“It is great to be blonde,” remarked Pamela Anderson of Baywatch fame. “With low expectations it’s very easy to surprise people.” She was right. One way of exceeding expectations is for them to be set low in the first place. Yet, the opposite is also true: with high expectations it’s very easy to disappoint people.
Those of us who ardently follow sport have all had instances of acute disappointment. Just like most of Jamaica, Brazil is my favourite international football team. They are usually excellent, with some of the most highly skilled players in the game among their ranks, and so the letdown is intense every time they fail to win the World Cup.
We all have, at one time or another, invested our hopes in some team or some player, only to be left utterly dejected when they fail. More often than not, we have supreme confidence, bordering on certainty, that our team or our favourite athlete will prevail, and that is why the pain can be so severe when they lose.
Virat Kohli went into the 2014 England series in reasonably good form. He scored two centuries in four Tests prior to the series and was ready to cement his place as India’s premier batsman. Expectations were therefore very high. The near-universal belief amongst Indian fans was that Kohli would put the English bowlers to the sword, thereby establishing himself as the worthy successor to the extraordinary Sachin Tendulkar.
But, then the unforeseen happened. Instead of running riot, Kohli’s bat was becalmed. In 10 innings, he would score just 134 runs with a top-score of 39 and at an average of 13.4. India’s batting star, on whom much of their possibilities rested, contributed little to his team’s well-being. He was a remarkable disappointment, and those who had waited for him to conquer England had to suck up the disenchantment.
Wilton St Hill was a very highly-rated West Indian batsman of the early 1900s. Cricket historian CLR James wrote in Beyond A Boundary that St Hill’s worshippers in Trinidad were all eager to see their hero do well in England. “You know what I waitin’ for?” one reported to James, “when he go to Lord’s and the Oval and make his century there! That’s what I want to see.”
St Hill got the opportunity to do just that when he was chosen for the 1928 tour of England after scoring loads of runs in the trial games. But in England he failed. “The rest should be silence,” James said, himself a huge fan of the batsman. “He was a horrible, disastrous, an incredible, failure, the greatest failure who ever came out of the West Indies.”
Kohli’s 2014 failings might not have engendered the same depth of emotions, but his fans were undoubtedly hurt. But, while 1928 represented St Hill’s final opportunity to shine in England, Kohli should have a few more, including this coming series which begins in Birmingham on Wednesday.
Failure in England left James and others uncertain as to how good St Hill really was. He was a batting maestro in the Caribbean. Still, nobody knew if he had what it took to cope in English conditions against English bowlers.
Fast bowling great Michael Holding also spoke for others when he said that he won’t consider India’s captain great until he makes runs in England. “He is a very, very good player,” the Jamaican said. “When I see him score runs in England, I would call him a great player. I like people who score runs everywhere. He is an extremely good player.”
England’s greener surfaces and more lush grounds mean that lateral movement plays a bigger part in games than it does in most other places. The ball ages more reluctantly, facilitating seam movement and conventional swing for longer periods. It suits batsmen, therefore, to come armed with a tight defence when visiting there.
And yet different conditions require different methods. An ability to negotiate the turning ball, for example, is normally helpful in the subcontinent where the ball sometimes turns square, where spinners frequently open the bowling. Success or failure in England should not carry more weight than success or failure elsewhere.
Furthermore, early failure is often a learning experience. Some time ago Kohli informed us that the 2014 tour led to him becoming “a really improved cricketer.” He went on, “I can put it very simply as that was a phase I didn't perform very well and it happened to be England. Could have been any other country in the world.”
Kohli went home from that that tour and confronted the weaknesses that led to his failure. He worked with Tendulkar, made adjustments to his technique, and went on to become the game’s most compelling batsman over all three formats.
He is, today, widely considered more accomplished than he was in 2014. This means that far from being diminished, the expectations are higher this time round. Failure then, if it again occurs, will be substantially more depressing. Now captain, Kohli has grown more mature since his last Test series in England, and is therefore better prepared to respond to and overcome the challenges he is likely to face.
But being better prepared offers no guarantee of success. Kohli will be a prime target of James Anderson, Stuart Broad, and the rest of the English bowling unit, and he will need to be at the top of his game to repel the onslaughts of such highly skilled bowlers, operating in helpful home conditions.
And yet it is difficult to envision him failing so badly again. He is now much too good a player for that.