Why Kohli’s passion play can be saviour of Test game

It was during a tribute evening to Bishan Singh Bedi, his childhood mentor in New Delhi, that Virat Kohli launched into one of his more passionate pleadings for Test cricket to be cherished. “I believe it is paramount for the game to sustain globally,” he said in 2017, having struck double centuries in four successive series. “I would urge youngsters to take up the longer version.”

When the India captain speaks, 1.3 billion people tend to listen. The 15,000 fans allowed in for his team’s second Test victory in Chennai this week, all chanting his name until Moeen Ali bowled him, offered a stirring reminder that for as long as he presided, the power of the five-day format would endure.

Virat Kohli holds unprecedented sway as a player in a country where cricket is considered a religion.Credit:AP

He has spoken wistfully, for example, of the inspiration he derives from the batting philosophy of teammate Cheteshwar Pujara. Having already achieved the double-edged distinction of playing India’s longest innings, facing 521 balls to reach a double hundred in 2017, Pujara compiled the slowest Test 50 on record in Sydney last month, off 174 deliveries, to beat his previous record by one. To a generation reared on heaving sixes in the Indian Premier League, such glacial accumulation is anathema. And yet Kohli perceives a nobility in the craft, arguing: “We have all learned from his concentration and his will.”

The impact of Kohli’s traditionalism on his army of young disciples can scarcely be overestimated. For when it comes to cricket, his word in India is gospel. This is a figure who, according to historian Ramachandra Guha, commands greater veneration from the Board of Control for Cricket in India than prime minister Narendra Modi receives from the national cabinet. At a time when Test cricket’s future is assailed on all sides by more digestible alternatives, it could not wish for a more influential voice to proselytise its virtues.

There is a debate, of course, as to whether it is healthy for any individual to hold so much sway. Eyebrows were raised when, under pressure from Kohli, Anil Kumble was replaced as India coach by Ravi Shastri, who quickly accepted that “the captain is the boss”.

Similarly, it was jarring to see Kohli lead out his players in green military caps, as a show of solidarity after 40 Indian soldiers were killed by a suicide bomber in Kashmir in 2019. This type of militaristic caper had been seen before in golf, at the Ryder Cup, where a few US players wore camouflage caps in sympathy for Marines fighting the Gulf War, but was profoundly infra dig in cricket. While the International Cricket Council prohibited any political gesture, Kohli, as the prodigal son, escaped any punishment.

He can exude an air of entitlement, but the wider context is that he is all but single-handedly saving Test cricket from oblivion.

In this sense, he has become the player England supporters love to hate. Kohli exemplifies a belligerence more often associated with Australians, until Sandpapergate forced a softening of the edges down under. He can exude an air of entitlement, not least when he is haranguing umpires in the all-but-certain knowledge that the BCCI will let it slide. The wider context, however, is that he is all but single-handedly saving Test cricket from oblivion.

It is rare for any multidimensional cricketer today to express such devotion to Tests, let alone one of Kohli’s stature and reach. For him, it is nothing less than a personal crusade. He believes that a solemn duty to protect the format is part of his inheritance as captain, and that his success in this quest will be central to his legacy, as he vies to wrest back India’s No.1 Test ranking. With glory in cricket so multifaceted, his outlook is worthy of admiration. It also serves, perhaps, as compelling mitigation for his many flaws.

Telegraph, London

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