With the days dwindling until their first official World Cup fixture against Afghanistan on June 1, the Australian set up still finds itself grappling with the constitution of their preferred top order.
It’s the video that sent club cricketers gushing, pundits purring and rivals retching.
Virat Kohli, filmed going about his business in the Adelaide nets, was in devastating touch on Tuesday, punching ball after ball in the echoed surrounds. The confidence with which India’s skipper swivelled onto pull shots, leaned into drives and danced at spinners was cricketing content for the gods. Or ‘from’, if you ask Indian fans.
“R18+”, one journalist tweeted in response to the footage. “I’m going to make this my ringtone,” another tweeted, referencing the gunshot sounds of leather on willow, perhaps the most alluring aspect of the viral hit.
But did we need this footage to prove Kohli’s ludicrous skill at the crease? Surely a glance at the video archives of his 24 Test tons is enough? Apparently, not. Maybe it was the camera angle, which better portrayed the speed at which Kohli plies his trade. Or maybe it was those sounds off the bat, which few batsmen could identify with. Either way, it heightened an already lofty view of the man.
The video, specifically the traction it got here in Australia, shows just how fascinated Australia is with Kohli and almost everything he does. A significant proportion of the media coverage India has received since arriving has been almost entirely Kohli-focused. And it makes sense. He breaks the mould of Subcontinental legends that Australian fans had become accustomed to. Sachin Tendulkar, Kumar Sangakkara, VVS Laxman – all batsmen with strong records against Australia but who were also decidedly polite, and never a true threat to home-side dominance. Kohli is neither polite (on-field) nor an idle threat.
Since the 2014-15 series here, where he plundered 692 runs in four tests, his fire-with-fire mantra has been met with outward derision but inward fascination by Aussie fans. We’re fascinated by his skill and his abrasiveness, a trait we see in ourselves (however loathe we might be to admit it).
Media narrative plays a huge role in Australian summers (see: last year’s Ashes), and the local media’s portrayal of Kohli, proliferated by that video, is of an impenetrable wall who Australia must divert all its resources in quelling. Every expert asked to comment on the series starting today has been asked: ‘Just how do Australia stop Kohli?’.
They could do well to ask our friends in the UK, whose response would almost certainly be this: don’t bother. They won’t say this in a careless, unprepared sense but in a manner that urges an even focus on India’s top order rather than over-scrutinised attention on Kohli. Cricket, despite its individualistic nature, is still a team sport. One man can’t win a series on his own.
Kohli took England for 593 runs at 59.30 in the recent series, the highest run scorer (of both sides) by over 250. He entered that tour under more pressure than this current series against Australia; his form in England was the only blemish on an otherwise impeccable CV. He went home with the man of the series award, proving himself a class above any batsmen on either side.
But the score read 4-1 in England’s favour. The home side, led by James Anderson, executed perfectly precise plans to senior Indian batsmen in Ajinkya Rahane, Cheteshwar Pujara and Shikhar Dhawan and extinguished their influence. Should Australia curb all those around Kohli, as England did so successfully mere months ago, they will win.
Similarly, in South Africa earlier this year, Kohli peeled off 286 runs in the three-Test series while the next highest teammate aggregate was just 119. He has a unique ability deflect pressure from teammates, and that has especially been the case with Rahane. The vice-captain has moved into triple figures just once in his last 39 test innings. His 2018 test average is less than 30.
Australia’s obsession with the world’s best batsman has lent itself brilliantly to promoting the series. But on-field Justin Langer’s men would do well to let Kohli do Kohli.