Virat Kohli is natural successor to Dhoni

2013 Nov 25 by Suresh Menon

Now that Sachin has retired, Kohli, just two years old in the team, becomes the most experienced specialist batsman in the side. He has played just a tenth of Tendulkar's matches.

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By Suresh Menon

The poet T S Eliot once told a young writer who had achieved overnight fame that he might have gone about it the wrong way. Sometimes it is better, he said, if you begin by building concentric circles of serious readers. It guarantees a long career.

I don’t expect Virat Kohli to have read T S Eliot – he once famously tweeted his disregard for books – but he would understand the essence of that. After initial hiccups, he is settling in for the long haul. And that is crucial for Indian cricket.

The day before the first Test against the West Indies in Kolkata he turned 25, and now bears the double burden of being the No 1 one-day batsman in the world and the one chosen to succeed Sachin Tendulkar in India’s Test batting. Now that Sachin has retired, Kohli, just two years old in the team, becomes the most experienced specialist batsman in the side. He has played just a tenth of Tendulkar’s matches.

It has been an eventful two years. A debut series in the West Indies which saw him make 76 runs in five innings, was followed by a blossoming in Australia as a Test batsman with a century in Adelaide, and a dramatic rise in one-day cricket. He is already the best one-day batsman in the world, with an average of 52, a bag of 17 centuries and a reputation as the best finisher in the business. In any chase, nothing is lost till Kohli is out. If he plays as many matches as Tendulkar did, he would have rewritten all the Mumbai man’s records in that format.

Kohli took his time to establish himself at the highest level, and that will probably serve him well. As captain of a World Cup-winning Under-19 team, his entry into the big league was expected; what was not was his brashness. These were, of course, the reactions of a successful teenager who loved to party and the good things in life. Nothing wrong with that, if only people would understand. But they didn’t, and Kohli was a marked man, an enfant terrible who had to be shown his place. His foul-mouthed celebrations were threatening to overshadow his immense promise and remarkable all-round ability at the crease.

The legends grew – especially over the IPL tournaments. The determination with which he turned out to save a match for Delhi the day after he lost his father at 18 was quickly replaced by the stories from the late-night IPL parties.

The IPL probably honed his batting skills; it helped that he played under Anil Kumble and coach Ray Jennings who both understood the young mind and recognized when to read the riot act. Kumble called him the best Under-22 cricketer in the world. In the national team, there was the example of the two most calm men in the game – Rahul Dravid and Mahendra Singh Dhoni. The Royal Challengers Bangalore acknowledging his leadership skills made him captain; the Indian team let him develop at his pace, and left him largely alone. Both were remarkably mature reactions to the indiscretions of youth, and Kohli prospered under such care.

When he was anointed Wisden India’s Cricketer of the Year, Kohli said with genuine affection that he was honoured to be on the cover of the inaugural issue with “Rahul bhai”.

Success came swiftly and inevitably. His century in the World Cup opener of 2011 came faster than Virender Sehwag’s. That tournament ended with Kohli carrying Tendulkar on his shoulders and providing this memorable quote: “For so long has Sachin carried us on his shoulders, it was time, we carried him.”

In the two years since, Kohli has matured into a world class player in all forms of the game, a superb reader of game situations and the natural successor to Dhoni as India captain. He led the India team in Zimbabwe in Dhoni’s absence.

Two brilliant centuries, off 52 and 61 balls respectively – in the home ODI series against Australia - led to his elevation as the No. 1 batsman. There was no slogging; the aggression was founded on solid technique and a respect for the fundamentals.

But bigger tests lie ahead. Following the home series against the West Indies, India travel to South Africa, New Zealand and England, and that is when Kohli’s apprenticeship in a line-up led by Tendulkar is likely to be fully appreciated.

With Cheteswar Pujara, he forms the backbone of the Indian batting; his technique is sound, his bias for on-side play has been gradually replaced by a more all-round batsmanship, and above all he carries a remarkably mature head on those young shoulders.

Gone is the arrogant brat, and in his place is a young man with a rare self-awareness. T S Eliot’s line sums up the evolving Kohli wonderfully well: “We shall not cease from exploration…”