Virat Kohli’s mid-series departure will leave an immense void for India and broadcasters, but Australia know all too well why the tourists represent a potent force without their inspirational skipper. Kohli has confirmed he will return home for the birth of his and wife Anushka Sharma’s first child.
The Covid-19 pandemic means that trip will sideline cricket’s biggest drawcard from the final three Tests of the four-Test series that begins at Adelaide Oval on 17 December. Kohli is India’s talisman, a wondrous batsman for all situations who has animatedly dragged his country to more Test victories than any other captain.
India will be without their best player and a proven performer in Australia. He averages 55.39 here; Jack Hobbs and Wally Hammond are the only tourists to have celebrated more Test centuries on our shores.
The leadership void is likely to be filled by vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane, although India’s cricket board is yet to confirm this. Former paceman Irfan Pathan has suggested Rohit Sharma should be given the job; such debate is near impossible to avoid given Kohli’s irreplaceable status in his homeland and the fact he has missed only two Tests since becoming captain in 2014.
Yet India have proven in their previous two Test series against Australia that they are no one-man band. Kohli made plenty of noise during his previous visit, but it was immovable object Cheteshwar Pujara’s 521 runs that proved the difference as India registered their first Test series win in Australia.
Kohli averaged 9.2 during Australia’s tour of India in 2017, marking the statistical low of a decorated 86-Test career. The hosts weathered a shock loss in that series opener and prevailed 2-1 in an epic contest. Rahane served as stand-in skipper for the fourth Test, which Kohli missed through injury, and earned victory plus praise from Ian Chappell and other good judges.
Kohli’s absence at the MCG, SCG and Gabba is likely to create an opportunity for either Shubman Gill or Prithvi Shaw, a pair of 21-year-old batsmen with talent to burn. Gill boasts a first-class average of 73.55. Shaw was attracting Sachin Tendulkar comparisons even before becoming the youngest Indian to score a Test century on debut, a feat achieved at age 18.
But Pujara, Sharma, Rahane, Shaw and Gill will not come close to matching the aura surrounding this summer’s headline act. Kohli is capable of captivating the public more than most members of Tim Paine’s team; he will be dearly missed by Cricket Australia and Channel Seven’s marketing departments.
Seven can not begrudge Kohli’s family-first decision, but the free-to-air broadcaster will likely feel even more aggrieved about a summer that remains the subject of a testy contract dispute. India will play cricket on 29 days this season, presuming all Tests run to a fifth day. Fox Sports will show all 14 days involving Kohli, including a tour match, whereas Seven will only broadcast one Test involving the larger-than-life batsman.
Meanwhile, Cricket Australia is hoping crowd limits at stadiums can be relaxed for India’s tour as Covid-19 restrictions ease across the country. Australia has for weeks recorded just daily single digit new cases, with an outbreak in Victoria quashed by a four-month lockdown.
Caps on stadium crowds remain, however, which could cost CA tens of millions of dollars in revenue. Victoria is limiting crowds at the 100,000-seat MCG to 25,000 per day during the Boxing Day Test, the second of the four-match series against India.
Test venues Adelaide Oval and the SCG are limited to about half-capacity, while Brisbane’s Gabba is capped at about 70%.
“We’re going to give all priority to safety but we’ll continue to work with the authorities to see if we can’t increase those capacities a bit as we move forward,” CA interim CEO Nick Hockley told SEN on Tuesday.
CA last month reported a $46m for the year to June 30, and projected a $120m dip in projected revenue for the 2020-21 period due to the Covid-19 pandemic. India’s tour, which kicks off with a one-day international series starting in Sydney on 27 November, will provide a vital injection of revenue for CA despite Kohli’s limited involvement.
“I think when the pregnancy was announced it was always on the cards and we have to respect the fact he wants to be there for the birth of his first child,” said Hockley.
The India players and staff will undertake a 14-day quarantine after arriving in Australia and be confined to a biosecure bubble during the tour. They are expected to land in Australia on Thursday but Hockley said travel arrangements for their families had not been settled. “We were always talking about a very limited number of families and we’re working through it,” he said.