Had all other things been equal, Virat Kohli would have taken the field at unfashionable Beckenham today, June 1, in his first tilt at English domestic cricket. He would have cut his teeth in a 50-over game for Surrey in an away fixture to Kent, a match that would have generated no more than the usual interest had it not been for the presence on the park of the Indian captain.
The one-month, six-match stint with Surrey – three 50-over outings, three first-class fixtures – was to have helped Kohli get a feel of English conditions in a match environment, but without the attendant pressures of an international game. They were to have furthered his education in the only country where he has a modest Test record. England may not be Kohli’s final frontier – as captain, he has unfinished business in various other lands – but his desire to forego a Test match to prepare himself for the five-Test series in Old Blighty later this year was rightly viewed as an unique attempt at acclimatisation and preparation.
Until the untimely neck injury, of course. Sustained during Royal Challengers Bangalore’s stuttering IPL campaign, with qualification on the line. There was no fairytale surge to the playoffs, no glorious tryst with history despite the inspirational Kohli and Spiderman AB, but the damage had been done. The neck injury nipped Kohli’s much-hyped, much-debated and somewhat polarising county debut in the bud, forcing him to embark on the arduous road to rehabilitation and recovery.
The Kohli neck hasn’t been as systematically deconstructed as Sachin Tendulkar’s already severely burdened back that threatened to pack up as early as towards the end of the last millennium, or his sesamoid bone, or his tennis elbow. Specialists, experts and soothsayers haven’t been courted with even a fraction of the craze with which they were in 1999, 2001 and then 2004-05, which has to be seen as an indication of increasing all-round maturity.
Given how much cricket he plays, and with such unwavering intensity, it is inevitable that Kohli will attract the protestations of his overworked body. There is hardly a professional sportsperson that is 100% fit for any length of time; aches and niggles of various degrees will remain constant, if unwelcome, companions because such is the nature of physical sport. The trick lies in managing these irritants and ensuring that they don’t mushroom into something far more debilitating. Sometimes, nothing helps better than good, old-fashioned rest. Recharging batteries is an overused cliché, perhaps, but it is also among the less feted ones because it doesn’t sound exciting enough – how exciting is it, for instance, to plug in your cellphone charger? But we all know what happens when we don’t charge the phone, don’t we?
Kohli is still on the right side of 30 – not qualified to play for Chennai Super Kings, you say? – but has already played 331 international games, including 66 Test matches. He made his first-class debut in 2006, has been in a leadership role at the highest level for more than three years now, and seldom sits out matches if he can help it. Maybe, as the workload begins to take its toll – something he himself admitted to a few months back – it won’t be amiss if Kohli decides to play it smart.
If that means being selective in at least one format internationally, so be it. If that means sitting out matches and series from time to time, by all means. Kohli is far more precious to India than a financially-driven but largely meaningless T20 International series. The broadcasters might not be too delighted if his vast gamut of emotions won’t be available to be beamed into millions of homes globally, but as much as their clout is growing, they shouldn’t be allowed to have the final selectorial say.
How about this, then? Relieve Kohli of the T20I captaincy, and only select him for say the World T20, or if he himself feels the need for match-practice. He has played long enough not to lose his wondrous T20 skills through rust, and in any case, in April-May each year, he will by and large be able to play at least 14 games for his franchise. He has earned the right, if he so desires, to pick and choose without having to be pilloried for the same or without his commitment to the country – what balderdash – being questioned. And if he is no longer the captain, then the need for justifications over and dissections of his resting will (or at least should) de-escalate rapidly.
In Rohit Sharma, India have an able replacement as captain. The Mumbaikar’s Test career is again in the limbo, and while he might have had an underwhelming IPL 2018 as batsman and as skipper, he has established his leadership credentials over time. He has successfully led the national T20 side as well, and has shown that he relishes the additional responsibility that comes with being the skipper. It will keep him even more relevant to the international scheme of things and who knows, being the full-time T20I head might even reignite his Test credentials. It isn’t as if India haven’t simultaneously had different captains for different versions, but if and when this does transpire, it must be through mutual consent for obvious reasons.
No one is suggesting, of course, that Kohli is running out of gas. The earlier argument of him still being only 29 can be used to rubbish the need for him being handled with kid gloves when it comes to T20Is. But Kohli is no machine that can be expected to perform at optimal level day in and day out, without rest or downtime. Even those of us who have only watched international cricket from the cozy confines of the press box or the less welcoming environs of an Indian venue are aware of the sometimes ludicrous demands and challenges it poses, even without the extraneous demands of sponsor and media commitments and the expectations of millions. And that’s only from a game-time perspective. What of the practice and the travel, the constant living in and out of suitcases, the sameness of different airports and hotels? Professional sport pays well, yes, but is it just the money that makes the world go around?
Virat Kohli is too precious for burnout or demanding workloads to throw a spanner in the works. He knows his body better than anyone else, and he most certainly won’t take kindly to other people making decisions for him. Then again, to paraphrase the Bard, isn’t discretion the better part of valour?