Virat Kohli: Test match cricket’s last great hope for survival?
India’s peerless captain shows it is possible to embrace both modern life and Test cricket
Virat Kohli averages 50 across all three formats of the game. Photograph: Ashley Vlotman/Getty
Virat Kohli knows about pressure. He is Sachin Tendulkar for the Twitter generation, with 23.3 million people hanging on his every emoji. When he bats, a country of 1.3 billion fidgets with vicarious need. Most of us can barely cope with trying to make ourselves happy but Kohli is in a blissful state where pressure is a drug that stimulates all kinds of achievement. He averages more than 50 in all three forms of cricket, an unprecedented record, and has turned the extraordinary into the everyday.
He probably will not mind, then, if we add a bit more pressure. Virat, you may be the only person who can save Test cricket.
We know the modern world is in a desperate hurry. Some people have their day thrown off course if the contactless function is not working in Starbucks. But are we so pathetically impatient that sport’s greatest format is going to suffer death by a thousand snubs? Test cricket is a subtle, exacting interrogation of the character of 22 players – a game in which you can watch three full days, have no idea which side are winning and still be deliriously high on the joys of sport. When a man is tired of Test cricket, he is tired of the soul. Or he just really needs to check his Twitter to see how many likes his last post got.
Kohli shows it is possible to embrace modern life and Test cricket. Unlike some administrators who say the right thing to trick their conscience into shutting up, Kohli cares about Test cricket and he may be able to do something about it. Kohli has the air and aura of a man who could bend anything to his will. He is the most powerful person in world cricket – partly because of his status, as India captain, partly because of his genius, and primarily because of his dominant personality. Even if you disagree with him, it’s almost impossible not to be impressed by the charisma, conviction and passion he shows in everything he does.
It is hard to overstate Kohli’s influence on India – and therefore, given his country’s political clout, on all cricket. He could change the world with a hashtag. While he is a champion of Test cricket, it has a chance.
He takes every opportunity to implore the next generation to focus on the longer game, as if making a public appeal for decency. While many players have realised first-class cricket means much longer hours for much less pay, Kohli points out the job satisfaction and potential legacies are infinitely greater. Test match achievements are carved into marble; one-day feats are written on chip paper.
Kohli’s attitude is the main reason why India, accused for so long of being the chief suspects in the future death of Test cricket, now seem the ones who care about it the most. Their main focus is not the 2019 World Cup but this year’s Test series in England and Australia, part of a defining trilogy that started with their pulsating 2-1 defeat in South Africa in January. India’s surprise win in the 1983 World Cup changed attitudes to one-day internationals in that country; the same was true of their victory at the inaugural World Twenty20 in 2007. In the absence of a Test championship, a first series victory in Australia is the closest to an equivalent landmark.
A win in England would come a decent second, especially as Kohli has an almost deranged purpose to redeem his desperate series here in 2014. But if they lose badly, India’s enthusiasm for Test cricket may start to ebb away. It is an immense challenge, particularly in Australia. Kohli has routinely walked on water in the last few years; for India to win both series, he will probably need to walk on air. It’s a strange thing to say as an England fan but there is a decent argument for supporting India this summer.
The desperation to save Test cricket has led to a number of initiatives, including day-night Tests, four-day matches and a Test championship. The lack of precedent means everyone is making it up as they go along, and it feels like those in charge have not looked far enough outside the box.
They should discuss any ideas, however absurd they may seem: free entry, neutral groundsmen, franchise four-day cricket, an annual meeting of all the Test captains to pool ideas. They should consult those who have had unexpected commercial success in other spheres, from darts to the arts. Hell, if it means talking to a shower of hipsters to see if they can do for Test cricket what they have done for vinyl and beards, so be it.
Though the idea of grand solutions and symbolic moments is comforting, most things change through osmosis. While Kohli remains a believer in Test cricket and spreads the word through his interviews and performances, there is hope of an incremental change in attitudes.
It may be too late. It is possible too much damage has been done by a decade of greed and inaction; that player and supporter burnout has made Test cricket fade away. Nobody really knows.
Test cricket is never going to be as important as it was but if it can survive as the art-house niche to T20’s blockbuster, the world will be a much better place. As the chief disciple of Test cricket, Kohli is up against a worldwide culture of apathy and instant gratification but if anyone can overcome them, he can.