x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Appointment of Virat Kohli as India vice captain only step in right direction

Young players such as Ajinkya Rahane and Manish Pandey should have been selected in the Indian team for the upcoming Asia Cup.

Virat Kohli is the only India player from his generation to succeed on the international level.
Virat Kohli is the only India player from his generation to succeed on the international level.

Almost four years ago, there was a function in Bangalore to congratulate the side that had won India the Under 19 World Cup in Malaysia. It featured loud drumbeats, a red carpet and a group of young men who seemed a little dazed by it all.

There was one notable exception, swaggering around with a tattoo on his forearm.

Virat Kohli had smashed a 74-ball century against the West Indies, but it was his captaincy in the final that really caught the eye.

Defending a paltry 159 against South Africa, India saw rain and Duckworth-Lewis reduce the target to 116 from 25 overs.

"We were a bit down in confidence," said Kohli, speaking with remarkable poise in front of those assembled at the Chinnaswamy Stadium. "But I told the boys that we had to go out there and play the game of our lives." They did, winning by 12 runs.

A look at that scorecard tells a story or two though. Kohli aside, not one name has established himself in India colours.

Ajitesh Argal, man of the match after a spell of two for 7, last played a first-class match 14 months ago. Ravindra Jadeja has played 68 games – 56 of them in the 50-over arena – without ever suggesting that he is a better all-round option than either of the Pathan brothers.

Manish Pandey, despite making the first India Premier League century by an Indian, has yet to make his debut. Saurabh Tiwary also has little to show, apart from a lucrative deal with Royal Challengers Bangalore.

Wiser heads who were at the reception knew that it would turn out that way, that success at junior level seldom translates into consistent achievement on the big stage.

"What you give us is hope," said Rahul Dravid that night. "We can believe that the future of Indian cricket is bright, and I hope that you'll be part of a World Cup win someday. That should really be your goal and inspiration."

Kohli heeded those words, carrying Sachin Tendulkar around the Wankhede Stadium on his shoulders last April. The others fell behind, just as Dravid's peers in the 1991 squad did. Of those that won the trophy in 2000, only Yuvraj Singh was on the field in Mumbai when India won the World Cup.

"This is the start of a critical phase in your lives," said Dravid. "What you do from here on is what matters." Afterwards, Anil Kumble spoke to them of "hunger and desperation". Kohli, who chose to resume an innings for Delhi the morning after his father died, may have struck a nonchalant pose, but you could tell he was listening.

Despite that, he lost his way, dazzled by the IPL's bright lights and the sudden fame that came with being the face of a new generation.

In that first season for Royal Challengers, he scored just 165 runs in 12 innings. More was said of his appetite for a party and bad attitude than about his game.

The second season of the IPL – played in South Africa – saw a change in the team hierarchy. Kumble took over as captain and Ray Jennings, who had mentored the South Africans at the Under 19 World Cup, was the coach. Neither man suffered fools, and the Jennings effect was especially apparent in Kohli and Pandey.

When asked what he'd done to bring about the transformation, Jennings spoke of how he had scoffed at what they had done at the junior level. "I said to them that no one would remember or care in a couple of years time what they'd done as Under 19s. If they didn't work or follow instructions, they'd just join the list of has-beens."

Kohli established himself in the one-day side later that year, and after 82 games, his average of 47.54 puts him up there with the greats of the game. After a hesitant start, there were also signs in Australia that he is ready to take over the mantle in Test cricket as well.

Four years ago, he was naive enough to leave crude and indiscreet messages on social networking sites. These days, though he struggles to bottle his emotions, he speaks with the maturity of a veteran. While Suresh Raina and Rohit Sharma, once hailed as the future, tread water, he has clearly been identified as a future captain.

After another horror story of a tour, India cannot afford to delay the rebuilding process. The squad picked for the Asia Cup is a disappointing one, ignoring the likes of Ajinkya Rahane and Pandey. Kohli's ascension to the vice captaincy is the only concession to the future.

There have been those who have asked what sort of message his appointment sends to Gautam Gambhir and others who might still be around for the World Cup in 2015.

That doesn't matter. Nearly a decade ago, South Africa looked at a team scarred by defeat, and decided to take a chance on Graeme Smith, then just 22, as captain.

Though World Cup glory continues to elude them, the team has won Test series in Australia and England. When Dhoni's appetite for the big occasion wanes, India need to make a similarly brave call.