Virat Kohli and his generation of cricketers deserve an apology. The purists and paranoid — read the Test tragics — got it wrong. However, they had their reasons to doubt the priorities of the international cricketers, born in the late 80s. That brash bunch, the new mutated species born into the T20 experiment, wasn’t easy on the eye. They had tattoos, dishevelled hairstyles, scruffy beards and millions in their banks before they turned 21. They were more like footballers than the cricketers they were replacing in the national team. They ran like athletes, were as lithe as swimmers, dived around the field like gymnasts and swore like ruggers. They were so different from India’s long-time sweethearts, Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly, Laxman, Kumble.
It was either loyalty to the just-retired legends or stubborn resistance to move with the times, but it took a while to warm up to the cricketers with boy-band looks. Their IPL success was dismissed as a frivolous achievement in a slam-bang format. Even their ODI runs were taken with a pinch of salt. Most accolades came with a rider. What about the Tests? Do they have the drive to do well in the game’s toughest form? Can they continue the legacy of the golden generation that had gradually started to improve India’s abysmal away record?
But 2016 will go down in Indian cricket history as not just a “break-through year”, but also the year when T20 was absolved of all charges in the “death of Test cricket” case. India’s latest Test triumph, that saw them win the series against England 4-0, and extended their undefeated run to 18, has changed opinions, answered questions and busted myths.
Kohli’s Team India proved that they pursue Test wins as passionately as they chase IPL triumphs. The skipper led the way in showing the world that there happens to be a “template” of batsmanship that suits all formats. Whether it’s an evening outing in coloured clothes or a five-day grind in flannels, Kohli always carries his spotless technique to the central square. This generic approach to batting made celebrated cricket writer Gideon Haigh quip, “Much as the marketers would love to take cricket out of T20, Kohli keeps putting it back in.”
Players like Kohli are forcing a rethink. T20 might actually not be the villain it is made out to be. It’s not the parasite that is eating up Test cricket. Kohli suggests the possibility that the two formats can have a healthy symbiotic arrangement. Further stressing this point are others in Kohli’s team who bring a bit of T20 to the Tests. There is the young Karun Nair who famously reverse-swept his way to a triple hundred. The world has noticed him now, but regulars on the domestic cricket scene know him as the batsman who scored a triple hundred in the Ranji Trophy final last year. This was followed by a terrific IPL season with Delhi Daredevils. For someone so raw, he too has cracked the five-day match code. He wore flannels — with an IPL vest inside.
Then there’s Ravindra Jadeja, a product of the IPL-fuelled cricket ecosystem who became a “rock star” in his first season with Shane Warne’s Rajasthan Royals. For a long time, he was dismissed as a uni-dimensional bowler who bowled flat, a style more suited for the shorter version. With time, as he showed at Chennai the other day, he has evolved a bowling approach that works in all formats. Like Kohli, he too has mastered the minor tweak when he switches from one format to another.
It is this adaptability that makes one believe Kohli’s end of the series comments about the 4-0 win against England being merely the foundation: “It’s just the beginning. It’s nothing compared to what we want to achieve. It’s not even a tiny bit of that,” he said. The young and ambitious captain didn’t spell it out but he knows there remains a rider. Can Kohli and his young team do well abroad?
Quite probably, they can. Remember, lending this team a helping hand and the benefit of their wisdom are a couple of old pros. Coach Anil Kumble showed that India can win even when the ball isn’t turning square and even when Kohli isn’t winning the toss. Rahul Dravid, as junior and India A coach, ensured that every newcomer was well-groomed and Test-ready. Kumble and Dravid are back to complete an unfinished project. They can make India dominate teams abroad. It’s tough but you’d better start believing these boys with dishevelled hair and scruffy beards.