When the Indians troop out for the first Test at the Wanderers Stadium here on Wednesday, the search for a better show overseas will be matched equally by an inner quest to identify its own premier batsman.
The second pursuit was largely redundant for 24 years when Sachin Tendulkar strode out at number four until his retirement in November.
Though exemplary batsmen like Rahul Dravid, V.V.S. Laxman and Virender Sehwag had their dream phases, there was no doubting the maestro’s exalted status even during his dull cricketing twilight.
Now that he is gone and is busy making seasoned politicians flock around him at Parliament in Delhi while also savouring those quiet moments with his family at Mumbai, the Indian team has to move forward.
In a young batting line-up that, if it needs age and experience, has to fall back entirely upon skipper M.S. Dhoni (32 years, 79 Tests and 4,255 runs) in the lower-order, Virat Kohli could well turn out to be its go-to batsman.
For starters, Kohli will obviously stride out at the historic number four slot, but just slipping into a position that was Tendulkar’s for years, doesn’t necessarily mean that the greatness-label will be granted instantaneously.
In Tests, Kohli needs a deeper, long-lasting echo of the success that has been his in ODIs.
Having made his debut against the West Indies at Kingston’s Sabina Park in 2011, Kohli came into his own during the Australian tour of 2011-12.
In a disastrous outing for India, Kohli was a rare success-story.
He scored a 116 at Adelaide and after that registered three more tons (one each against New Zealand, England and Australia) at home.
Now as he walks out under the African skies with the likes of Dale Steyn waiting to strike, Kohli has to perform all over again.
It helps that South Africa is the land-of-the-good-vibe for Kohli as he has many admirers and friends here.
A.B. de Villiers and he have a wonderful rapport thanks to their common Indian Premier League team — Royal Challengers Bangalore.
And it was a South African — RCB coach Ray Jennings — who perhaps spoke the most about Kohli’s potential.
“He is a superb cricketer — probably one of the best at his age in the world.
“He will captain India (one day), he has the ability and is a superb human being. He is fiery and that is also a very good thing,” Jennings had said during the last IPL.
Of course, on the field the Proteas will not spare an inch but Kohli has thought deep about countering the likes of Steyn and Morne Morkel in the Tests. During the recent ODIs that India lost, Kohli had his plans for Steyn.
“All you can do as a batsman is to try and upset his length. He is a quality bowler and we should be good enough to tackle when we face him. I don’t think anyone in this Indian team is frightened of anything,” Kohli said.
Batting is not just about essaying a crisp cover-drive, it is also about lending confidence to the partner.
In the opening one-dayer that India lost, Rohit Sharma was coping with a brilliant spell from the South African spearhead and Kohli sought to deflect the pressure away from the Mumbaikar.
“When Rohit was finding it difficult for the ball to hit the bat, I told him to carry on and that there shouldn’t be a rash shot and I decided to take them on and play a few shots,” Kohli said.
The 25-year-old, who has reasonably respectable numbers for a beginner in the longer-version (20 Tests, 1,235 runs, averaging 41.16), will be the prime wicket for the South Africans in a line-up that also has Cheteshwar Pujara, Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit and Murali Vijay.
Surely the Proteas will be aware of Dhoni’s maverick brilliance but Kohli could well be the man who can helm India’s batting for years to come.
The current tour to South Africa and the subsequent one to New Zealand will reveal whether Kohli has it in him to last the distance.