Sterling deputies: Cricket's next big leaders - Kohli, Smith, Williamson and Root
There is a new kid on the block – consistent because he knows few other ways, equal parts maverick and maestro, and talented beyond most of his teammates.
Belonging to a generation that grew up watching television, and not unaware of the sensationalist ways of the internet, he's well-equipped off the field as well.
This is the modern-day star; not a star. The star.
It is a title that has slowly turned into a designation. Cricket has a new hierarchy now - captain, wicket-keeper, star. And every team wants one.
India has been fortunate to have them all in MS Dhoni. There was little doubt after the 2011 World Cup; one could look at the Indian team and say for sure that, in the conceivable future, this is the team that will dominate limited-overs cricket.
Four years later, to say they haven't done that would be extremely harsh; saying they have would not be entirely true, either. However, they continue to remain giants and one of the top three teams to beat ahead of the World Cup, which is commendable when you take into account that only four players from the 2011 World Cup winning squad remain.
But they're not the only team with a makeover, or indeed the front-runners tag, and credit must be given to some individuals in particular.
New generation of superstars
Not so long ago, former New Zealand captain Martin Crowe wrote a piece that he called an exercise in crystal-gazing, where he pointed out Steven Smith, Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson and Joe Root as cricket's new generation of superstars. There has been little evidence against it. They’re all at the same stage of their careers, more or less, and it’s safe to say now that Kohli and Smith have comfortably grown out of the teething phase of their Test careers. Between the four, the stats read 120 Test matches with a staggering 32 hundreds.
They are adaptive, reliable, walk into teams across all formats and, although differing in personalities, have carved out cricket's new role of a modern-day star; which leaves the question of captaincy more a matter of when than if.
In some respect, they were already leaders. Kohli and Smith have had their share of officially leading their teams. But, really, these players have been remarkable influences on their teams in the last 18 months. Root and Smith, in particular, have been on the two sides of an Ashes result early in their careers while having to revive a flailing batting line-up. They have done so with some success, and it can’t be long before we see an Ashes tour with them as opposing skippers.
Smith – Steve Waugh reloaded?
I fear a debate looms about how much longer Michael Clarke can stay injury-free, but Smith has filled in well. There is an air of Steve Waugh about him. He emanates gentleness and calm. But the resemblance really emerges when you see that he is an assured cricketer who knows his limitations; 18 months ago, you would have laughed it off if someone said Smith could captain Australia in Tests.
He was a slow-starter and looked incredibly undercooked as a batsman, not much different from how he was when he made his debut as a leg-spinner. But he has quickly figured his way around and often looked like the difference between two sessions of domination and an imminent collapse every time he came out to bat in his last few Test matches. Cricket Australia has made it clear that Smith is earmarked to be the next captain in a period where his competitors are either too old or too inconsistent. In an era where bowling captains are extinct, Smith looks like he will hold the fort for a while.
Kohli could revel in his new role
And similar things can be said of Kohli’s long term prospects. Although he was a widely contrasting character to his opposite number on the two occasions he led India, one can’t help but feel that the next decade will belong in its entirety to this man. It certainly will in terms of his batting, but his captaincy and general manner through the series were received by the Indian public in a way that suggests his appointment could be epochal.
We have all seen Kohli’s ability, and there is no doubting he will end up as one of the legends of our game; his cricketing brain and maturity have steadily come on exhibit, too. Kohli plays all his cricket with victory in mind and is used to pulling them off. There are doubts lingering about whether Kohli could end up frustrated to the point of misery the way Tendulkar did during his captaincy tenure, but Kohli has the vast advantage of a batting line-up that is far superior to Indian teams of the ‘90s. He enjoys being in the middle of it all, and no other profession gives you the limelight like Indian captaincy does.
Root and Williamson – contrasting styles to the rest of the quartet
Root might argue about that, though. Coming from the only other country where captaincy is sanctified beyond rationale, Root knows a thing or two about expectations. To his credit, it hasn’t affected his primary occupation of being a solid Test batsman who knows his way back from being pushed against a wall. In his short career, Root has already played some innings that have been so laced with quality that they have justified the comparisons with former national captain Michael Vaughan.
Williamson is in a similar mould, as well: technically sound and very understated. There is a bit of time for these two to take over, and it might play to their advantage. Neither of them is vibrant like a Smith or unapologetically outspoken like Kohli; like their batting, their leadership will be based on patience and perseverance, and that is a style that works best when you have achieved a level of seniority.
It is an exciting decade ahead. Crowe reckons each one of these batsman will occupy No. 1 for some part of their career. Again, there is little to dispute that. But there is another mouth-watering prospect: a decade filled with a five-sided rivalry of the best level of cricket, when you throw South Africa into the mix.