January 26, 2014

The divergent paths of Kohli and Hughes

They are the same age, but one is now a recognised international star while the other has lost his way after an impressive start

Two batsmen, born just days apart, are now light years apart in their cricket ambitions.

Virat Kohli is a certified international star, now occupying Sachin Tendulkar's coveted No. 4 spot in India's Test side and with all the credentials of a future Indian captain. Phil Hughes, on the other hand, is relegated to state duties, having been left out of the touring party for South Africa and dropped from the Australian one-day side. His only consolation is the thought of piling up first-class runs - which he does with monotonous regularity - to soothe his wounds.

This is a far cry from just a few years ago. Both players were born in November 1988, but Hughes matured more quickly than Kohli.

By the time he had played four Test innings - prior to his 21st birthday - Hughes had amassed two centuries. Kohli didn't play four Test innings until he was nearly 23, and none of those knocks exceeded 30.

Kohli's breakthrough came in a Test on the notorious WACA pitch. A difficult, bouncy strip to handle even for local batsmen, it was deemed a nightmare for Indian batsmen. But for Kohli it became his field of dreams. He scored 44 and 75 and hasn't looked back as an international batsman.

Having coped with the most extreme of conditions, he then scored his first Test century in the next innings, at the picturesque Adelaide Oval. He has accumulated another four since, at venues as disparate as Bangalore and the Bullring in Johannesburg. Adelaide might be the most scenic of his Test century venues but the Wanderers ranks up there with the WACA in importance on a touring batsman's CV.

It was meritorious runs on a lively WACA pitch that gave Kohli belief as a Test player. It was his hundred at the Wanderers, against a top-rated attack, that confirmed he was a player of great class.

While the WACA was kind to Kohli, another prestigious venue, Lord's, has been disastrous for Hughes. He has had two Tests and four innings at the famous ground for a top score of 17 - and that's the good news. Following each Lord's fixture he has been dropped, and since the second omission, he hasn't been sighted at Test level despite Australia's top order malfunctioning regularly.

Cricket life has been difficult for Hughes. He has been shuffled in the order since his early days as a pure opener, but in reality that's his spot. He first caught the eye while making rapid progress through the grades as a young opener who consistently scored centuries.

However, following yet another setback in his Test career, he decided to revamp his technique. In retrospect, this may have been a mistake, because in making himself a little less vulnerable around the off stump, one of his greatest attributes was diminished.

Previously Hughes had worried new-ball bowlers. They knew he could be troubled around the off stump but they were also aware that a slight mistake on their part would cost them dearly. Since the alteration to his technique he has lost that "fear factor".

Kohli, on the other hand, has remained strong-minded in his approach to batting. Just the other day, after making an ODI century in New Zealand, he defiantly stated: "I think even [before leaving] the ball on a bouncer, it is very important to want to hit the ball."

Kohli's simple approach to batting - thinking primarily about scoring - has stood many a fine player in good stead. In the mind-game battle, Kohli has progressed while Hughes has regressed.

Nevertheless, the fate of both players could also be explained by a variance in selection policies between the two countries. After years of subservience to senior batsmen, India have finally been forced to become more youthful, and it's paying dividends. Conversely Australia, who used to depend heavily on young batsmen, have now veered away from that policy and are placing a lot of faith in more experienced players.

Kohli and Hughes - a case of two batsmen and two philosophies moving in divergent directions.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator for Channel 9, and a columnist