“I think that if you really understand the sport, if you really love the sport, you understand Test cricket and you understand how exciting it is. It’s the most beautiful format of the game”
Test cricket is the holy grail, they say. For a generation growing up in an age where bats have gotten wider and boundaries smaller, the patience, resistance, resilience and temperament of batting and batting on for five long days is a lost art. In the day of instant messaging, Gen X yearns for immediate gratification, and hence the phenomena of waiting five long days for a result – sometimes not even that – appears a queer concept.
However, with current icon and genius Virat Kohli not hesitating to credit the longest format of the game time and again for his development, even urging the upcoming enthusiasts to train themselves according to the rigours of Test cricket, the global audience has slowly but surely woken up to the delectable challenges of playing in the white flannels. Team India’s rise and the historical triumph Down Under – wherein the team became the first side in 71 years from India to claim the coveted victory in Australia – has a lot to do with their skipper’s passion towards red-ball cricket, which had been on a decline ever since MS Dhoni took over the leadership reigns.
The obsession with white-ball cricket
Sans the famous 2001 Test match where India managed to defeat the Aussies after following-on in Calcutta and the series-leveling efforts in 2003/04 in Australia, success and bright moments in Test cricket remained sparse for the Indian team, especially overseas. Faltering against ordinary sides like Zimbabwe in 2000/01 and Windies in 2001/02 did not help matters further, and as the side romped away to the finals of the World Cup in 2003, the attention inadvertently switched to glories in ODIs.
Rahul Dravid did manage to scale the peak in West Indies in 2006 and created history when he led India to the series win in England a year later, but with these achievements coming in close tandem with the Greg Chappell controversy, the 2007 World Cup ouster and the 2007 WT20 win in South Africa that heralded the emergence of Dhoni, Dravid’s efforts and the team’s wins were underlined.
Dhoni’s arrival with a surprise World title in the 20-over format further heightened the craze that the young spectators had towards coloured-clothing cricket. The IPL started with all glitz and glamour and as T20 in India emerged, so did players who were more focused on bowling their mere 4 overs for 30 runs. Suddenly, a 12-ball 50 was the order of the hour, with cricketers scoring at less than run-a-ball not being preferred for the national side.
Players were being groomed, but for the upcoming 2011 World Cup. Superstars were constantly rising but creating waves only in the ‘spectator-friendly’ formats, and as MS Dhoni smashed the six over the roof of the Wankhede in 2011, the longest format was further pushed to the back-burners. Though India did win the series in New Zealand in 2009, it was largely due to the heroics of Gautam Gambhir, and it was the 0-8 routing in England and Australia in 2011 that brought the then-skipper’s attitude towards Test cricket to the foreground. Defensive captaincy, a failure to get ahead of the rivals, the inability to ring in desired changes all brought Dhoni’s liking for the shorter formats and his apparent dislike for the Test game in full glare.
The growth of Tests in India with Kohli’s ascension
4 years ago as Kohli led the Indian team for the first time in Tests at Adelaide after Dhoni missed the game due to injury, it appeared as if Test cricket had been injected with fresh air. Chasing a tricky and almost improbable 363 runs for victory, the spectators who might have been accustomed to Dhoni’s ‘go-for-a-draw’ thought-process were in for a surprise shock. As the Indian team came out all guns blazing, with Kohli leading the way with a smashing 141, it was clear that for Test cricket to survive, more individuals like the Delhiite were needed.
Players who would adore the challenges it brought; individuals who brought their sternest game in the face of adversity and cricketers who revelled in the small battles for a long duration. Kohli was that man; the being who had been sent down to make Test cricket great again.
His eagerness to improve was evident in England when he conquered his demon James Anderson. His constant chopping and changing of the Test squad – while being seen as flimsy on the outside – somewhere reveals a player who is so stubborn to get things right that sometimes he can be accused of trying too hard. Kohli’s vision for Indian cricket started with including Jasprit Bumrah in the Test squad against South Africa even when the critics all around were questioning the move. Instead of wrapping the uncanny bowler in cotton wool, he pushed him out of the nest so that he could soar uninhibitedly over each obstacle.
As Bumrah finishes the year as India’s highest wicket-taking seam bowler, Kohli needs to be applauded. When many others would have kept their best bowlers safe for the World Cup, the Delhi player refused to put Test cricket secondary. He might have faltered a lot and erred many more times, but his love for Test cricket, which can now even be gauged in once-seen-as-a-limited-overs-specialist Rishabh Pant’s demeanour can in no way be questioned. And for that, the lovers of the format will always be indebted.