The most important part of a `learning curve’ for any sportspersons is when you face players and teams more experienced and better ranked.
The Afghan cricket establishment is miffed that Virat Kohli is skipping their inaugural Test, which is understandable. When you break through into the elite group of Test-playing nations, you want to be treated at par with the best.
Afghanistan got Test status in the wake of sterling performances in the past decade. Indeed, how a war-torn country, with no tradition or legacy has made such rapid strides is one of the more compelling stories in the history of sport.
How the Afghan players would have liked to pit their skills against arguably the game’s best current batsman! Especially their young spinners Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Rahman on a pitch that would offer help.
The most important part of a `learning curve’ for any sportspersons is when you face players and teams more experienced and better ranked. This can speed up the ‘growing up’ process dramatically: not just in cricket, but across disciplines as has been shown over ages.
Just being on the same field in a Test match, seeing how Kohli approaches his innings would have been be a fantastic lesson for Afghanistan’s batsmen and bowlers. In that sense, it is surely an opportunity missed for the newbie side.
But in the perspective of Indian cricket, Kohli’s decision to play for Surrey in the county championship at the same time when the Afghans are here makes eminent sense. It is not a rebuke to the visitors, rather an honest acknowledgement of what and where both he and Indian cricket are still lacking.
Consensus opinion among experts and lay fans suggests that Kohli (as batsman and captain) as well as others who will make the Indian team face their toughest challenge in the five-Test series against England, beginning August.
India have yet to win a Test rubber in either Australia or South Africa too while in England three series have been won (1971, 1986, 2007), so one might ask what’s so extraordinary this time around.
But there is, if seen in the context of how things have transpired over the past couple of years and what lies ahead.
On the last two tours to England — 2011 and 2014 — the Indian team bombed badly, losing 0-4 and 1-3, and slipped down the Test rankings quite steeply. Inability of batsmen to cope with late swing was the biggest factor in these defeats.
Among the players who suffered was Kohli, first as a rookie player, and more pertinently in 2014, when touted as the next big thing in Indian cricket. He was found out by the likes of James Anderson and Stuart Broad
Since then, Kohli has gone on to become arguably the most influential player in the world, if not the best batsman. But some doubts still linger about his prowess against swing bowling in English conditions, particularly in the five-day format.
What is admirable about his decision to opt playing county cricket is that Kohli is not sitting on his laurels, smug in the belief that all will be well. He knows the challenge that lies ahead, how Indian players have benefited from playing county cricket in the past, and is willing to prepare for it like an everyman rather than be a prima donna.
He sees this stint as necessary education in his ambition to be the finest batsman in the world, but that is not the only thing. And the import of his decision is not to be seen only from his personal point of view, but what it means to the team.
As captain and leading batsman, Kohli has to set the agenda and the tempo to make for a successful campaign. While every player in the squad has a role to play, will-nilly, he is central to India’s remaining the best Test side in the game currently.
A bad loss, as happened in 2011 and 2014, would almost certainly affect India’s no. 1 ranking. But the setback would also be demoralising for the tour of Australia later in the year, and could undo everything achieved over the past three years when he took over the Test captaincy full time.
Effectively, Kohli has set his sights on becoming the best batsman and India the best Test team, both without dispute. There is no guarantee it will pan out quite that way, but these are laudable pursuits regardless.