Imagine Afghanistan’s jubilation at being invited to play their maiden Test against India this summer. This is a team that has overcome immense roadblocks to reach where they are today, and it is only fitting that their entry into the longer format is against the undisputed No 1 side.
Imagine though, their disappointment at news that quite a few Indian Test cricketers will be missing this match starting in Bengaluru on June 14. Virat Kohli has reportedly lined up a stint with Surrey, Ishant Sharma might be featuring for Sussex, while the likes of Murali Vijay and Ajinkya Rahane could be included in an India 'A' tour just ahead of the English tour. It is even fathomable that R Ashwin might return there to experience another stint after last season.
At last count then, three to five first-choice Indian cricketers could be missing the Afghanistan Test. This though isn’t about short-changing the new entrants. It isn’t about taking them lightly, for India have enough reserves to fill the gaps, at least against Afghanistan. This, instead, is about Bob Willis’ recent statement that ‘Kohli should be made to suffer in England as he has done before. We don't want England starting to lose Test matches at home because we're accommodating all of these visiting players’.
"I can't stand overseas players in county cricket. It doesn't benefit the players stranded in the second XI year on year and the youngsters. The only way to improve our Test team is to have as many England-qualified players playing in the County Championship as possible,” Willis told Sky Sports, a story that drowned in the aftermath of ball tampering scandal in South Africa.
Will all due respect, the former fast bowler’s comments border on ridiculous given how world cricket has expanded today. He didn’t have an issue when Ashwin and Cheteshwar Pujara featured in County cricket. More importantly, he didn’t have a problem when Dean Elgar (Somerset) and Vernon Philander (Surrey) played in the 2017 County season. Mind you, their stints didn’t have any impact on English fortunes last year, as South Africa were beaten 3-1 in the summer. Why the objection this summer, Mr. Willis?
Whichever part of the world team India plays in, they are a premium opposition and there’s no doubting it. In Australia or England, they command a sizeable support as well, sometimes even outnumbering the home fans. Surely, you don’t want such factors to be pronounced by an in-form Kohli (or his teammates) ahead of what is a very important summer for English cricket after Test defeats in Australia (and presumably in New Zealand as things stand at the time of writing).
To an extent, his comments are understandable but only as long as they border on mind games even if three months before the Indian tour gets underway. If it is anything more, then absurdity is the word coming to mind. International cricketers don’t benefit second-string players and youngsters? Seriously?
Since 2004, 56 cricketers have taken advantage of the Kolpak ruling and made English domestic cricket their home. They include names such as Grant Flower, Ottis Gibson, Lance Klusener, Faf du Plessis, Jacques Rudolph, Andrew Hall, Shaun Pollock, Wavell Hinds, Ashwell Prince, Brendon Taylor, Tino Best, Grant Elliott, Kyle Abbott and Shivnarine Chanderpaul among others. Morne Morkel might join this illustrious list in 2018 summer. Surely, they have taken up more space and denied young English cricketers more chances over the years than Kohli will in one month.
If anything, English youngsters have gained more playing with cricketers who are rich in experiences from across the world. Imagine sharing the same dressing room as Chanderpaul or Pollock – it would excite even a local club cricketer leave alone someone who is pining hard to make a mark at any county. Their words of wisdom can help take your game to the next level, albeit you have to put in the hard yards in nets or on the field.
Jasprit Bumrah is a prime example. He is among the top new-ball bowlers in the world today, and has exponentially risen from T20s to ODIs and even to Test cricket. Do you know who he credits this elevation to? The umpteen international cricketers he has had the opportunity to play with in the Indian Premier League. Sure, it can be argued that rules allow four overseas players in every IPL eleven. Well, similarly then, rules also allow counties to recruit Kolpak players and overseas cricketers of their choosing. The business of world cricket is now conducted in an open market, and it is only going to expand further in the future.
It is a symbiotic relationship, one that is based more on mutual benefits by association than only be quantified in terms of money. In the future too, when English cricket comes up with its refreshed T20 league (in 2020), the eight franchise teams will be able to line up foreign recruits. If Willis and his ilk were so sympathetic to the youngsters’ cause in their country, maybe they would like to question the ECB first as to why that new T20 competition is truncated and comprises only eight teams, thus depriving hundreds of current domestic cricketers opportunities to play in this supposedly new and elitist tournament.
The bottom-line is this. Kohli is the best batsman across formats at present (that debate is over for at least one year given Steve Smith’s ban) and inarguably has the highest star power in world cricket today. Surely, any and every English youngster who plays with and against him this June will benefit immensely, never mind the extra eyeballs he will bring to county cricket.
And despite the firebrand cricket he plays, Kohli is among the top blokes in this game, always ready to lend a helping hand to youngsters and encouraging them. He does not only talk to the India Under-19 team, but also talks at length to Haseeb Hameed after a match-saving heroic effort. Brushing off what the world might say, Kohli also walks up to Mohammad Amir and pats his shoulder, egging him to rise from ashes of the fixing scandal. International boundaries and team loyalty don’t restrict this admirable facet of his personality.
Surely, the game of cricket – of which English counties are a part – can be allowed to reciprocate if Kohli aspires to improve his own game.
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