended. Just a few days later, the team submitted proof of just why it believes it is so different from the teams that came before it.
Missing its best batsman and captain, several of its first-choice bowlers and team regulars, led by the performances of two men not particularly favoured over the last few years (Ajinkya Rahane and R Ashwin) and a support cast of debutantes, this team crafted one of its finest moments in Melbourne. It wasn’t just that they crushed Australia, but that they bore no bruises of the past few days, carried no doubts, no wounds.
The performance had the ring of a newness. If they threatened briefly with Indian cricket’s worst on-field moment, days later, at the cusp of a new year, they presented it with hope. And hope, of course, is something that has been in short supply everywhere lately.
2020 has been an unusual year for cricket. The most remarkable thing about cricket in the year was that it took place at all. Tournaments were called off and postponed; there were the unusual sights of empty stadiums, virtual fans, pre-recorded audience noises; and for the first time, even Kohli went without making a single century in a calendar year. The pandemic has also ushered in several crises. Before Covid struck, a women’s T20 World Cup had just been held—where Australia defeated India at a packed Melbourne Cricket Ground—with such success that it was felt it would lead to a deeper interest in the women’s game. But then the pandemic struck and its after-effects continue in the women’s format, with most boards moving laggardly over reinstituting women’s games. Then there has been the churn—going on for some time—where the inequities between the wealthier and poorer boards have been growing sharper, and the market becoming overwhelmingly more interested in short-format matches over the more prestigious Test format. Covid has hastened these processes. Uday Shankar, the man responsible for much of the boom that we see in modern cricket today, when stepping down from his post of chairman at Star & Disney India last year, warned that the current global model of cricket is unsustainable. The market, he told a media outlet, is interested in short-format cricket, and just a few Test matches that feature the Big Three of India, Australia and England. The rest of cricket as it functions today with its many bilateral cricket matches “make no sense”. “While a lot of things will come back to normal after the pandemic is over,” he warned, “a lot of things will never come back to normal.”
The performance had the ring of a newness. If they threatened briefly with Indian cricket’s worst on-field moment, days later, at the cusp of a new year, they presented it with hope. And hope, of course, is something that has been in short supply everywhere lately
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For the Indian cricket team, the pandemic cut short a year when the team was expected to deliver on its promise of a new India. It had gone through 2019 reaching so close to a World Cup, and then failing miserably. 2020 with its T20 World Cup was expected to provide this team’s redemption. But then the pandemic struck, and this tournament, like many others, got pushed aside.
We now enter a new year, with the team poised at what could be a breakthrough moment. A series victory against Australia, if achieved, would not be its first. But to achieve it without its best batsman and usual captain, and its frontline seamers against a near-full strength Australia, would eclipse even the achievements of the last series. Even a series draw, accompanied by fighting performances like the one seen during the Melbourne Test, would be commendable and propel the team to what should be an eventful year.
For, 2021 could be the year that sealed just how we remember this team. With cricket now returning to full steam, a tough and promising calendar—made more arduous by the pressures of biosecurity protocols—the team now travels to Sri Lanka, perhaps even to Zimbabwe, along with hosting several matches in India, including a strong English side. But among the most important ones would be the team’s tour of England, where India will believe it can provide a far superior account of itself than the 3-1 drubbing it was subjected to two years ago and where it copped a lot of ridicule for suggesting it was the best touring Indian team in the last two decades. There is also a tour to South Africa at the end of the year where, given the recent poor form of the hosts, India will fancy its chances of registering its first Test series win on South African soil.
And then somewhere between these tournaments in October and November, India will host the T20 World Cup. If there is one thing that remains conspicuous by its absence in the team cabinet, it is the ICC trophy. Kohli, for all his greatness in limited overs’ cricket, has never been able to win an ICC tournament. He came close in 2019 with the 50-over World Cup, but blew his chance with what he called “45 minutes of bad cricket”. Could 2021 be the year when he would finally prove that this indeed was a new India?
Most of the team’s core members are approaching what is often categorised as a cricketer’s peak. Kohli is now 32—a father to boot. Rohit Sharma, another father, is 33. Rahane, Ashwin, Jadeja, Mohammad Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, and a host of others are in their early 30s or just touching 30. It is the onset of early middle age. A time when cricketers’ bodies retain the suppleness of youth, their eyes and hands as sharp as ever, while their minds become mature and calmer. Another four years or so, and time begins to chip at these strengths. And a deterioration follows inevitably.
Could Kohli and his colleagues use this prime, bang in the middle of a time when the world went topsy-turvy, to convince us once and forever of their special place in history?