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'Brutally honest' Virat Kohli plays down World Test Championship hype

"If you're not motivated to play a normal game but extra-motivated to play a game with some incentive, that's unacceptable"

India versus England. The last Test of the last-but-one series in the current World Test Championship cycle. Everything is on the line. For India, it's simple: win or draw, and they book their place in the final, alongside New Zealand. For England there's the incentive of playing spoiler: if they win, India will miss out, and Australia will make the final instead.
When you throw in all the conflicting emotions of Australia fans cheering England, you have just the sort of scenario the ICC and its member boards may have hoped for when they came up with the concept of the Test Championship.
And yet, on the eve of the Test match that will determine India's fate in the tournament, their captain didn't sound like a man dreaming about glory in the final.
"If you want me to be brutally honest, it might work for teams who are not that motivated to play Test cricket," Virat Kohli said, when asked what he thought of the Test Championship as a concept. "Teams like us, who are motivated to play Test cricket and want to win Test matches and keep Indian cricket team at the top of the world in Test cricket, we have no issues whatsoever, whether it's a World Test Championship or not. I think for teams like us, it's only a distraction when you start thinking of the World Test Championship.
"Eventually it's only a game of cricket. Even that game, a World Cup final, semi-final, anything you take, it's a game of cricket at the end of the day, and if you're not motivated to play a normal game of cricket and you're extra-motivated to play a game of cricket which has some incentive to it, for me, as an individual, that's unacceptable, and we as a team have never played with that mindset.
"For us, any game is important, we are going to go for a result whenever the opportunity presents itself, and that's why people want to watch us as a team now. You could ask some of the teams that probably wouldn't have looked at Test cricket as a priority, but for us it really doesn't change anything. As I said, if we start thinking too much about it, then that is a distraction from our process and plans."
Now there are a couple of things to keep in mind when you read that quote. One, Kohli may well have expressed himself more harshly than intended while trying to communicate his single-minded focus on the immediate task at hand - winning the fourth Test against England - and play down the significance of the prize that awaits his team if they complete it successfully.
And it's not that the view expressed here is shared by everyone in the India dressing room. Ishant Sharma, for instance, has spoken of the Test Championship final as being the equal of a World Cup final for him, now that he only plays one format for India. Others may share that view too.
But for Kohli to express himself as he did was a departure from his early enthusiasm for the Test Championship. When it was introduced, he suggested the Championship would add a whole new level of spice to Test cricket.
"I think for all the cricketers involved now, every session and every game will be more intense, there will be more on the line," he had said. "So it will be challenging, but all the more exciting and all the teams I am sure are going to enjoy a lot through this whole journey of the Test Championships."
"If you want me to be brutally honest, the WTC might work for teams who are not that motivated to play Test cricket."
Since then, global events - chiefly the Covid-19 pandemic - have conspired to take some of the gloss off this first cycle of the Test Championship. From all teams playing an equal number of series, a spate of cancellations led the boards to agree to a system that ranked teams based on the percentage of points they had contested. India ended up needing to do more to get to the final than most other teams, since they were one of only two teams who weren't affected by cancellations.
It was always going to be an imperfect solution in an imperfect situation, and Kohli expressed his displeasure after India lost the first Test against England, leaving them in a delicate situation as far as reaching the final was concerned.
"If suddenly the rules can change when you're in lockdown, nothing is in your control at all," he said then. "So we're not bothered at all about the table or the things that are going on on the outside. For some things there's no logic, for some things you can have a debate for hours, as much as you want, but the only thing that you can control as a side, to an extent, is playing good cricket, and that's our only focus, regardless of who's on top of the table."
If India fail to reach the final, Kohli will probably remain lukewarm about the Test Championship, and that's only natural for someone in his situation. But if they get there, it's not inconceivable that he'll sing its praises again.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo