The Virat Kohli phenomenon is on test. And Indian cricket is also looking at a serious introspection following the debacle in South Africa where the home team came back from a loss in the first Test to win the next two.

This is the time for the Indian selectors to take a call on some non-performing players even as the Kohli factor dominates the team’s approach to a task. Kohli will still continue to be the central figure in India’s plans in white-ball cricket as the selectors narrow down on the pool to pick the team for the T20 World Cup this year in Australia and then the 2023 World Cup at home.

The wealth of talent in Indian cricket raises hopes of success in white-ball cricket — and ICC trophy which has long eluded the team.

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A strong and forceful batting unit with Kohli in the forefront can be the recipe for success. He remains a constant and big challenge for the opposition with his experience and the ability to swing contests on his own.

Since the departure of Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag, no other individual has dictated play like Kohli. His aggression has been infectious and one of the critical aspects of India’s brilliant show in international cricket. The ICC titles have evaded India but the consistency at the highest level can’t be ignored.

Kohli’s aggression has found support from some of the stalwarts of Indian cricket, notably Kapil Dev. “You can be aggressive in the way you play. I am all for it. Controlled aggression works better, and it is this aggression that has driven Kohli to produce some exceptional batting shots,” says Kapil.

There have been occasions when Kohli may have overstepped the line, as he did in South Africa when he spoke into the stump mike to air his displeasure at the official broadcaster. As a captain, he should have remembered the example he was expected to set but the frustrations of an individual, struggling to match his reputation, got the better of Kohli.

Rishabh Pant follows the Kohli brand of cricket — aggressive and determined to take the bowlers by the scruff. There is a striking common feature in Kohli and Pant — both trusted match winners. The Indian team will look to the duo, K. L. Rahul, and the limited-overs marauder and skipper Rohit Sharma to bat opponents out of games as it embarks on a quest for the holy grail.

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The lack of a century score in recent times has plagued Kohli, but his teammates are well aware of his worth. “So, what, if he (Kohli) has not scored a century,” retorts India speedster Mohammed Shami. “A century doesn’t define how big a player he is. It is not that he has not scored runs. He has scored fifties consistently in the recent past and there is no reason why we should even think like that. A fifty or a sixty is also a score and as long as it is helping the team, there is no reason to complain,” Shami told a website in his support for his former captain.

For those who have doubted Kohli’s form and contribution in 50-over cricket, his last 20 innings for India include two centuries and ten half-centuries. “Would you not call that consistency? Virat always gives his best but there are times when even your best is not able to please your critics. I am convinced the best of Virat is yet to come. Watch out for him in the next couple of years,” asserts Kohli’s long-time coach Rajkumar Sharma.

The process to identify the players for the two ICC tournaments has been in progress with the selectors looking to blood youngsters around Kohli and Sharma. “Just as Sachin, the presence of Kohli in the dressing room sends such positive signals to the team. A Kohli in form can be the most galvanising force in any form of cricket,” says former India all-rounder Madan Lal.

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Deadly duo: In Rohit Sharma and K. L Rahul, India has two all-format openers, consistently capable of troubling the best in the world.

 

Kohli has a huge role to play in the scheme of things charted by the selectors, captain Sharma and Rahul Dravid, the new coach. Dravid’s patience will direct Kohli’s performance. It is imperative that Kohli gets to play without any needless extraneous pressures, especially the divisive critics hell-bent on creating differences in the dressing room with unsubstantiated information through leaks. Dravid has indicated no news will be leaked from the dressing room and that should work well for Kohli, who now must be the senior statesman of the team. The future looks bleak for Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane in the Test team but there is abundant talent available for the middle order to rally around Kohli. In Sharma and Rahul, India has two all-format openers, consistently capable of troubling the best in the world.

Kohli will need to curb his aggression and be the anchor, guiding and allowing youngsters like Pant, Suryakumar Yadav, Shreyas Iyer, or Venkatesh Iyer to play around him in white-ball cricket. The selectors can also continue to keep faith in the trusted Sharma-Shikhar Dhawan opening combination, allowing Rahul to play in the middle order and lend more solidity to the team. This would allow the Indian team to have six batters and three all-rounders for the two World Cups.

Kohli, the anchor, should look at staying in the middle till the end, whether chasing or setting a target. He is a master in home conditions and the bouncy pitches of Australia also suit his style well.

Kohli’s ability to adapt, a wide range of shots, desire to dominate, and the innate trait to reserve his best for the big occasion will continue to make him a sought-after individual in a team game. Kohli batting with freedom should help Indian cricket in the marquee ICC tournaments.