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New year, new challenges await evolving Virat Kohli

By Jayanta Oinam | Last Updated: Sunday, January 10, 2016 - 20:38
 
Jayanta Oinam
For the Game
 

After his meteoric rise in the last couple of years, Virat Kohli at 27, is in the midst of creating a legacy so big that he will need to reinvent himself from time to time, just to keep apace with himself.

As the captain of Indian Test team, which registered back-to-back series wins in Sri Lanka and against South Africa, Kohli left behind every other Indian sportsperson in terms of popularity in 2015. Despite going through a relatively lean phase on an individual front, his profile nonetheless found a sustained makeover – that of a superstar – thanks to his overall marketability, not merely as a flamboyant and opinionated cricketer but also as a youth icon with a plethora of interests.

His rise to the superstardom, in a way, was a direct result of cricket being the favourite pastime in a country that seems to have just realized the many possibilities that sports can bring into a society. The spurt of many franchise-based tournaments, a la cricket's own Indian Premier League (IPL), with global star casts coincided with the coming of Indian youth to the fore, a group which directly caters or responds to the likes of Kohli and his ilk.

And like many of his contemporaries from other fields, it will be a tough task for the young leader to maintain the charm and success, and be the cynosure of his creed. Reason being, these larger than life figures also tend to succumb to pressures, as each one of them carries a huge burden that we mere mortals often fail to realize the weight on their respective shoulders.

That being said, considering the present set-up, and turn of events, it will take a calamitous year for Kohli to lose his shine so soon. That's how he is different from others. However, it still takes only a small step to ruin the whole passage.

In this long and winding road of uncertainties, his first challenge is the upcoming tour of Australia [READ: Schedule and squads]. An earnest challenge for an earnest cricketer, who loves challenges.

After leading the team to two series wins in his first attempt as the full-time captain, he has garnered a seemingly limitless praise for those successes. Then, suddenly he will take the back-seat in the Australia series, and at least for four months till the end of 2016 ICC World Twenty20, he will be under the shadow of Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

An aggressive character like Kohli, especially after tasting the captaincy success, will find it personally hard to be someone's deputy. He has played under Dhoni more recently during the South Africa series. And there's no visible signs of crack which demands immediate reassessment on our understanding of the relationship between the two captains.

But the fact is, they are two contrasting personalities, and with different preferences. Both know it too well and respect the difference. That's the beauty of their relationship, despite instances of widely reported 'verbal spats'. As teammates, they do exceptionally well, all for the cause of Indian team.

However, the change of format and also the leadership roles in Australia will put Kohli in a new perspective. How well the 27-year-old will cope with this change is a matter of conjecture, at least for now. But considering the talent that he carries, and the love he professes for the game and country, many would expect the Delhi cricketer to deliver.

The Australian tour also holds special importance for Kohli for two simple reasons. First, with the likely retirement of Dhoni after the 2016 ICC World Twenty20 in March-April, Kohli is almost certain to replace the 34-year-old at the helm of limited overs set-up too.

Any negative rating during the tour will jeopardize his chances. In such a situation, the wise men at the corridors of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) will not hesitate to limit Kohli's influence in the team. Cricket, like any other field of human endeavor, is also about image that one wants to leave behind after we are long gone.

Here, Kohli's love-hate relationship with the Aussies, especially the Oz media, in all likelihood will once again take centre stage.

Second, for obvious reasons, is his performance. It directly links to the team's preparation for the World Twenty20. Kohli has been the mainstay of Indian batting in all three formats of the game. But looking back, 2015 was a rather ordinary year for Kohli the batsman.

By his own lofty standards, he was expected to score in abundance. But the year proved to be a dull one. It was relatively better in Tests though. He scored 640 runs in 15 Test innings at an average of 42.67.

After stealing the limelight in the previous years, the right-handed batsman scored 623 runs 20 ODI outings last year, at an average of 36.65, with two centuries. By any standard, it's still a respectable output. But for him, it's below par.

In contrast, he scored 1054 runs in 20 ODI innings at an average of more than 52, with four hundreds in 2014. After making his ODI debut in 2011, his rise as one of the best batsman has been accentuated by consistency.

For a batsman of his caliber and who has already been anointed as the new king of Indian cricket, 2015 would still go down as a lackluster year for him with the bat. And as a matter of fact, it's the year in which the cricket world witnessed the birth of a new leader in him.

Rightly so, the BCCI named him the Cricketer of the Year. His spirited leadership which at times bordered on over enthusiasm – at least to skeptics, certainly helped India conquer Sri Lanka on home soil in Tests after 22 long years. It was backed up with another series win over the top-ranked Test side and probably the best travelling team in South Africa.

For no foolish reasons, he is being compared to Sachin Tendulkar – the standard to which batting brilliance will be measured in the sport. Kohli's career ODI average of over 50 is phenomenal and his tally of 23 hundreds [READ: Kohli's complete list of ODI centuries] in 158 innings is already the fifth most in the all-time records, ahead of many legends.

In the midst of team success, his batting form seems to have waned.

Despite the slump in his scoring form, Kohli started the new year as the second-ranked ODI batsman behind South Africa's AB de Villiers. But individual rankings in a team sport often tell ludicrous stories.

India's recent flop against South Africa in both the limited overs series was indeed a true reflection to this fact. If India are to avoid a similar drubbing Down Under, India will need the real Kohli, who not only compiles centuries but also wins matches.

Kohli did his part in the five-match ODI series, but the team failed. His aggregate of 245 runs was sixth best, after de Villiers (358), Faf du Plessis (323), Quinton de Kock (318), Rohit Sharma (255) and Ajinkya Rahane (247).

Especially with the decline of Dhoni as the finisher, and the absence of Suresh Raina in the midst of batting uncertainties, Kohli's role will be even more defining in the Indian ODI camp. That being said, it will be sheer foolishness to ignore the talents of other Indian batsmen, but Kohli has been the heralded one. If he clicks, the team also clicks. And that's what separates match winners from contributors.

That's why India need Kohli to forget the captaincy rumblings, and focus on his individual performances. With the World T20 [READ: Full schedule] happening in India in the first half of the year, and with no Test engagement ahead of the tournament, Kohli can feast on the limited overs.

First Published: Saturday, January 9, 2016 - 17:10

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