Virat Kohli
Indian batsman Virat Kohli

Mohali 2022 may herald new era of Indian cricket if Kohli passes the 'test'

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When Rohit Sharma and Dimuth Karunaratne exchange team sheets before the toss at the PCA Stadium in Mohali on March 4 (Friday), it will formalise Virat Kohli’s entry into the 100-Test club. The former skipper will become just the 12th Indian to feature in that elite, exclusive, select list, an accomplishment that testifies to his longevity and undisputed skills.

While Kohli stands as the exemplar of continuity and constancy, the absence of Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane from the same XI is indicative of the swirling winds of change sweeping through Indian Test cricket. Not since Rahane’s debut in March 2013 have India gone into a Test match without one or both of the stonewaller from Saurashtra and the more flamboyant Mumbaikar. If that doesn’t signal the end of an often-glorious past and the advent of a promising future, nothing else will.

First to Kohli, and a milestone moment in a career of dizzying heights and the occasional low. Unless he turned out to be his biggest enemy, it was clear as early as by 2008 that Kohli was cut out for great things. His batting was all steel, spunk and spark, his persona upbeat, aggressive and uncompromising. With India on the cusp of shedding customary diffidence and stepping confidently forward into a brave new world of hope and aspiration, Kohli shone through as the beacon, the cricketing inspiration from which a nation of a billion could derive energy and momentum.

For most of the 14 years since, Kohli has seldom disappointed. His willow has produced the kind of music that has evoked ecstasy in the connoisseur and delight in the commoner alike. Steeped in orthodoxy, his batting has appealed as much to the traditionalist as to the peppy youngster who has forsaken the conventional and embraced the unorthodox. Except Sachin Tendulkar, no one has touched the chords of so many with such telling effect for so long as the mercurial right-hander from Delhi, an arresting fusion of brawn and brain.

Among Kohli’s many commendable traits is his utter and total devotion to the cause of Test cricket. At a time when the five-day game, which has stood the test of time for nearly a century and a half, was gasping for oxygen, Kohli infused fresh life with his repeated and passionate pronouncements about its purity and primacy. That he wasn’t merely paying lip service became evident early in his captaincy career. He viewed Test cricket as a symbol of opportunity, not a millstone around the neck. Kohli reshaped India’s Test approach; the draw was no longer an option. The first, and only, goal was victory. If, in its pursuit, the team occasionally courted defeat, he made his peace with that.

To get a young bunch and a conservative nation to buy into his school of thought was one of Kohli’s biggest successes. Brave new India loved the aggression of its cricket captain, it related to the quest to become the best even if it meant stumbling over the occasional too-steep-a-mountain from time to time. It didn’t hurt that Kohli himself was at the batting forefront of this revolution, scoring attractive, authoritative and meaningful runs by the bushel and setting the stage for his bowlers to step up and deliver the knockout punch.

Kohli’s emphasis on fitness, team above self and a pace attack capable of giving back as good as India got away from home are nothing if not an open secret. From No. 7 in the Test rankings when he took charge in January 2015 to No. 1 a little over a year and a half later testified to the method behind Kohli’s madness, however unsettling that might have been to the proven performers sacrificed at the altar of horse for courses.

Now no longer the captain in even one format – and not necessarily by choice – Kohli faces the biggest test of his fabulously storied career. He is the senior statesman, expected to not just shore up the batting but also integrate the less experienced batsmen tasked with filling the once gargantuan but subsequently shrunk shoes of Pujara and Rahane. His own bat has been AWOL for two and a quarter years. How he tackles the twin challenges of rediscovering his touch and allowing the newcomers around him to grow into their roles should make for fascinating viewing.

These newcomers – Shubman Gill, Hanuma Vihari and Shreyas Iyer – have served their apprenticeship. They might feel their time in the sun should have come earlier and it’s hard to argue with that, given how feeble Pujara and Rahane’s returns have been in the last 26 months. If there is some consolation, it is in the fact that it is harder to break into the Indian Test XI than stay there, and under the new management group of all-format skipper Rohit Sharma and head coach Rahul Dravid, these men can expect a long rope and a surfeit of opportunities.

Each of this trio has reiterated the value they bring to the Test set-up in the sporadic chances to showcase their skills. They deserve a rope at least half as long as the ones accorded Pujara and Rahane, who have every reason to wonder if they have both played their last Test match.

In 2022, beyond the two games against Sri Lanka, India are scheduled to play the postponed Test of last year in England in July and two further matches in Bangladesh in the winter. Not even a mountain of Ranji Trophy runs – only one of Mumbai or Saurashtra will progress to the knockouts – will open the door back to the Test side for Rahane and/or Pujara unless the think-tank forsakes consistency in selection. That means for the immediate future, the likes of Gill, Vihari and Iyer don’t need to look over their shoulders unless it is at the little red orb hurtling towards them.

In more ways than one, Mohali 2022 will signal the start of a new chapter in Indian Test history. Only time will tell how glorious that turns out to be.

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