LONDON: A recent article in London’s Evening Standard pondered what Virat Kohli would make of playing at English outposts such as Scarborough and Guildford, with the likes of Steve Patterson and Tim Groenewald bowling at him. With his arrival at Surrey, he will soon find out — and the English press cannot wait.
It has been one of cricket’s worst-kept secrets over the past month — Kohli will be spending June in Surrey colors while skipping a Test against the new boys from Afghanistan. Of course, not everyone is thrilled by the move.
Bob Willis, who made his name at The Oval with Surrey before switching allegiances to Warwickshire, told Sky Sports: “He should be made to suffer and average 30 in England as he has done before. We don’t want England starting to lose Test matches at home because we’re accommodating all of these visiting players.”
There are many in India also ready to question the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) allowing its captain to miss a historic Test match.
But Vinod Rai, who heads the Committee of Administrators (CoA), which is tasked with overseeing the board’s functions, was in no doubt that the right call had been made.
“Afghanistan are playing against India, and not Virat Kohli,” he said. “No player will be called back from the UK to play against Afghanistan. The priority is England and to do well there, so ... whatever it takes.
“CoA has taken a conscious decision to encourage the players, especially Test specialists, to play county cricket in England and hone their skills for the series there.”
Ever since Kohli expressed an interest in playing county cricket during England’s tour of India in late 2016, Surrey have been contemplating such a coup. And contrary to popular belief, they have not had to break the bank to fund it. Since the Indian board, or sections of it at least, were keen for the captain to acclimatize to English conditions, Kohli will only be paid “nominal” match fees for the six games he ends up playing — three in the County Championship and three in the 50-over arena.
It represents quite a turnaround for Indian cricket and the way it treats its marquee players. Go back seven years to the summer of 2011, and you would find a group of Indian players who were utterly exhausted. They had played two series against New Zealand and Australia, drawn a series away in South Africa and then won a World Cup on home soil. Five days later, the Indian Premier League (IPL) began.
Four players asked the board for some time off during the IPL. They were refused, curtly. Two of these beasts of burden subsequently broke down on the tour of England, where India, ranked No.1 in the Test rankings at the time, were routed four-nil. Three years later, they won a famous victory at Lord’s, thanks to Ishant Sharma — currently turning out for Sussex — but then slumped to three straight defeats.
Once the ball started to nip around under overcast skies at Old Trafford and The Oval, India had no answers. M.S. Dhoni, with his unorthodox technique, was India’s best batsman in those games, as those with lofty reputations came a cropper in conditions they had seldom been exposed to.
It is not as though India’s batting legends of the past enjoyed lengthy county stints. But Sunil Gavaskar’s lone season at Somerset, Mohammad Azharuddin’s time in Derby, Sachin Tendulkar’s Yorkshire summer and Rahul Dravid’s Kent sojourn undoubtedly added to their craft and discipline. Kohli, paid 170 million rupees ($2.5 million) per season in the IPL, has similar improvement in mind as he looks forward to a month in south London.
There was a time when many, especially those in the UK, questioned India’s commitment to Test cricket, especially during the early years of the IPL. Kohli is the poster boy of the IPL generation, and his decision to follow up a draining season with a month on the county treadmill is proof of just how acutely conscious of his ever-growing Test legacy for India he really is.