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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

Analysis: India's Virat Kohli takes the elevator while his teammates use the stairs

While the bowlers have been superb on India's Test tour of South Africa, none of the batsmen have been able to match their captain's desire to score runs and win games

The likes of Murali Vijay, right, have been unable to emulate Virat Kohli. Themba Hadebe / AP Photo
The likes of Murali Vijay, right, have been unable to emulate Virat Kohli. Themba Hadebe / AP Photo

Indian cricket fans over a certain age will probably agree that the 1999 Chennai Test defeat to Pakistan was the hardest to swallow.

Sachin Tendulkar had defied debilitating back spasms, a world-class bowling attack and a crumbling fourth-day pitch to take India to within 16 runs of victory. But a rare false shot during his 405-minute vigil cost him his wicket. And in the next 15 balls Pakistan mopped up the tail to register a famous 12-run win that earned them a standing ovation from partisan spectators.

Had other batsmen followed Nayan Mongia's lead and lent Tendulkar the support he needed the result could well have been different.

But those were the days when cricket lovers across the country knew only Tendulkar could be relied upon to win matches under pressure, for there were few others who had either the calibre or the experience to do so. As a result, India were often described as "a one-man team", "flat-track bullies" and "tigers at home, lambs abroad".

Highlights of Tendulkar's knock against Pakistan

Only in the 2000s – when Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman began to realise their talents, and Virender Sehwag was handed an India cap – did the team come to depend less and less on the cult of Superhero Sachin.

The collective efforts of this batting core helped usher in an era of unprecedented success – both home and away – as well as against the biggest teams.

While history does not repeat itself, it supposedly tends to rhyme.

Four years after Tendulkar retired to bring the curtain down on that era, the Indian Test side seem to again rely on one batsman. Case in point? The just-concluded Centurion Test, which South Africa won by 135 runs on Wednesday.

The hosts, 1-0 up in the series, had been dismissed for 335 in their first innings thereby presenting India with a great opportunity to post a big total and dictate terms thereafter.

Instead, wickets fell quickly leaving captain Virat Kohli to do all the heavy lifting. He scored 153 runs – or 55 per cent of India's first-innings total – with no more than cameos from Murali Vijay and Ravichandran Ashwin, and little else from the rest. India did not get the lead they wanted, but Kohli's knock at least kept them in the game and the series.

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India's second innings was shambolic. Chasing 287 to win the Test on a fourth- and fifth-day pitch was going to be an unenviable task, but fans at least expected a fight. Unfortunately Kohli was dismissed cheaply this time and the rest of the batting folded without a contest.

It would be unfair to brand this Indian side a one-man team. The Centurion and Cape Town Tests proved there are more than a few match-winning bowlers at India's disposal – unlike in the '90s. But it would not be a stretch to call this a one-man batting line up.

Over the past four years Kohli has scored 3,952 runs overall at an average of 58.11. Cheteshwar Pujara has 2,855 at 45.31. Ajinkya Rahane has 2,609 at 44.22. Vijay has 2,513 at 41.88. During the same period overseas, Kohli has 1,890 at 48.46. Pujara has 1,048 at 33.80. Rahane has 1,608 at 51.87. Vijay has 1,240 at 41.33.

Without a doubt, Kohli has scored the bulk of India's runs in the recent past, especially in pressure situations.

The question, therefore, is what separates Kohli from his peers? After all he was never considered the most talented batsman in his own team let alone of his generation.

Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, Pujara and Rahane were all written and raved about from the time they were playing grade-level cricket, even before any talk began about a precocious teenager named Kohli.

Pujara, Vijay and Parthiv Patel made their Test debuts before Kohli did. Even Suresh Raina was earmarked for greatness before he became something of a forgotten figure.

Clearly the answer lies in his character.

King Kohli, like Superhero Sachin, has an uncommon obsession to win matches and to become one of the greatest batsmen of all time. It is a desire matched only by Australia's Steve Smith, England's Joe Root and New Zealand's Kane Williamson.

Even as his teammates made incremental changes to their game, through sheer willpower Kohli raised his to a whole new level, while assuming the role of the Test captaincy.

To steal a quote from former India batsman Vinod Kambli: Kohli took the elevator, the rest of them took the stairs.

Pujara had gone toe to toe with Kohli early on in their Test careers, at one point batting with a Bradmanesque average. But he has since been held back by an anxiety to score runs abroad.

Vijay and Rohit are not empty suits, but they are evidently more style and less substance. Rahane, the only other established Indian batsman to have proved his class on foreign pitches, has often disappeared into a shell and is unable to command a place in the XI.

Kohli talks about intent

Ultimately, it boils down to intent.

These players could still emulate their predecessors and bloom into the greats they are capable of becoming. But there is one thing that reduces that possibility: age.

Dravid, Ganguly and Laxman were all in their mid twenties when it started to click for them. The current crop, however, are already in their late twenties and early thirties.

But then what is age when the desire itself is found wanting.