Back in 2011, when Team India toured the West Indies after a successful World Cup campaign, a young Delhi batsman- a surprise pick in the World Cup squad- was still figuring out his way around a cricket ball.
During the 5-match ODI series, while I watched some of the games with an analytical friend, there were a few moments I will not forget. This was the series where Rohit Sharma had decided to put his non-selection worries behind him, and come of age as an ODI batsman. That he is still trying to come of age even as we speak, is a different story. But he found a zen-like calm within himself while facing the likes of Edwards, Roach, Sammy and Rampaul that has been missing since.
But the moments I remember are limited to Virat Kohli’s footwork. The friend commented, atleast twice during the series, about how this boy consistently stuck his front foot across the line of the ball before deciding to execute his shot. His head wasn’t still, the front foot was a sitting duck for LBWs and outside edges, and the moving or low ball was given no contemplation whatsoever. Even though Virat scored a few 50s in the series, his inconsistency was down to the fact that his technique on less-than-Indian pitches was highly predetermined and flawed. It was a habit he had to get rid of, and fast, because he had just failed in his first Test Series against the West Indians. Early days, but some errors are difficult to look through. His flicks, that are so crisp and confident right now, were missing its targets altogether, and his bat swing resembled an arc (coming down from second slip) that went around Ranatunga’s waist.
Fast forward to 2012, where India found itself in between another miserable Away Test Series. Calls were ripe for young Virat’s head, after 2 failed Test matches, and for Rohit Sharma to make the team at Perth. Trial by fire, our best option, for the talented Mumbai batsman. But Dhoni decided to give Virat one more chance, his toughest till date, at the WACA. While the entire team imploded around him, nobody will forget the hot-headed kid giving it back to the Aussies after scrambling for a suicidal single on 99. If there was ever to be a career-changing moment, an epiphany for a gritty middle-order player that never looked better than above-average, this was to be it.
The rest is history. After the Perth century, Virat Kohli has gone from becoming the ‘promising young talent’ to the ‘best young batsman in the world’ to, quite simply, ‘the best contemporary batsman in World Cricket’. His consistency, which he once lacked, astounds the best of them- and my friend, who smirked at the way he served LBWs on a platter to an inexperienced West Indian bowling line up, is now one of his biggest fans. While he wanted Rohit Sharma to succeed back then, in order to secure a bright future for Indian cricket, he does NOT want Virat Kohli to fail anymore. Because a failure, right now, has become as rare as an assured cover-drive by him back then. He had the grit, but he lacked the talent- in complete antithesis to the man he has replaced and almost destroyed, Rohit Sharma. It is unfair to use the word ‘destroyed’, because Rohit was given a few opportunities to succeed after that. But Virat took the coveted no. 3 spot in ODIs, a spot that was to be Rohit’s- a spot that would have atleast seen Rohit bat a few more overs in order to give his fans the statistics they craved for. But now, as a finisher, in the lower middle-order, it’s always hit-or-miss for Rohit, while Virat makes merry at the top- making the absolute most of his opportunities and not looking back.
Nobody in their right mind expected Kohli to play Test Cricket and adjust to it as soon as he did. Dravid, happy by what he saw in 2 Australian matches, retired in peace. Laxman, left with no choice, left the game hoping that Virat Kohli symbolizes the new batting brood in Indian cricket. Time will tell, if Virat is destined to be the Tendulkar of the 90s, or Dravid at the turn of the century.
Atleast two of his ODI centuries (Pakistan, Sri Lanka) are already considered some of the greatest limited over innings ever played. He is only 23. His debut Perth century will go down as one of the bravest efforts, taking into consideration the situation he found himself in. He will, in all probability, end up as the highest scorer for India in the 2012 T20 World Cup. But the seeds were sown few weeks before the West Indian failure, and months before the Perth exam. A glimpse was visible, not during his World Cup century against Bangladesh, but in the World Cup Final- where he bravely held it together, under insane pressure, after Sehwag and Tendulkar had departed quickly to leave India in great trouble. His smart 30-odd has been forgotten, but ask Gambhir what it meant- and he will tell you that it will go down as one of the most precious much-needed cameos in th context of the game, and in the history of Indian Cricket. After which Dhoni could afford to come in and steal the limelight. Forever.
But repeated whispers about how this youngster is making the most of his ‘purple patch’ seem to sound preposterous with every day. Because, after a while, you have got to stop and think, just like we were forced to with Ricky Ponting from 2004 to 2007- IS this just a purple patch? Is this just GREAT form? Or is this much more, is this just pure confident fearless ability, combined with talent and determination?
Right now, Virat Kohli seems to be swinging towards the latter, sealing his place as not just a form-invader but as a modern-time great with tremendous ability and strokeplay. What’s more, he doesn’t look like failing anymore.
Atleast not for an entire innings.