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Virat Kohli's absence creates a hole and a plot twist

The ice of Pujara and Rahane could be as big a test for Australia as the India captain's fire

Daniel Brettig
Daniel Brettig
Where Virat Kohli brings instant theatre, Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara offer India an almost preternatural calm  •  AFP

Where Virat Kohli brings instant theatre, Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara offer India an almost preternatural calm  •  AFP

Eighty-five years ago an Australian team toured South Africa with Vic Richardson as captain while Sir Donald Bradman remained at home.
Officially this was to continue his long recovery from illness suffered on the 1934 tour of England, but also to captain South Australia to the Sheffield Shield. Seldom since then can be found any sort of parallel with the news that Virat Kohli will be missing all but one of this summer's Test matches between Australia and India due to the impending birth of his first child.
Then, as now, the player in question is not just the pre-eminent batsman in the game, but also the biggest box-office draw of his or many other eras. Bradman was the unrivalled star of a much smaller cricket universe than the one that Kohli dominates now. Television broadcasting was still more than 20 years away in Australia when Bradman missed that tour, but it's hard to think of another player who would have got the watermark treatment, his smiling face tattooed onto the top right corner of the television screen, as Kohli has been on Fox Cricket this week.
That bit of branding, alongside plenty in News Corp's newspapers, has a lot to do with the fact that the limited-overs portion of the tour, which Kohli is not missing, is exclusive to the pay TV service, leaving the free-to-air Seven Network with just one Test match from which to extract its pound of Kohli-hype. As far as the broadcasters are concerned, the early exit of India's megastar captain is tantamount to losing Bradman, and Fox are taking every opportunity to ram home the discrepancy.
What should also be remembered about the 1935-36 tour, however, is that in Bradman's absence and after the retirement of the long-time captain Bill Woodfull, the Australians gelled impressively under the tactically astute and socially outgoing Richardson, winning the series 4-0 while playing an enterprising brand of cricket. The South Africans, though not having to face the batting giant of the age, were attacked from all sides.
One advantage India have by comparison to the 1935-36 Australians is that they know far better the capabilities of their likely stand-in captain: Ajinkya Rahane. Through many matches for India A and a handful of occasions with the senior side, Rahane has shown himself to be a sharp and aggressive leader, even if in bearing and outward countenance he and Kohli could not be more different as personalities. In this, he provides some parallels with Kohli's greatest top-order batting asset, Cheteshwar Pujara, who in 2018-19 simply bored the hosts into defeat.
Where Kohli brings instant theatre, combative moments and the drama of an elite athlete operating on the edge, Rahane as a captain and Pujara as a batsman offer an almost preternatural calm at times, and much less of an Alpha "contest" for the Australians to get into. For all of Kohli's pre-eminence as a batsman, recent evidence suggests that Australia quite like locking horns with him, not only for the scope of the challenge but also for the fact they come out on top as often as not.
In 2017 in India, Kohli made 46 runs in three Tests before Rahane took over for the deciding match in Dharamsala; two years later, Kohli produced arguably the innings of the summer on a fiery Perth pitch, but was otherwise more or less tamed while averaging 40.28 for the series. Certainly, the energy created by his arrival at the crease has focused the Australians more than it has detracted from their bowling and fielding. Pujara, meanwhile, has stretched Australian patience far more often.
"Every batter's a little bit different, but they're probably polar opposites," Australia fast bowler Josh Hazlewood said. "For me it's about not really seeing the batsman down the other end, it's just about seeing the wickets and seeing where I want to pitch the ball and taking the batter out of the equation, whether that's Virat or Pujara.
"That's the way I go about it, I know everyone's different and they like to get in the fight with Virat and they think that brings out the best in them as a bowler, but I think it's just about treating every batsman the same, whether they have a lot of energy or not, that's the way I go about things."
Most intriguing on the batting front will be the fact that Pujara will be able to focus exclusively on his preparedness to bat for long periods, while Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc must adjust their focus after the suite of white-ball games that will also feature Kohli. All the quicks plus Nathan Lyon are seasoned enough to know that shifting gears from white ball to red requires a greater application of patience, but equally will realise that is easier said than done without the requisite match practice.
"Patience is probably the big thing for me, moving from white ball to red ball," Hazlewood said. "You've got 10 overs in a white-ball game ad you're probably not always looking for wickets, but you know you've only got 10 overs and you've got to try and make an impact, so when we head back to that red ball it'll be patience as the key for me and sticking those right areas all day. That's probably the one thing I set my mind to in that change of format.
"When we got [Pujara] at Perth he didn't hurt us on a bit quicker, bouncier track, so his game's obviously set up, he's played the majority of his cricket in India on slower, lower wickets, and he's hard work on those tracks to find a chink in the armour. The more pace and bounce we can get at a few of the grounds will be helpful, but I think it's a patience game with him and it's just about outlasting him and knowing he's going to face a lot of balls, and not going away from our plan we've talked about. Keeping to that as best we can."
As for Rahane, the likes of Cummins, Lyon, Steven Smith and David Warner will recall how he marshalled India brilliantly in that deciding 2017 Test, particularly in how the Australians were placed under pressure in the third innings when starting only 32 runs behind. Mentally tired at the end of a long and often spiteful series, they cracked for 137, leaving Rahane to help run down a modest fourth innings target and then gracefully allow Kohli the opportunity to lift the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
Nonetheless, Rahane is nowhere near as transcendent a batting talent as Kohli, and the Australians will have the chance to corner him over successive matches on bouncier surfaces than those commonly produced in India. This applies both ways of course: Rather than a one-off with Kohli in the dressing room, Rahane will get three matches in which to assert himself as a leader.
"India is very, very lucky to have a stand-in captain like Rahane," Ian Chappell told ESPNcricinfo in 2017. "I thought he did a fantastic job and it's not easy to do the job as a fill-in, because you know the full-time captain has got a certain style. What do I do, do I try and copy that style, do I try and captain the same way as him, or do I just be myself, and Rahane did the right thing - he captained in his own way and I thought he did a terrific job. Aggressive in his own quiet way.
"You don't have to be a gung-ho captain to have the whole team behind you, you just need to do a good job, and have the guys having faith in what you're doing. If you're making the right moves and the aggressive field-placing moves that Rahane was making, then that creates a belief in the team. The team are looking at your captain and they're thinking 'well, the captain thinks we've got a real chance here in this game, he thinks we've got a chance of getting a wicket', so that brings the team behind the captain."
So yes, Kohli is a loss to the series, but his absence will not necessarily make Australia's task an easier one. Well acquainted with Kohli's fire, Tim Paine's team will need to find better ways to cope with the ice of Pujara and Rahane.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig