The fourth match of the 2015 World Cup, in Adelaide, between India and Pakistan: Virat Kohli scored a somewhat uncharacteristic 107 in 126 balls to help India win by 76 runs. Since then, bar the 2015 Indian Premier League, he has been somewhat off the boil, not crossing fifty in a single international game. More recently, in the India A four-day game against Australia A and the three-day tour match against Sri Lanka Board President’s XI, he was nowhere near his best.
Now we have the three Tests against Sri Lanka. Kohli’s first real test as Test captain, as a batsman-captain, and, looking at his recent returns, as a batsman as well.
Away in England, where the Ashes urn has just changed hands – if not officially yet – there’s a new era a-dawning for Australian cricket, where Steven Smith has just one more Test to play under Michael Clarke before taking charge.
Across in Africa, Brendon McCullum is missing from the New Zealand ranks and it’s young Kane Williamson in charge, albeit temporarily.
And while Alastair Cook has, deservedly, bought himself some more time at the helm of the England Test team if he wants it – at 30, why shouldn’t he? – there’s Joe Root close by. Cook, first slip, Ian Bell, second slip but probably not the next man in the succession line, and then there’s Root, at third slip, ready and crouching with his hands cupped.
You might have your favourites, but it’s these four batsmen – Root, Smith, Williamson and Kohli (sequenced on the ICC Test rankings) – who are likely to be the big guns for the next decade or so. Root is 24. Smith is 26. Williamson is 25. And Kohli is 26. Yes, I love AB de Villiers as much as you do, and happily agree he isn’t entirely human. Still, at age 31 and a half now, we can’t include him in the ‘next decade’ discussions. For that, we must look at those in their mid-20s or so, which these four gentlemen are.
All four of them have reached a very critical juncture in their careers, almost simultaneously, and the parallels between them are quite remarkable. All bat at No. 3 or No. 4 for their Test sides and are, arguably, the most important batsmen in their teams at the moment. One of them is the official captain of his Test team, another will be after one more Test, and two others are quasi-officially the captains in waiting of their Test teams. Kohli and Williamson average in the mid-40s in Tests, while Root and Smith are up in the mid-50s. They are all intelligent young men, all of them aware of what exactly their roles and responsibilities are, and, seemingly, ready to be the big leaders they seem destined to become in the near future.
Smith is a bit of an odd one out there. He didn’t start out as a pure batsman – using the word ‘pure’ in connection with Smith is a bit odd, I know. He wasn’t anointed as the next big thing in Australia like the other three were in their countries. His technique is not quite up there either.
But he is here now and, all indications say, here to stay.
Now comes the tricky part. So far, all of them have been allowed to – to use the phrase in currency these days – express themselves; talented youngsters not held back, let loose, to be the batsmen they can be. And all of them have made the most of that leeway, across formats, more successful at home but no extended failures on the road either.
But, no matter what they do in the future, these youngsters are already leaders. What were you doing at 25?
Can we start talking about pressure now?
These things are not easily measured or compared, but Kohli probably has it toughest on that front, and Williamson is, I’d say, at the other end of the spectrum, with Root and Smith somewhere in the middle. Pressure of expectations from the viewing public, from the media in their respective countries, and from their cricket boards.
Kohli has already experienced the worst of it, his personal life, which involves a popular film actor, has been discussed endlessly and his occasional dips in form attributed, mockingly as well as seriously, to the lady’s presence. Kohli and his partner have, largely, dealt with the situation pretty well, but it’s only going to get tougher as the stakes get higher. Think – 2019 ODI World Cup, in England; India, led by Kohli, exit early. Then? Kaboom!
The press and the fans in the other countries could be ruthless, of course, but I can’t imagine it gets quite as negative as it does around these parts.
And there’s no place to hide for these men once they are in the hot seat. They might well be the best batsmen in their teams, but it’s ‘Captain of the XXX cricket team’ that they will be known as. Imagine the responsibility.
Oh, I don’t envy Messrs Root, Smith, Williamson and Kohli at all. Adulation and money – fine, but would you really want to be under the kind of scrutiny these men are bound to face in the next few years? Some, maybe all, of them will swim their way out of the deep end. One or more might not. But, in many ways, it’s how they deal with the next step in their cricketing evolution – especially over the next couple of years – that will define who they end up being.
And there’s no doubt that a good part of their teams’ fortunes would depend on exactly that: What kind of leaders these men become.