Manchester, July 8: What are the odds of two lads who led their respective sides in the semifinal of an Under-19 World Cup going on to do likewise at the senior level, nearly 11 and a half years later? Not that long, evidence would seem to suggest.
Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson go back a long, long way. They first did battle in 2007, renewed acquaintanceship the following year in Kuala Lumpur at the Under-19 World Cup, and have since seen their careers run parallel to each other, like a pair of train tracks. From a very young age, it was a shoo-in that the spectacularly poised Williamson would lead the national team sooner rather than later. Kohli’s was a more complicated route even though he was an obvious leader, largely because as a teenager and a little beyond, he was seen as brash and slightly irreverential.
The passage of time has been kind to the soft-spoken Kiwi and the eloquent Indian, who have established themselves as among the finest batsmen of their generation. Kohli is without a doubt the best all-format batsman currently, marginally ahead of Williamson, Joe Root and Steve Smith. As captains, both he and Williamson believe in setting the tone and leading from the front, asking not of their team-mates what they themselves would not do.
11 years ago, #ViratKohli and #KaneWilliamson faced off in the ICC U19 World Cup semi-final in Malaysia.— Cricket World Cup (@cricketworldcup) July 7, 2019
On Tuesday, they will lead India and New Zealand in the #CWC19 semi-final at Old Trafford!
Full circle 🙌 #TeamIndia | #BackTheBlackCaps pic.twitter.com/FakooHmfUY
Briefly back to February 2008, and the semifinal of their Under-19 World Cup. Williamson’s New Zealand batted first by choice, the skipper making a laboured 37 in a final tally of 205 for eight. India were always in control of the chase, the final margin of three wickets reasonably misleading given that they lost three wickets with less than 15 runs of their revised target of 191 to achieve. Kohli made a classy 43, but it wasn’t for that alone, or his captaincy, that he was named the player of the match.
He also picked up two wickets with his medium-pace during a spell of 7-1-27-2 that put the skids on the Kiwis. Among his victims was Williamson, smartly stumped down leg by Shreevats Goswami. That information took the Indian skipper completely by surprise on Monday at the pre-match presser ahead of Tuesday’s showdown at Old Trafford.
“I got Kane's wicket? Did I?” he laughed disbelievingly, before muttering. “I don't know if that can happen again now.” Then, as talk veered towards India’s bowling composition and the risks of playing with only five bowling options, the Kohli humour resurfaced. “I was just told I got Kane out, so I can bowl any time. I'm quite lethal! As long as I don't slip on the pitch!”
Unlike Smith with whom he has had his fair share of run-ins – even though he apologized to the former Australian captain for Indian fans booing him at The Oval last month – Kohli shares a wonderful rapport stemming from mutual respect and admiration with Williamson. “It's a really nice memory and we'll both feel good about knowing that this is happening,” he said of history repeating itself. “No one, neither me nor him, could have ever anticipated that one day this will happen (them meeting as captains in the senior World Cup semis).”
Then, Kohli launched into effusive praise of Williamson as he rolled the clock and revisited his early impressions of the man from Tauranga. “I remember in 2007, we went to New Zealand and we were playing an Under-19 Test match. He played a shot off one of our fast bowlers, who was quick, off the back foot and I remember standing in slips and telling guys near me, 'I have never seen anyone play a shot like that’. He was special, he was always the stand-out player and you could see when we played New Zealand in New Zealand on that Under-19 tour and the World Cup again he was quite special for them.
“We always knew he had the special ability to go all the way and now he's controlling the tempo of the game for New Zealand every game that he plays. And he's a lovely guy. We get along very well.”
None of this means Kohli will be content to sit back and watch his opposite number milk his bowlers. Or that he won’t celebrate with customary abandon as and when Williamson is dismissed. After all, there is still a match to be won, a place in the final to be sealed.
(R Kaushik is a cricket writer who followed the sport closely for nearly three decades and is covering his 7th World Cup)