South Africa make-or-break tour for Virat Kohli the captain and batsman

Nearly four years ago, Virat Kohli and an impressionable young side landed in South Africa with the burning ambition to emerge as a genuinely world-beating side. India lost that series, but offered a precursor of their collective and individual capabilities, exhibiting a distinct streak of indefatigability that has come to symbolise both the captain and his team.

In the intervening four years, the group scaled unprecedented heights in Test cricket, achieving most of what they had set their heads and hearts on — two series wins in Australia and leading a Test series in England, besides reaching the World Test Championship final.

Four years on, Virat Kohli lands in South Africa ready to script another chapter in his career. Not just to win a series in South Africa for the first time, the most elusive of elusive shores, at a time when they are most vulnerable, but in search of personal redemption, as captain and batsman. The series, which starts from Sunday at Centurion, could either mark the final stretch of his ascent to immortality or the slow slope into the sunset.

South Africa are weak on paper — their batting comprises more rookies than seasoned hands, one of their lead bowlers is injured, there is chaos in administration, head coach Mark Boucher and cricket director Graeme Smith are under probe of allegations of racism, and they’ve have lost five of their last eight Tests at home. But India have landed in Johannesburg after a turbulent build-up.

The aftertaste of the white-ball captaincy change still lingers. There will be hawkish eyes trained on Kohli, keen to swoop on his tiniest misjudgement, or his slightest misfortune. His challenges are two-fold — to show that he is still the best choice as red-ball captain of his country as well as to reimpose that he is still one of the best batsmen in the world.

Both will be corollaries of the same story, entwined as well as engrossing. In that sense, this tour will be the most challenging of his career, one where he has to reassert as both a batsman and captain, to rescale the gold standards he had set for both. This is a burden enough to creak the steeliest of souls.

The microscopic lens of scrutiny on his leadership is cruel, because it was not too long ago that his side took a 2-1 lead in England, registered a comeback victory against the same opposition and handsomely defeated New Zealand. But the white-ball captaincy drama has somehow spilled over and made his Test captaincy look no longer inscrutable. Even if his captaincy shines, his form with the bat too will be under fierce watch.

His form has been at the lowest ebb since the tour of England in 2014 — just 599 runs have arrived in his last 23 innings. His average (26), strike-rate (43) and conversion rate (0 hundreds, five half-centuries) has been the worst in his career. Hushed whispers of dropping him will gather volume, if he fails to replicate his vaunted form. Pragmatism could fade out romanticism when selectors get together.

Bizarrely, he has not been so much out-of-form as out-of-depth. Oftentimes, he has looked smooth and serene but for a momentary lapse in concentration. A stray poke outside the off stump, a flush of adrenaline to drive expansively, or taking on the short ball when the snare is carefully laid for the pull — he has contrived to get himself out in unseemly fashion. But Kohli, most believe, will turn the slump into a stream of runs sooner than later. But the longer it takes, the more pressure he will have to cope with, and the looser the sand beneath his feet will be.

Worryingly, he is not travelling alone in the slump. His middle-order colleagues, Cheteshwar Pujara (average 27 in last 32 innings) and Ajinkya Rahane (24 in 29 outings), are waddling through a dark alley themselves. At least for Rahane, this is some kind of a last-chance saloon, assuming that he gets picked for the first Test. Shreyas Iyer and Hanuma Vihari are breathing down his neck, and it will not be a surprise if he’s ignored altogether, or is not afforded a longer rope.

Conversely, Pujara’s spot is more secure — but patience is wearing thin, and should he not convert his starts to three-figure knocks, the team management will be pressed, more than tempted, to look over his shoulders. His approach will be interesting — whether he’ll wear down bowlers as is his nature or continue the bolder approach he embraced towards the latter stages of the tour to England. If both fail, the middle-order transitioning phase will be ushered in earlier than expected, and a new-look line-up will be encountering Sri Lanka in late February next year.

Worse, they couldn’t have countenanced a more challenging set of conditions to reverse form in. Green-tops, poisoned with pace, bounce and lateral movement will likely greet them in all three venues. Even more so in Centurion, where South Africa have won 21 of 26 Tests, where the balls tends to bounce awkwardly and seam wickedly.

It was Dale Steyn’s favourite home ground — his 59 wickets there came at 17.94; his successor Kagiso Rabada too has harnessed the helpful conditions to supreme effect (35 wickets have arrived in five Tests). Though Rabada’s accomplice Anrich Nortje has been ruled out of the series, South Africa have enough firepower to rattle India, with an ailing middle order and without regular opener and highest run-getter this year, Rohit Sharma.

Green-tops, though, will also gee up India’s skilled pace-bowling squadron. It could be arguably India’s most skilled group of pacers to land in South Africa, able to match or even out-gun their South Africa counterparts. Now that Mohammed Siraj too has blossomed into a match-winning force, India could land the killer blows on what is apparently South Africa’s weakest batting unit since readmission.

Barring Dean Elgar, Aiden Markram, and Quinton de Kock, their batting is callow. Temba Bavuma continues to struggle to add to the hundred he scored six years ago; Keegan Petersen, Rassie van der Dussen and Wiaan Mulder have only 18 Tests between them and have yet to earn their stripes at this level. The combined century tally of their batsmen is two less than Kohli’s count of 27. Jasprit Bumrah, who returns to the country of his Test debut, will be licking his lips at this opportunity.

In effect, seam bowlers, though both sides have a fine spinner apiece in Ravi Ashwin and Keshav Maharaj, could decide the outcome of the series. Or rather, inversely, how well batsmen of both sides counter the seamers and conditions. A standout batsman, or even a standout knock, could influence the series. There could be a timelier time than this for Kohli and his middle-order peers to rediscover their form, but there won’t be a more hostile place to revive their form either. On that note, this expedition to South Africa is as significant for Kohli as the last one.

Maybe, even more. For seldom in his career has the scrutiny been so equally hard on both his captaining and batting.

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