Time to blood Kohli for Test captaincy

The winds of change have been blowing for some time now. A mild breeze had even turned into a heavy blizzard. But for some strange reason, buried under all that snow, the Indian selectors failed to wipe the windshield clean for better visibility. Had they done so, they would have seen what has been obvious to the passionate cricket community at large - that it was time to crown a new Test captain for India. Although the Adelaide Test started out on a somber note, by the end of the fifth day’s play, there was plenty to cheer about, not only for the hosts, but also, and perhaps more so, from the visitors’ perspective. This despite the fact that India had lost yet another Test overseas. For the first time in a long time, fans of Indian cricket and Test cricket were witness to a spectacular fight back from the Indian cricket team. That the resurgence sprang, in great part, from the dynamic stand-in skipper, Virat Kohli, further highlighted India’s need of the hour. Given India’s abysmal overseas record, the imperative to restore pride in India’s ranks seems imperative in order to bring about the kind of results that would see India at the top again. If it means leadership needs to undergo a sea change or change of guard, teams that are less encumbered or upstaged by the pomp and prestige associated with the position of power usually find it the easiest to get on with the job. One would not be surprised if the selectors were silently saying a prayer of gratitude or two for the decision that was virtually forced out of their hands. There was still some speculation that the designs for Kohli to captain the first Test could go awry with the delay to the first Test following the untimely demise of Australian cricketer, Phil Hughes. Kohli’s opportunity had come by way of providence with Dhoni nursing a thumb injury and although delayed, Kohli was not be denied and at the end of the first Test, Kohli had certainly put down his footprint as well as the blueprint for India’s promising future and left Dhoni’s fate hanging in the balance. India’s recent overseas tours have tended to be rather bland affairs, evoking a sense of dread and disgust in the face of India’s repeated tame surrenders. The trajectory of the team on tours overseas had become so predictable, it seemed the India had packed their suitcase with excuses even before embarking from home. The stark difference in how India went through the motions in their last Test series overseas in England and in how they came out combative in the first Test spoke volumes of renewed vigour and determination. It was not difficult to see how the team’s personality underwent a sea change under an aggressive captain who would take no prisoners. The manner in which Virat Kohli responded to the job of India’s Test captaincy in the absence of Mahendra Singh Dhoni and the manner in which the team responded to him proved healthy signs for India even as they went 1-0 down in the four Test Border- Gavaskar series. Make no mistake.

This was still a grueling battle down under against some rather enterprising bowlers led by Mitchell Johnson himself. However, India’s approach had changed. And in the manner in which they went down fighting at the Adelaide Oval, it was hard to view it as Australia’s victory or as India’s loss. The credit for the upsurge in emotions despite the forty-eight run defeat has to go largely to one dynamic individual. Few players respond to responsibility like fish to water. Virat Kohli has shown maturity that speaks volumes. The backdrop of the Test match demanded reverence. The Australians were still reeling under the emotions of the loss of their team mate. The usual banal verbal warfare had already been muted by the otherwise aggressive Australians. While reverence was accorded, concessions were not. When Mitchell Johnson’s bouncer met Kohli on his helmet, the first ball which the latter faced in India’s first innings, the Australians looked obviously fragile and perturbed, if only for a minute. But not Kohli. Determination writ all over his face, Kohli believed in himself and backed his team, not just to compete on an even keel, but to win. Kohli showed the way in the best manner he could. He repeatedly hooked and pulled Johnson with alacrity, choosing his shots with the discretion of a genius and pulling off an exemplary and rather extraordinary performance on the back of a rather tough proposition. Somewhere down the line between reaching the pinnacle of the no.1 Test rank under the coaching of Gary Kirsten and their present beleaguered record, India appeared to have lost faith and with it, the will and stomach for the fight. It was rather refreshing then that in the age of boisterous Twenty20, a young gun was showing his peers the exalted virtues of Test cricket. The hardnosed former Australian captains have been impressed by Kohli’s captaincy after only one Test and paid him the highest compliment coming out of the Australian camp by labeling him as a man who knows how to play the Aussie way, an acknowledgement that Kohli has his own impressive brand of cricket, one that is willing to take the game to the opposition rather than wait to be asserted upon. It was that kind of bullish arrogance, sometimes even bravado, that made the Australians of the late 1990’s and 2000’s more intimidating than they should perhaps have been given credit for.

In the scheme of evolution, it would seem right for India’s Test leadership to change hands from Sourav Ganguly’s bold chested (and sometimes, bare-chested) pro active approach to Kohli’s school of aggression off the blocks with Dhoni holding ground in between as far as Test cricket is concerned. The worry presently is that the holding out can only yield so much before the ground eventually begins to slip between one’s feet. While it is easy to brand Virat Kohli’s style of captaincy as aggressive, one could also argue that it was practical. After all, where has being defensive and conservative led India to? It has only meant that too often for their good, India not only let the opportunities slip but also, let the opposition dictate terms to the point where they have not allowed India to get away even with a draw for all their conservatism. For all the hullabaloo that is being made about Mahendra Singh Dhoni still being India’s best bet for captain, it is time to face some cold, hard facts. Dhoni’s winning percentage of 16.67 from twenty-four Tests as India’s Test captain overseas will attest to that. Surely India cannot do much worse under a new captain. That is the fair bit of argument being made for a long time without necessarily reaching the ears of the powers that be. Lest one is mislead, this is not so much about apportioning the blame or making Dhoni culpable for all of India’s failures in Test abroad. Rather it is more about injecting fresh life, new energy and innovative ideas into the team. If truth be told, where Dhoni is a prominently visible figure on the field in the shorter formats of the game constantly thinking on his feet, he is conspicuously invisible in the context of Test cricket. That is not good for a wicket keeper who is considered to be the eyes and ears of the team. But it is even worse for a captain because it is the veritable white flag signaling surrender. If mindset is a testimony to foreseeing how a challenge is received and met, one has only to look back on some of the press conferences before embarking and upon arriving at tough destinations abroad in which Dhoni seemed already searching for reasons why not to be more ambitious or adventurous and how Kohli responded when appointed the captain for the home one day international series against Sri Lanka and then again as the one Test captain on the tour of Australia. While doing so, it is also worthwhile to remember that Dhoni also won the hearts and respect by his dynamic leadership, forthright ideas and devil-maycare attitude out to prove a point. It is another matter that the seasoning of the years seemed to have taken something out of Dhoni to the point where he has sometimes let India’s Test cricket prospects meander to the point of sapping the life out of it. When the opportunity arose to sit back, knowing India had Sri Lanka on the mat during the home one day series, skipper Kohli’s words seemed right out of a leadership manual, “What we're trying to work on now is being ruthless, rather than letting situations drift. In the past we've done things like get eight wickets, then let the last few players get away with it. Collectively, we've decided to keep the foot on the pedal and not let the opposition get away with anything. If you want to impress, you have to address the issues after a win and improve on the small areas. That's the kind of hunger and vision that we're trying to instill into this team now. We want to be ruthless. We want to win by a big margin, and not be casual in any situation.”

Speaking of the caliber of the opposition, Kohli revealed even more about the kind of mentality envisioned for the team, “It doesn't really matter what the other team is feeling like or what their strengths and weaknesses are. We're more focused this time on what we want to do, rather than who we're playing against. If we just improve the areas of concern that we have, oppositions should not matter. That's the kind of culture and belief we're trying to build into this team now - that we're so confident in our own group that we don't look away from it. If we are confident in our ability, we should be good enough to handle all situations and all kinds of bowling attacks in the world. We're using this series and the tri-series in January as a chance to really test ourselves, and create targets for ourselves, rather than worry about the opposition." Virat Kohli sounds like a man who is not waiting for opportunities but rather willing to create his own opportunities en route to greatness. Stumbles notwithstanding and there has been one huge one in how he struggled to regain his form after a horrid tour to England and then again when his temper has tended to overshadow his talent and his accomplishments, Kohli showed he had his eyes on the future ahead of the first Test when he spoke about the necessity of the team to be positive and come out of the blocks running every single day on the tour of Australia in order not to cede advantage or initiative. Dhoni’s ambitions in Test cricket may have been tempered by circumstances notwithstanding the fact that Dhoni had inherited a team that had been Sourav Ganguly’s before it had been Anil Kumble’s. Amidst the veterans, unlike in the shorter formats where he had a younger team to shape and carve to his liking as in the ICC World Twenty20 in 2007, Dhoni had perhaps assumed a more withholding role and it is never an easy proposition shifting gears when the seniors in the team are rendered injured, retired or redundant and the onus falls upon the skipper to uphold India’s ranking while refiguring India’s Test team composition. Kohli or any other cricketer who dares to captain his team will face the paucity of talent and experience in his resources time and again. For whatever reason, the spark in Dhoni’s batting could not ignite the skipper’s flair for ingenuous thinking on recent Test tours overseas. In appointing Kohli, there is no discrediting Dhoni. It is merely heeding the signs of the times. Dhoni has accomplished far too much in the game already to feel the snub of the loss of the Test captaincy. Several examples from other cricket playing nations including Australia will attest to the fact that there comes a time in every team’s life cycle when the shelf life of the captain is at the point of becoming redundant. In acknowledging the signs of the times, perhaps India would be better served in having a hungrier, fresher, eager captain and having a more purposeful Dhoni leading the troubled rear end of the Indian batting line up and making his bat take India across the line. One would have thought Dhoni to be far more pragmatic than to let his career roll and risk India a few more statistical knocks down the line if only as a matter of personal prestige. Lest one gets carried away, Kohli has shown he has a long way to go even as skipper. While it was commendable that he used the knowledge of the success of leg spinners and backed himself to pick a rookie in Karn Sharma for the Adelaide Test, his field setting and the slow manner in which he responded to the changing scenario of the Test match on the first day itself indicated that there will be much learning on the job for Kohli. While he cautioned his temper, unlike his last experience at the Adelaide Oval when he let the spectators get to him, in the first brouhaha between David Warner and Varun Aaron, he failed to hold himself back as Rohit Sharma questioned Steve Smith’s style of fending off his deliveries. His control over his temper has been a cause for concern for some time. But the fact that Kohli showed a sense of maturity and sense of humour in how he handled himself in the television interview after the match showed he was aware and he was willing, which are positive signs of a growing individual, if not leader. However, Kohli shone in the role he was assigned to the Indian team for. As the team’s mainstay batsman, he refused to cower to intimidation from the opposition, withstood the heat and never let his own momentum slip. The manner in which he positively attacked in the first innings, he was wholeheartedly deserving of the century that made him only the third Indian captain since Vijay Hazare and Sunil Gavaskar to score a Test century in the first innings on Test debut and the fourth since Dilip Vengsarkar who scored his in the second innings of his first Test as captain. More importantly from India’s context, Kohli was lion hearted enough to believe that India could raise more than 350 runs for a second time in the Test, having already raised 369 runs in a single day’s play on the third day of the Test. Faced with a daunting target of 364 runs in ninety-eight overs, Kohli backed himself and his team overnight that irrespective of the target, India had the wherewithal to chase it down to make history. How close the team came to proving Kohli right! India did lose the Test by forty-eight runs, and it was another lower order collapse once Murali Vijay departed and Kohli followed. However, the chase had the Australians hot under the collar even as Kohli put his best foot forward, his century in the second innings slicing open a few more cobwebbed records. Not since fifty-three years when Rohan Kanhai last scored a century in both innings of a Test match in Australia back in 1961, also in Adelaide, had someone dished out something of a similar proportion on Australian soil.

His 141 runs in the second innings equaled Greg Chappell in the record of captains who scored centuries in both innings on Test captaincy debut. Furthermore, his aggregate of 256 runs for the Test overhauled the 244 runs scored by New Zealander Graham Dowling against India in Christchurch almost fifty years back in 1968. Statistics by themselves are impressive but in what they have to say about the efforts of one man to lift his game above and beyond the mundane when India have tended to throw in the towel even without the semblance of a fight was significant. Michael Clarke made one profound reflection on how India had played in Adelaide. At the press conference, the Australian captain stated, “They (the Indian cricket team) are not scared of losing. They are willing to risk losing to win.” It is the mindset that makes such teams more dangerous. Cautious former senior cricketers wondered about Kohli’s insights in not trying to shift gears after India lost too many wickets to try and salvage a draw in the final session of the game’s play. Yet Kohli seemed to have no regrets. From his perspective, it seemed that sending the message across that the Indian team would not wriggle into a hole in the face of a daunting challenge but rather throw all their weight behind it was far more important to set the tone for future contests. If it meant that India would have to risk a few losses along the way, they certainly would not let their pride slip along with them. How often has it been said on air in clichéd fashion that it is not the defeat itself but the manner of defeat that rankles? It was, therefore, disappointing that a few former well respected cricketers and commentators tried to play spoilsport – whether under the directive of the BCCI is unclear – by claiming that India’s euphoria over the manner in which the team approached the target in the first Test was misplaced and even accused fans, observers and other commentators of the game of blatant disregard for the norm of preserving advantage in the first Test without ceding the match and of not valuing the privilege of national representation and playing for one’s country enough. While it is possible for Kohli to become more discerning with time to realize the validity of a draw when the possibility of victory goes out of the window, it should also be noted that had Kohli pulled off the Houdini in Adelaide, these very former captains and commentators would have been perhaps been forced to grudgingly hail the young man if only to join the bandwagon and not stick out like a sourpuss or even worse, like puppets signing to the tunes of a rather powerful and wealthy cricket board. It suggests not only a distorted perception, insulting even, of what victory or defeat means to the team and to the millions of followers that invest all of their time, money and more importantly, emotions in it but also, a myopic view where these former players – who talk so highly about the pride of playing for one’s country- are today, for reasons best known to them, more intent in preserving the status quo with negative and defensive tactics on the field and bizarre excuses off it – including parading dressing room ego bust ups that are the bane of every sports team, not just cricket – which show India in a rather poor light rather than back a proactive skipper who may not necessarily have the backing of the head honchos of the board but who is willing to stick his neck out to reverse India’s abysmal and abject defeat without- a-fight that has been India’s game plan to detrimental effect, denting India’s image to the point of ridicule and downright embarrassment. Kohli is no fairy godmother with the magic wand. But he certainly seems the brightest spark in the team at the moment capable of steering others in a similar direction. It would be dangerous to read too much into one match. Having said that, one match can be fair indication enough of the intent of the individual. Although Kohli revealed that the job was a lot harder than he had anticipated, he has not shied away from it either, indicating that this experience – a one off – would better serve him in preparation for a larger role in the grander scheme of things. If India are to change tracks (and track record) overseas, they need someone who is prepared to take the bull by the horns. The road maps seem to indicate to look no further than the Adelaide Oval and Virat Kohli.

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