Just over ten days back, in his 120th first-class match, Ishant Sharma made his maiden half-century. A dogged three-hour 66 which, ironically, also included one of only three sixes he has struck at this level. Such is the hold of the Indian Premier League that that knock hardly merited a mention.
Not that an Ishant fifty is the stuff of legend, but it didn’t help that the landmark came in distant Leicester, for Sussex, in the English County Championship. So irresistible is the pull of the IPL that everything else cricket invariably takes a back seat – in India and in a few other parts of the world as well – for seven weeks between and April and May every year.
Ishant is one of three Indians currently plying their wares on the county circuit. Early-season performances suggest he is also the most successful – eight wickets in three games, 101 runs in four innings. Cheteshwar Pujara, the other Test specialist looking to play the acclimatisation game ahead of the tour of England later in the year, has only managed 2, 18, 7 and 6 in four hits for Yorkshire, extending his wretched run in Old Blighty that produced a frugal 222 runs in five Tests in 2014. Varun Aaron, the forgotten paceman, has played a solitary match for Leicestershire, returning 1 for 54 on debut against Derbyshire.
As the summer unfolds, at least two more Indians are guaranteed to grace the county stage. Axar Patel will turn out for Durham in August, which is unlikely to be a remarkable event. The same, however, can’t be said of the latest Indian signing, a coup of sorts for both the player and the county in question.
Bob Willis might have questioned the wisdom of any county side allowing Virat Kohli the opportunity to get a feel of English conditions in a match environment ahead of a full tour starting in July, but Surrey clearly don’t care what the former England captain thinks. By netting the charismatic Indian captain for the entire month of June, Surrey have hit the proverbial jackpot. Kohli, easily the top batsman in world cricket and never mind the rankings, will draw crowds by the thousands, much like Sachin Tendulkar did more than a quarter of a century ago when he became Yorkshire’s first overseas signing. Surrey County Cricket Club can already feel the cash registers going crazy.
For all the sceptical cynicism going around, there is no doubting the reality that Kohli will lift the profile of the County Championship, not least in India which has in the last few years responded tepidly to the English first-class summer. The exploits in the 1990s and the 2000s of Mohammad Azharuddin, Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, VVS Laxman, Javagal Srinath, Manoj Prabhakar, Virender Sehwag and Zaheer Khan received ample coverage in the Indian media. The subsequent reasonable indifference will be emphatically exploded when Kohli dons the Surrey colours on the first day of June, in a 50-over game at unheralded Beckenham against Kent.
While Surrey are in a win-win situation – the Indian captain in their midst for a month, imagine – Kohli isn’t badly off either. He won’t be unaware that he will be under intense scrutiny and that he will be providing the English media with early fodder in the lead-up to the limited-overs series in July and the Test series starting on August 1. He will already have realised that if, for some reason, he doesn’t have a great run of scores, extraneous pressure will be heaped mercilessly on him. He will assume, correctly, that every journeyman and his cousin will try extra hard to knock him over, not so much to do the old country a favour as to earn a notch in his own belt. Is Kohli putting his reputation on the line somewhat? Some of us might say yes; Kohli obviously doesn’t think likewise.
The county sojourn has largely been influenced by Kohli’s underwhelming Test tour of England in 2014. Like Pujara, he had a horrible time of it; unlike Pujara, he didn’t even make a half-century, his returns an anaemic 134 with a highest of 39 and six single-digit scores in 10 outings. Kohli’s legacy will not necessarily be defined by how he does in England. His volume of work everywhere else has been little short of outstanding, and no one has questioned Shane Warne or Ricky Ponting’s greatness despite their underwhelming numbers in India. But Kohli is a proud man and a prouder captain, and he is taking the county route not merely in the quest for individual success.
So far so good. Kohli’s heart is clearly in the right place, his preparations spot-on. Perhaps, by opting for a county stint ahead of the England tour, the skipper is tacitly admitting that both he and India might have sold themselves short by going to South Africa just a week before the start of the Test series this January. Perhaps, we are reading too much into it. Or perhaps, as is usually the case, the truth lies somewhere in between.
Kohli’s first-class debut for Surrey will be on June 9, against Hampshire in Southampton. Somewhere during the middle of that game, his India colleagues will assemble in Bangalore ahead of Afghanistan’s Test debut, at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium from June 14. The unequivocal conviction is that even without their captain, India will prove too strong for the debutants, and that’s hard to fault.
Should Kohli have been around for that game? Should he have worked out a deal that would have allowed him to return to India for the Test, and then gone back and rejoined Surrey? Easier said than done, because that would have meant just one first-class appearance for the county, right at the end of the month, defeating the very purpose of the English adventure.
Are India selling Afghanistan short by withdrawing their biggest draw in the latter’s tryst with cricketing history? Especially after having bent over backwards to ensure that they would be the ones to welcome Afghanistan to Test cricket? I am a little torn over that. Yes, Afghanistan deserve to test themselves against the strongest team the opposition can put out. And yet, I don’t see it as an insult to them that Kohli, with the blessings of the BCCI/CoA, has chosen the immediate future over the historic present.
Will we hear of more Indians being county-bound over the next few days, even if it means a depleted side against Afghanistan? Is it really that easy to net contracts if you are not a Kohli? R Ashwin, of course, will be welcomed with open arms by Worcestershire, with whom he had a great time towards the end of last season. But what of the rest? And will Ashwin himself pass up the opportunity of more Test wickets? The waiting game begins.