Wednesday 19 January 2022

Why Kohli's exit is a tragedy test cricket didn't deserve


Contrary to popular perception, test cricket is not doing great, and I'm not even looking beyond the 'Big Three' because it's too dark out there. 

The latest edition of test cricket's hottest property, the Ashes, proved a damp squib, and if England escaped a whitewash, it was solely because of Pat Cummins' inexperience as test captain, particularly the declaration aspect of the job. 

The timing naturally could not have been worse for test cricket's most charismatic leader to step aside after his futile feud with the men in charge of Indian cricket. And, for lack of clarity, we can only surmise who, between the two main antagonists, would have come out of a lie-detector test with his reputation intact. 

The lament is how circumstances, for want of a better word, robbed test cricket of its biggest champion. Cricket's longest format needed Kohli the captain more than Kohli the batsman. A batter can raise the batsmanship bar; a captain can rejuvenate an entire format. Kohli did both, but at least we still have Kohli the batsman. 

Test cricket's main ailment is it often lacks drama despite being the drama-friendliest format and Kohli leading India was a compelling theatre. Think Bangalore (2017), Jo'burg, Nottingham and Adelaide (2018), and Lord's (2021). 

Thrust into the role, Kohli burned with passion as if it was the only thing he knew. Test cricket would transform from funereal to frenetic with him orchestrating it. Kohli the captain was box office. 

He made test cricket 'cool', lending it a glamour that brash T20 leagues consider their birthright and modest ODIs can expect only during the World Cups. 

The extraordinary thing about Kohli's captaincy was it guaranteed mass participation of the game's stakeholders. He kept everyone on their toes: team mates, oppositions, umpires, match referees and, SuperSport will vouch for this, even the broadcasters. 

It's hard to imagine a test captain who had so much of influence across the board. 

And then his relentless push for victory. As test captain, Kohli didn't faf around. Draws, like his once-favourite butter chicken, didn't interest him. More than he loved winning, one suspects, he loathed losing. He hated, almost resented, being the first captain called to the presentation ceremony. And it showed. 

For anyone who has followed his career, it's not difficult to understand. You send Kohli to win a battle, not to negotiate a truce. He was that kind of a captain. 

As captain, his biggest contribution, however, was to address the disconnect between test cricket and its dwindling fans. He prevented an exodus of fans, winning them back from the lure of T20 cricket. And he did it by replicating the intensity of T20 cricket. 

Kohli spiced up the usually-bland experience of viewing test cricket. For anyone watching him, neutrality was no more an option. He made you feel it was your duty to do everything a fan of the game could to further his mission or derail it. You were either with him or against him. 

And this in a format often accused, not without reasons, of alienating, even if unwittingly, the cricketing hoi polloi. Test cricket lacks passion, probably even discourages it. While I don't advocate changing the colour, no wonder it mandates the players wear white. 

One always got the impression that Kohli's captaincy was truer to his Delhi roots in the sense there was nothing half-hearted about it. Sehwag's batting once bore it, and it's unmissable in Pant's batting now. 

No wonder Pant is talked about as a future leader. 

Pix courtesy: Virat Kohli's Twitter handle