Twenty thousand international runs in a decade (2010s), along with 43 ODI hundreds therein – Virat Kohli is a modern-day marvel. Break these statistics down whichever way you like, as per formats, or scoring patterns, or conditions, or opponents, or whatever else, he is peerless. There aren’t enough words to describe his run-scoring genius.
Perhaps, the best compliment to Kohli today isn’t in admiring his mountain of runs, or his awe-inducing timing, or the stunning ability to play every stroke in the book, or indeed inventing new strokes as he exceeds himself. No, it is in admiring how he builds an innings, playing the situation, always aware of what the team needs and what hurts the opposition most.
You only have to look back at the World Cup games against Afghanistan or West Indies, wherein Kohli’s dismissal would have triggered a disastrous batting collapse. Instead, we witnessed two phenomenal half-centuries, playing the conditions, the situations, the bowlers, breaking them down to every delivery, every run, as he pulled out the Indian innings from discomfort.
Kohli comes to the crease, and looks to milk the bowling. He soaks in what is going around him; he is intensely plugged into the situation, and adapts as per situation or conditions. If the bowlers are on top, he plays out that passage of play, for he knows that the runs will come easier later on. This is a set template for him in every game, irrespective of the format. If it applied to those World Cup games, it also applies to the second and third ODIs in Port of Spain as he took India to a 2-0 winning score-line.
Talent is useful, albeit it needs to be harnessed with hard work. Sweat and toil in the nets though will only get you so far. When the game comes at you hard and fast in the middle, you need to be able to replicate all your ability, and all your learning, in real-time. How often you are able to do so is the defining parameter between good and great players and subsequently between great and greatest players.
Kohli certainly belongs to that ‘greatest’ club. This is his era, and yet, with the end of an ODI cycle with the 2019 World Cup, another time-period has started. It will lead us to the next World Cup, in India in 2023, when Kohli’s era might be coming to an end. Indian cricket already knows which batsmen it will be looking up to in a bid to replace its current superstar – Rishabh Pant. Add another name here – Shreyas Iyer.
In that light, this just-concluded ODI series doesn’t really have a great import. Except, it heralds the coming together of these two young batsmen, whose future paths seem entwined. And their contrasting fortunes are what this short series (which India won 2-0 win) will be remembered for.
There is no doubt that Pant, for all his natural talent, will be afforded a long rope like the one given to Rohit Sharma. Look at the latter today – he is a world-beating batsman in white-ball cricket, while still trying to form an impression in the longer format. For Pant, it is the opposite at present – he has impressed with the bat in Tests, whilst struggling in the shorter formats.
The inherent problem, currently lies in his attacking instinct. An additional problem is his age. The second one often comes out for defence when the first one lets him down. In his last three ODI innings, Pant has got out to ugly shots, two of them wild slogs, one of them costing India a spot in the World Cup final. He will learn, rest assured, but will that learning process be quick? On current evidence – his wild heave off first ball when India had just lost Shikhar Dhawan (on Wednesday) was horrendous to watch – the answer seems to be no.
For Iyer, the road has been different. He is donning the international colours for a first time since December 2017, when he was side lined unfairly. That decision rankles him, although it wasn’t entirely wrong. The Indian team management decided they had better options for the 2019 World Cup, and perhaps Iyer was too young (or raw) to be given that humongous number four responsibility. That, clearly, is no longer the case.
In the last 18 months, Iyer has gone back to the drawing board and done what he does best. He has accumulated runs in the Indian domestic wilderness, gained maturity playing for India-A and added leadership experience whilst captaining Delhi Capitals. All of it adds to a calmer head on his shoulders and during this short series, it reflected in Iyer’s game.
Moreover, twice in two matches, he has cleaned up Pant’s mess. In the second ODI, batting first, it was a matter of rebuilding the innings after India lost Dhawan and Pant quickly. In the third ODI, chasing a DLS score, it was a matter of keeping abreast with the asking rate after India lost Dhawan and Pant quickly. In both instances, Iyer showed wherewithal to start slow, rotate strike, then bringing out the big guns when settled, and built match-winning partnerships with Kohli.
It is pertinent to say that Iyer played to the situation, and allowed sufficient respect to the opposition when it mattered. In that, he replicated Kohli’s template. If only Pant had done so, he would have probably cemented his place at number four, a debate that has been desperately begging him for an end.
Iyer, meanwhile, silently went about his job and has now given fresh ideas to the team management when the next ODI series rolls by in December (also against West Indies).