All eyes on Virat Kohli as he returns to book his T20 World Cup ticket

Virat Kohli for India
Virat Kohli for India (PC: X)

RevSportz Comment

When Virat Kohli left the tour of Australia after the first Test in 2020-21, in order to be present for the birth of his first child, there wasn’t really a groundswell of opinion either way. To begin with, the world was dealing with the invisible destroyer that was Covid-19. With millions dying and words like ‘quarantine’ and ‘bio bubble’ becoming part of everyday vocabulary, even diehard fans considered a Test series too trivial a matter to get agitated about.

Of course, there were a few murmurs about a captain leaving a sinking ship — India were embarrassingly bowled out for 36 in Adelaide, the only match Kohli played — but the spirit with which India bounced back to register epochal victories in Melbourne and Brisbane meant that what went before was quickly forgotten.

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Virat Kohli for India in T20 WC 2022
Virat Kohli for India in T20 WC 2022 (PC: BCCI)

Three years on, there was no hard quarantine, and Kohli’s decision to pull out of the England series quickly became grist for many rumour mills. That very few, even in the media domain, knew what was going on only added to the intensity of the debate. At first, word was that he would return after two Tests. Then, it was announced that there might be a return for the series finale in Dharamsala. Only later did a Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) release tell us that he would play no part in the series.

This column doesn’t intend to dignify antiquated views about men and childbirth, but millions of opinions have been traded across cyberspace in the two months since Kohli last wore an India jersey. The next international assignment is the T20 World Cup in the United States of America and the Caribbean in June. RevSportz has already outlined why we expect Kohli to be part of that squad, but it goes without saying that there will be heated arguments over team selection as the Indian Premier League (IPL) crisscrosses India over the next two months.

One of the stories that’s gotten extensive air time over the past few days concerns Kohli’s ‘unsuitability’ for North American conditions. If anything, all it does is shine a light on the cricket illiteracy of vast sections of the media. If there is one continent where a team needs a batting anchor, it’s the Americas. Especially on Caribbean pitches, where the latter stages of the tournament will be played, there is no data that supports a bang-bang approach.

Even West Indies, with their flotilla of big hitters, have a run-rate of 7.92 from 94 matches in those conditions. Of the sides expected to challenge for the title, only India (8.54) have managed a run-rate above 8.5 on those pitches. Kohli has played just six T20Is in the Americas, too small a sample to make any sort of reasoned assessment, but his strike-rate on typically low and slow Asian tracks is nearly 140, which is around 8.3 runs an over.

Virat Kohli for RCB
Virat Kohli for RCB (PC: X)

Of course, the BCCI are not Willy Wonka to hand out golden tickets to anyone, even Kohli. He will have to use the IPL to earn his place. And in that regard, he will take great encouragement from last season, when he piled up two hundreds and 639 runs while striking at 139.82. After three straight seasons of pottering along at dismal strike-rates — two of those were in the Apocalypse Now background of the Covid years — there had been plenty of doubts about his suitability for the format.

Kohli’s 2023 tally of 65 fours and 16 sixes was the most he had hit in the IPL since his golden harvest in 2016, when he almost became the first man to top 1000 runs in a season. The big question now is whether he can turn it on right away after being away from the fray for months.

The two T20Is he played against Afghanistan in January were his first appearances for India in the format since his heroics at the T20 World Cup in Australia in 2022. At 35, an age when the likes of Sir Vivian Richards started to lose the hand-eye coordination that made them so exceptional, it’s only natural that Kohli’s every outing will be scrutinised.

What we can take for granted is this. No one will be better prepared, physically or mentally. In that sense, he has never left anything to chance. But facing the likes of Jasprit Bumrah, Mitchell Starc and Kagiso Rabada and getting going right away is never an easy proposition. How Kohli adapts will tell us much about his state of mind, and also of Indian cricket’s short-term future.

After two months away from the grind and the fishbowl existence, we should probably expect a bumper season.

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