Had I been asked to write this column a year earlier, I’d have refused within a few seconds. Virat Kohli as skipper wasn’t just premature, it was unthinkable. Then came the Australia tour in December-January 2011-12 and things started changing. In what was one of the worst tours in India’s cricket history, there was one success story—Virat Kohli. The tour Down Under witnessed the making of Kohli the leader who was willing to take centerstage every time the chips were down, as his seniors fended and prodded and scythed in vain around him. From giving it back to the Australians verbally and on the field, Virat was a silver lining that all of India was holding onto amidst the misery of the back-to-back tour hidings. Most importantly, Australia witnessed his transformation from boy to man. From being a youngster, Virat was fast playing the role of a premier batsman. And this happened within a month, between the third Test at Perth and the Tri-series, which Virat made his own by playing one of the best one-day knocks of all time in Hobart against Sri Lanka.
Justly, he was rewarded with the vice-captaincy at the end of the tour. Virat’s ascent had only begun. In the months that followed, he did not put a foot wrong as batsman, and as statesman and leader he was fast making a mark. Speaking to the media with graceful panache, handling tough questions with dignity and giving legends their due, Virat was no longer the future of Indian cricket. As runs flow richly like silk from his bat, he has become the face of its present and is grooming himself into being the poster boy for the future. One instance will elucidate the point—Virat had played a spectacular hand in winning India the game against Pakistan in Dhaka at the Asia Cup and was visibly exhausted. But he still had the post-match press conference to do and had started walking across the field to the press conference room, when he heard a band of Indian supporters screaming “Virat, Virat”. The Virat Kohli of old would have given them a cursory glance and walked on. The new Virat Kohli made a detour, signed autographs and then made his way to the media room. After he was done, he even agreed to do some 10 television interviews to satisfy the 24/7 TV cycle. India saw its future leader woo the media in a way we haven’t seen in the recent past. I must introduce a caveat here—I am not advocating Test captaincy for Kohli yet. He isn’t ready, for he clearly needs to do more. Nor am I suggesting he be made captain of the 50-over format right away. He might well be the best ODI player in the world, but he still has some distance to go before we burden him with skipperhood. He can be made one-day captain a year down the line, and invested with the responsibility of defending the World Cup crown in Australia-New Zealand in 2015. However, he is most certainly ready for the job in T20 cricket.
Australia has invested in George Bailey and Pakistan in Mohammed Hafiz. And inspired choices they have turned out to be too. With Dhoni having done the job for six long years, India needs fresh thinking at the top. We need someone who can rally his teammates and the billion-plus Indian fans. After stupendous consistency over the past one year, especially in the shorter formats of the game, Virat has earned the respect of his mates and it is time to ask him to take up the mantle of leadership. I must recount a press conference in Australia to drive home the point—India needed a miracle at Hobart to remain in contention for a spot in the Tri-series final in February this year. The team looked jaded and few had given India a chance after the Sri Lankans had scored 320. Virat begged to differ. He led the Indian assault and scripted a win, which will always rank as one of the best in our ODI history. After that, he simply commented: “I love to do it for the team at times when it matters the most”. With Dhoni’s India not making the semi-finals of the T20 world cup yet again after being inaugural champions in 2007, fans’ patience is fast running out. It is imperative that Indian cricket is fast brought back on track. We have been starved of a major success for 18 long months and need a new champion with younger blood at the helm. Without doubt, it is time to give it to Virat. It is time to act on what shows clearly in the batting’s over-reliance on him, and on what Chris Gayle says: “Virat is the next big thing in Indian cricket”. The nation will welcome a change of guard. Time to welcome captain Virat.
(The author is a sports historian)