India's most successful ODI batsman in 2010 is not Sehwag, Dhoni, Raina or even Tendulkar. It is Virat Kohli who has matured beyond his years, transforming from rookie to middle-order pivot in a short span.
Scoring hundreds is what separates boys from men. Kohli, in his short ODI career, has already made four - all in the last eleven months. He's not just the most improved batsman in India's ODI line-up; he is also the most improved cricketer in their set-up. Going beyond his obvious gifts with the bat, Kohli has shed the wild-child image, developing the mental apparatus necessary to absorb the pulls and pushes of the highest level.
After the hundred in Guwahati, Kohli has 866 runs at 48.11 this year - 235 more than Suresh Raina, who is India's next best in the same period. Kohli's peers from the India Juniors days have been tried and tested - Rohit Sharma is a good example - but none have succeeded as much as the pint-sized Delhi right-hander. He's taken runs off an array of oppositions, situations and conditions. Kohli is a certainty for the World Cup squad, and depending on who is fit to play on the day, he might even push Yuvraj Singh out of the eleven.
The hundreds in Guwahati and Vishakhapatnam paid tribute to his growing maturity. Against Australia, India had lost their openers cheaply in a steep chase. Kohli partnered the out-of-sorts Yuvraj, setting up the chase with not a slam-bang innings, but with a calm, well-measured hundred that is the work of a seasoned veteran, not a youth setting out against a top team in the big league.
Sunday's hundred was built in similar fashion. While Murali Vijay, Gautam Gambhir and Yuvraj Singh managed to get away boundaries, Kohli constructed his hundred upon ones and twos. He even pushed Yuvraj, who is not as quick as he once was.
Besides his batting average that has hovered in the high forties and fifties, Kohli's age is another number to get excited about. If this is what he can do at 22, imagine his output in the late 20s when he'd be stronger, smarter, more experienced.
But here's the thing about Kohli and his batting position. This year, all but 31 of those 866 runs have come at the No. 3 spot, which he's made his own partly because of Tendulkar and Sehwag's frequent absence from ODIs. This has resulted in Gambhir taking the opening slot, allowing Kohli to bat at one-down.
At the ICC Cricket World Cup, India are expected to employ their big guns up front: Sehwag and Tendulkar as openers and Gambhir at three. This might deny Kohli the position in which he's done so well. And being relegated to the lower order after doing so well at the top has its disadvantages: like not having enough overs left to play, and finding your form dwindle as a result.
Kohli has proven himself to be a mighty useful No. 3. An analysis of his last two hundreds reveals that despite being fed a huge number of deliveries around off-stump, the majority of Kohli's scoring strokes were in the arc between square leg and mid-on. His wristy style ensures strike rotation against pace and spin.
And despite being short, Kohli hasn't had problems against short-pitched bowling which his peers have. That's the sort of No. 3 you would want - capable of tackling any sort of bowling and also scoring at a quick rate.
When you add Kohli's sharp fielding to the mix, you know you want a player like that in the team. But he'll have to wait for his dues. India is a team in transition. India is also a team that experiments too much with its middle order.
So - when the Cricket World Cup comes calling, should it be Gambhir at No. 3 or Kohli? We understand who it will be. But let's hope for India's sake that it's the right call.
PS: The flood of responses to my previous column was eye-opening. Too often, we "professionals" tend to discount the fact that the "ordinary fan" is as aware, as keen-witted, and as capable - most times, more capable -- of making the right call as those who do it for a living. Thanks, guys; my objective in writing columns is not to pontificate, on the "one speaking, many listening" lines, but to engage in a give-and-take conversation with all of you. So here’s waiting to hear from you.