Mumbai: India batsman Cheteshwar Pujara could have been forgiven for feeling more than a little aggrieved when his dismissal drew hearty cheers from his home crowd at the Wankhede Stadium on Saturday.
Apparently unconcerned that India had lost an important wicket from the second ball of the third day of the fourth test against England, the crowd roared as Pujara trudged back to the dressing room. Then, as a chant of “Koh-liiii! Kohli!” reverberated around the stadium and out across the Arabian Sea, India’s darling walked to the middle to take his guard.
Not since Sachin Tendulkar retired in 2013 has an Indian cricketer commanded the adulation that Virat Kohli is currently enjoying, and few would argue that he is not deserving of it.The atmosphere at the Wankhede was reminiscent of the era when Tendulkar, a Mumbai native, used to walk out to bat at the same number four position. Kohli, as perhaps he must, dismisses comparison with the batting great but it is clear that they have a similar appetite for runs.
During his career-high 235 in Mumbai, his third double century of the year, the Delhi batsman became the first Indian since Rahul Dravid in 2011 to accumulate more than 1,000 test runs in a year. His rich vein of form has not been restricted to the longest form of the game, however, and he is first batsman to average over 50 in all three formats as well as being the highest international run-scorer of 2016. Kohli’s single-minded drive for excellence also echoes Tendulkar, who assiduously refined his craft to accumulate over 34,000 runs and 100 centuries in a 24-year career.
Like Tendulkar, Kohli has a near-flawless technique which helps him tackle pace and spin with equal ease and India look to him every time they hit choppy waters, as they did for two decades with the “Little Master”. And, like Tendulkar, Kohli is rapidly becoming a darling of corporations keen to associate their brands with a player whose expressive nature has touched a nerve with India’s youth.
All was not quite as rosy couple of years back, however.
Kohli had made his ODI debut as a 19-year-old and played his first Test three years later, starting on a path that would lead to 15 Test hundreds and 26 centuries in the 50-over format. Of his 13 test centuries before the start of the ongoing series, however, only one had come against England, at Nagpur in 2012. And in the five-test series in England in 2014, Kohli hit a trough, managing only 134 runs at an average of 13.4 with a high score of 39.
“It made me realise what I need to improve in my game so I am pretty thankful to England for that,” Kohli recalled at the start of the current series against the English. “I have been a really improved cricketer from then on.”
After his return from England, Kohli went knocking on Tendulkar’s door. “The best advice was not to read and look up things that are written about me,” Kohli told reporters after India took an unassailable 3-0 lead over England on Monday. “I am not joking or being sarcastic, and that was the best advice I have got.”
The rewards have come since in a torrent of runs, no more so than over the last four tests where he has scored 640 of them at an average of 128. One point of difference with Tendulkar is Kohli’s success as a captain, a responsibility which hung heavily on the shoulders of the game’s most prolific run scorer but has brought out the best in the younger batsman. Before replacing Mahendra Singh Dhoni as test captain at the end of 2014, Kohli averaged just a shade above 41 but since then the number has shot up to 65.5.
Five consecutive Test series victories for India and a firm grip on the number one test ranking under his leadership have intensified his popularity.
For Kohli, however, burying the ghosts of 2014 in a first series win over England in four attempts was clearly something special.
“This series win is probably the sweetest of all we’ve won in the past 14-15 months,” Kohli said.
“It couldn’t get any better, in the Wankhede you win 3-0 against a top quality side that has beaten us convincingly. It feels really good.”