When Virat Kohli edged a wide Mitchell Starc delivery to Peter Handscomb at first slip a pin drop silence engulfed the Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium in Pune. It was as if all the air had been let out of a balloon as India fans watched their captain and hero walk back to the pavilion with the score reading 44/3. Only the whooping celebrations of Starc and the other Australians could be heard.
This phenomenon is not new in Indian cricket – Kohli’s predecessor at number four in India’s batting order used to have the same effect on Indian fans. Sachin Tendulkar used to walk out to the loudest cheers in India, and when dismissed you’d think the crowd had emptied the stadium in a heartbeat.
When Virender Sehwag or Rahul Dravid was dismissed fans were comforted in the thought they still had Sachin. Tendulkar’s dismissal had a deflating effect. In much the same vein modern Indian fans always have hope as long as Kohli is still at the crease, hence his dismissal for a first innings duck shocked and silenced the Indian crowd.
Now Kohli may not have reached the heights of Tendulkar just yet, but the similarities are there in both their effect on the crowd and their team, as well as the perceived over reliance on them to score runs for India to win matches.
It is no coincidence that India’s recent strong form has coincided with Kohli’s own sparkling form with the bat, scoring a double hundred in each of India’s last four series, all of which India won. Kohli was India’s leading run scorer in their comprehensive victory over England with 655 runs in the home side’s 4-0 triumph and when their best batsman is scoring runs, India are likely to be triumphant.
What will worry India is a growing trend of reliance on their captain Kohli making runs for the side to post strong totals and win games, in much the same manner they used to rely on Tendulkar to single handedly win games. In Kohli’s first match as captain, filling in for MS Dhoni in Adelaide in 2014, he struck a remarkable century as India attempted to chase Australia’s imposing 364 in the fourth innings. When Kohli holed out to Mitch Marsh at deep midwicket off Nathan Lyon for 141 he was the seventh wicket to fall with the score on 304. India and their fans were deflated, and the side collapsed to be all out for 315.
Kohli’s stunning innings in Adelaide reminded many Indian fans of a similarly great hundred which was ultimately in vain – when Sachin Tendulkar made 136 as India were bowled out for 258 chasing Pakistan’s 271 in Chennai in 1999. In Chennai, Tendulkar was also the seventh wicket to fall, with the score on 254.
For much of his career, especially the early part, India were dependent on Tendulkar scoring runs to give them a chance to win games in Test and ODI cricket as his batting partners consistently failed to keep up their end of the bargain. This dependence on one star player is showing signs of resurfacing with the present day team and Kohli.
In ODI cricket Kohli has made a name for himself as a master of the run chase, and India rely heavily on his skills when chasing big totals with 17 of his 27 ODI centuries coming in chases, 15 of them successful. Tendulkar scored 14 hundreds in successful run chases.
When Kohli failed in the semi-final of the last World Cup against Australia at the MCG, scoring only one run, India were unable to chase 328. In such a big game, no one was able to step into Kohli’s shoes as the king of the chase.
It appears the shudder that went through Indian fans when Starc removed Kohli in Pune may have also gone through his teammates as they folded for a paltry 105 in the first innings, handing over the ascendency to the Australians.
In India’s second innings if anyone was going to mount a fightback, it was going to be Kohli, and when he couldn’t, none of his teammates were able to stand up against Steve O’Keefe and Nathan Lyon running rampant on a turning wicket.
As India’s captain there is no doubt that Kohli is the team’s talisman with the bat, their leader, and the man that fans and teammates alike look up to for leadership and control of an innings. However India’s other batsmen, the likes of Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane, all talented and capable, need to find a way to step up and lead the way when their captain cannot.
Otherwise what was once an over reliance on Sachin Tendulkar, runs the risk of becoming the burden for India’s latest star at number four.