December 3, 2010

Kohli brings versatility to India

He can bat high or low. If the selectors could pick the World Cup 15 today, there are question marks only against the second spinner, fourth seamer and eighth batsman

Barring what those who draft contracts call "an act of God", Virat Kohli has sealed his place in India's World Cup squad. He has shown a calm head and a solid temperament, qualities for long considered a challenge for him, and by embracing them has revealed his ambition. Hitherto a temper and an ego, both dreadful cancers, were thought of as his best friends. Hopefully they have been shown the door. With the possible exception of Suresh Raina, no young Indian player has done more in the last two years. A Test place will soon beckon and, like with Cheteshwar Pujara, I believe he is ready. The challenge from the fast short-pitched ball is still to be encountered but that is part of the finishing process.

For now, though, the Kohli story is about batting in limited-overs cricket and he has shown his versatility; batting at No. 3 in 50-overs cricket and as a finisher for the Royal Challengers. As much as he is impressive at No. 3, it was his ability to play the fiery innings at the death in the Champions League that caught the eye. It means he can bat wherever the side needs him and it is this versatility that could put him in the playing XI in the World Cup even after all the stars return.

It would be tempting, given his performances this year, to give him his due and present him with the No. 3 slot, but Gautam Gambhir has a claim on that position as well, and as we saw in Jaipur, he paces an innings remarkably well. So Kohli can play the role of the finisher, with him and Raina at Nos. 6 and 7. Alternately of course, if either Tendulkar or Sehwag has to miss a game, Gambhir moves up and Kohli can slip into No. 3. There is a fluidity to the batting order that gives it strength, and with the allrounder at no. 7 still elusive, seven batsmen looks like the way to go. It will be a batting line-up to rival, or indeed even to outshine, any other team in Indian conditions.

Well as Kohli has played - and remember he also makes India a better fielding side - there is another equally significant event that has tended to slip under the radar. India have played four bowlers in both games so far and Yuvraj Singh has picked up three wickets at under five an over from his 19 overs. Each time, the captain has preferred him to Yusuf Pathan, making it clear who he regards as the allrounder in the side. If India can get six overs out of Yuvraj in every game - and anything more can be a bonus - he provides the balance that India have been looking for over the last 12 months.

And in doing so he not only negates the need for a Ravindra Jadeja, or indeed even a Yusuf Pathan, who is the more effective batsman of the two, but also ensures that Kohli comes into the side. It is a balance that will work better in subcontinental conditions than, say, in South Africa, where you want a top-order batsman to bowl seam-up. But with the World Cup being the focus, it makes the selectors' job much easier.

In fact, with two and a half months to go, India's World Cup squad looks settled in spite of the player rotation that you see. And over the next three games, and the form that players show in South Africa, the remaining four spots can be filled. There is the little, often irrelevant, issue of naming 30 players, but really, India could name the final 15 today with the selectors taking a call on the fourth seamer, second spinner and eighth batsman.

I believe there is still the comfort factor of having a Pathan in the side in Indian conditions and that means R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha fight it out for the second spinner's slot. Given that Ashish Nehra and Praveen Kumar have done enough, it's going to be a job choosing between Ishant Sharma, Sreesanth and the quietly effective Munaf Patel for the last seamer's place. And if India do indeed commit to the seven-batsmen route, as seems likely, they will need a back-up; ideally someone who can play the role of a finisher from No. 7, and I suspect it could come down to Saurabh Tiwary or even Rohit Sharma.

There is still a long time to go for that World Cup, and much water can flow under the bridge, but Kohli and Yuvraj have started filling troublesome spots.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here

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