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Test cricket, you owe Virat Kohli

by Sarah Waris 6 minute read

Sarah Waris tries to make sense of Virat Kohli’s legacy as a Test captain.

It was October 2016 when I saw it live. Despite being a regular visitor to Eden Gardens since 2011, it was only my first Test at the venue. India were taking on New Zealand in the second Test and they would end up winning by a huge margin of 178 runs, taking an unassailable lead in the series.

It was hardly a surprise. India’s dominance at home was overwhelming, which often makes me wonder why I finally decided to take on the challenge of willingly travelling miles every day, only to stand in long queues and bear the harsh weather conditions. You’d know it if you stayed in Kolkata during that time of the year: temperatures in the high thirties, humidity in the nineties, and with no cover for the spectators at Eden, it needed some real love for the game to make the trip.

It was largely due to the charm of watching Virat Kohli, the India Test captain in action. Having seen him engage and enjoy with the crowd at other stadiums, maybe it was a major fear of missing out that I had – and I was not left disappointed. Every period of silence in the match saw Kohli run towards us with his hands raised, urging us to make more noise. Before every delivery, he’d shout motivational chants, tempting us to join in, and every wicket was followed by an animated celebration that ended with him bowing to the crowd, almost to say thank you. He loved our energy, and the 65,000 spectators, packed into a sweaty stadium, loved him back, following his every movement, staring at his every step, backing his every decision as India inched closer and closer to a win.

***

It was December 2014 when we were left truly surprised. Needing an improbable 364 runs for a win in the first Test against Australia, Indian fans would have readily accepted a draw on the final day. From the beginning of 2010 till that match, India had won only six of a total of 28 away Tests, losing 15 and drawing seven. It caused them to slip in the ICC rankings, and when they landed Down Under, expectations were low. What followed was bewildering. Stand-in skipper Kohli, taking over the role from an injured MS Dhoni, asked his team to go after the target, and opted to lead from the front himself, making a fine 141 from only 175 balls. However, as the game grew tighter, the winning runs nearer, the Indian team, seemingly due to a lack of experience, ended up collapsing from 242-2 to 315 all out.

For far too long, having been so accustomed to playing safe, the fearless approach was rather pleasing, but Kohli was nonetheless criticised for giving up an opportunity to save a Test match overseas. His play-to-win mantra was a bold attempt to shake the roots of a side living too cosily.

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It’s January 2022 and there’s a numbness in the feeling. Kohli has just announced his resignation as the Test captain after seven years, at the helm of India’s golden period in the format. It’s a kind of a hollow-sunken feeling caused at the departure of a legend and the uncertainty over the future. The last seven years seems almost magical, with the Indian Test team reaching unprecedented heights across departments.

From No.7, Kohli, who admitted to looking at screenshots of the side’s low ranking when he took over the job, has taken India to the very top, helping them conquer continents. His ambition to make his country the best Test team in the world led to an unwavering focus on grooming fast bowlers, who have stood tall in their overseas wins, and his obsession with fitness has changed the way India plays cricket.

But, that’s not only why his decision will take time to come to terms with. Throughout his captaincy stint what stood out was the childlike passion for the sport and the zeal to override the naysayers into doing exactly what he realised was best for his game. His boisterous energy, verbal attacks and brashness were ridiculed, and his methods were considered inappropriate in a format meant for the gentlemen. He went after the opponents, riled them up, was in their faces all the time, screamed brattishly when a decision went against his team, confronted umpires, took unnecessary digs to pump himself up, never backed down, and was never the best role model. But by staying true to who he was and refusing to backtrack, he sent out an even stronger message.

By the end of his Test captain career, it can be argued that Kohli was a shadow of the batter he was in 2014, with his last century coming way back in November 2019. But every single time he stepped out on the field, his desire to win was more than evident. Even at Cape Town, in his last match, he showed he was always learning. He cut down on strokes outside off stump, showing it’s never too late to adapt and rectify one’s mistakes.

Through it all, he kept us hooked and entertained. A format that was once stumbling to stay alive is up and kicking as we thronged stadiums to watch him play without a filter. Marshalling his troops to perfection, Kohli embraced his flaws without excuses but also showed India that they weren’t the only team with a weak point. The fact that not only Indian cricket but Test cricket’s future is on shaky ground following his departure shows the impact just one player had on the sport. Who will bring us that energy now, the kind of energy that tempted us to give up eight hours of our time for five days? Watching Test cricket almost became our guilty pleasure. We secretly believed we were keeping the format alive as we tuned in on TV, but little did we know that it wasn’t our doing alone.

Kohli lured us into the enthralling world of his craft and enchanted us to stay glued, and we, mere mortals, delved into his call again and again. Even as he walks away, we stay hypnotised. Frozen at the experiences we had with him. Too scared to move and shrug it away, too afraid to face the truth.

I missed watching India take on Bangladesh in 2019 in the day-night Test, which makes the 2016 game the only memory that I will have of Kohli the captain in the format. I’ve seen him countless times in the shorter formats, including when India took on Pakistan in the T20 World Cup at Eden Gardens, but for one reason or the other, the Test against New Zealand always left me captivated. As I headed back home that day, sun-burnt and uncomfortable, all I could mutter was “Test cricket is best cricket”. A cliched saying, but a saying that has had a new meaning for me since then.

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