Virat Kohli’s Time of Reckoning Down Under

Since I would be discussing captaincy in this essay, I might as well point out at the outset – few things that one looks for in a good captain. In classic warfare, it is believed that failures are a result of poor leadership and passing on the blame to those under you is misplaced and discouraging. Same goes for cricket, a captain is held responsible when things go wrong and any weaknesses in him spread through the team which have an impact on the overall result of the game. Great captains would take on the blame rather than passing on, what they would pass on is credit. Another quality a captain must possess is to be able to utilize whatever skill his players have on offer and to be able to find a way to bring the best out of them without suppressing their natural flair. He must also be a great tactician to be able to manoeuvre the field and bowlers looking at different conditions, climate and various situations in the game. They are great thinkers of the game.

Under MS Dhoni’s captaincy when the Indian Test team was not doing well after twin whitewashes in England and Australia, the Indian captain would talk about learnings and positives from the lost causes, which to me appeared to be the right approach as one must always learn from failures. But with six overseas series losses on the trot, it was time for Dhoni to pass on the mantle to exuberant Virat Kohli. Virat on taking over the test captaincy in 2015 made it clear that he was not convinced with the idea of counting the positives after a lost match and that the team under his leadership will be solely focused on delivering results. Everyone was excited as it was a fresh beginning, with so much to look forward to with people being attracted to the bold and expressive attitude of the new captain.

MS Dhoni, although was regarded as a great leader due to his trophy cabinet, but one of the criticism against him was that he failed to inspire the team on overseas tours. MS had lost 14 of the 23 Tests in SENA countries – which include South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia. So naturally the expectations from Kohli when he took over were of reviving India’s fortunes on away tours. Although India became the No. 1 Test side in the world under his captaincy, but his record in the SENA countries has also been awful – Virat has lost 10 out of the 16 Tests in SENA countries, winning only 4. Two out of the four away wins came during India’s triumph down under, but against a weakened Australian outfit. India have also continued to choke in the ICC tournaments even under Virat Kohli, losing the 2017 Champions Trophy Final and the 2019 World Cup Semi-final. If we were to just look at the numbers, Kohli is already India’s most successful test captain with 33 wins in 55 games. The numbers alone, however, do not always present the true story, so we will look at some of the finer details of his captaincy in this essay.

Squad & Playing 11 Selection

Although squad selection is the job of the national selection committee but a captain plays an important part during the selection committee meetings for squad selection. Captain should be able to discover what skillset he would require for a particular tournament and be able to influence the selectors to give him the players he desires. If we put this into context of Indian cricket, there has been no selector in the national selection committee (during Virat’s tenure as captain) who has the credentials to deny any requests coming from a captain of the stature of Virat Kohli. So it would be safe to assume that Virat and team management have got the squad of their choice on most occasions. So it can be said that any mistakes with respect to the squad selection should also be owned by Kohli himself.

When it comes to T20Is Virat has failed to retain the core group of players. There has been so much chopping and changing, often times players have been shown the door after a few poor performances. Whether it is Tests, ODIs or T20Is , having faith in your players and giving them a consistent run is the fundamental requirement for building a strong core. Something which Virat Kohli the captain must understand. Imagine the mental situation of a young player in the side which keeps changing players ever so often. This trend creates so much insecurity amongst the players that they are not able to express themselves freely, especially in the T20s, a format which demands quick runs and batters have to go for big hits right from the word go. Players in such a team environment fail to deliver to their potential, which is also one of the main reasons why RCB has failed to deliver over the years. We also know how ODI No. 4 position was handled with before the World Cup 2019 – trying several players over the span of two years but not giving any of them a consistent run. Not to forget Vijay Shankar was preferred over Rishabh Pant and Ambati Rayudu in the world cup squad.

On India’s tour of South Africa in 2018, Ajinkya Rahane the vice-captain was dropped for the first two tests to get Rohit Sharma in. This came as a shock and surprise to many given Rahane’s previous performances in South Africa on the 2013 tour where he scored 209 runs in 2 Tests at an average of nearly 70. Rohit scored 11, 10, 10 & 47 in the four innings and India went on to lose both the matches. Kohli faced a lot of criticism in the media for dropping Rahane which forced him to bring Rahane back for the 3rd Test of the series, the dead rubber. Rahane scored a valiant 47 in tough conditions at the Wanderers, showing his worth in the second innings and India went on to win the match. Similarly, Cheteshwar Pujara was dropped for the Edgbaston Test in 2018 to accommodate KL Rahul which had repercussions as Indian batting lineup looked weak without Pujara. As was expected, Pujara returned for the remainder of the series but his confidence had taken a hit which was visible during the course of next four Tests in England.

Virat has faltered with squad selection, playing 11 selection and batting orders on numerous occasions which has resulted in team losing important games.


Tactics and Unusual Ploys

A captain should continually be trying to figure out in his mind what the batsmen would least like of all the available options and accordingly take decisions on the field. Sometimes come up with unusual field placements to plot a dismissal. That’s one area where Virat has not shown too much brilliance. We all expect Virat Kohli to win us games with his batting but we don’t expect him to win us games through his tactical moves or his genius manoeuvring of the fielders to create a wicket. Atleast we haven’t seen much of it from him. Sometimes subtle changes in the field at the right moments can bring about a wicket. We don’t see that enough from him.

On the contrary we have seen far too many tactical errors from him. One example would be Test against England at Edgbaston in 2018, where England were 87-7 with Curran and Adil Rashid in the middle. For some reason Ravi Ashwin who is so good against the left-handers was taken off and the game was allowed to slip out of control. Young Curran went on to score 63 and India lost the test by 31 runs. It was in the first test of the series which sets the tone for remainder of the series. We can also take a look at India’s loss to New Zealand in the CWC19 semi-finals, some of Kohli’s decisions came under scrutiny, biggest of them being – delay in sending MS Dhoni out to bat. Dhoni’s defensive approach was the need of the hour after India lost early wickets but Kohli missed the trick by not sending him higher up. Later on in many media reports Sanjay Bangar, the batting coach was blamed for that decision.

Virat is also seldom seen going up to the bowlers to speak at crucial situations in the match. Leading RCB has also brought all his flaws as a captain to light.
  

Some of the other senior members in the team also feel that MS Dhoni was a better captain. In an interview earlier this year Rohit Sharma without naming Virat Kohli called Dhoni as the best captain India has ever seen. Rohit said, “Whole India knows MS Dhoni is the one who has been like that. It has helped him to make such good decisions on the field and now you see he is the most successful Indian captain, having all three ICC Trophies with him and many IPL titles as well. He is the best captain India has seen and there is a reason behind it and that reason is him being calm and composed under pressure situation. I have seen him handle a lot of younger bowlers when they get under pressure, he goes around and puts his arm around their neck and talks to them what he needs to do and what not. You know when a younger player is being treated like that by the senior member of a team, you obviously feel confident and want to deliver for the team.” Although Rohit didn’t call it out explicitly but it can be safely assumed Virat doesn’t do enough of it, which is why Rohit called Dhoni as a better captain.

Also to be noted – after losing games and tournaments, he is never seen taking the blame on his failed strategy and tactics but is seen blaming either the bowlers or batters for the downfall. Post the CWC19 loss to New Zealand in the semi-finals, he blamed the batters for poor shot selection and specifically pointing out that he himself got a good bowl which got him dismissed and couldn’t have done much about it. Sign of a leader passing on the blame to the team after a big loss. After losing the ODI series in New Zealand earlier this year he went on to say, “ODIs aren’t too relevant this year compared to Tests and T20s,” a statement for which he faced a lot of criticism from fans, media and the broadcasters. Again an indication of a captain who believes in passing on the blame elsewhere, at moments where being the captain he should be taking up the responsibility for the losses.

We are discussing the flaws with Virat’s captaincy or his lack of leadership skills but the real problem could be elsewhere. The root of the problem could be Indian captain’s ego which is being constantly fed by yes-men around him. One of them being Indian Head Coach Ravi Shastri (who is believed to be Kohli’s Chief Yes-Man) and those who take a stance to question are shown the door, just like former India Head Coach Anil Kumble was shown the door.

Captain Virat Kohli has been provided with all that he has asked for (of his own choice) – coaches, support staff, practice sessions, schedules, squads, etc., now ultimately his performance as a captain will be judged by the results especially on away tours and ICC tournaments. So, far he has had a free run but his time of reckoning is coming soon with India’s tour Down Under and the T20 World Cup whenever the cricket resumes. There is every possibility of him being sacked as a captain if India does poorly on these two key tours Down Under. So it is in Australia where his future as a captain will be decided. He has also been lucky that RCB has retained him as a captain even after poor show over the years. If it was anyone other than him – would have been sacked long ago. But when it comes to the IPL there is so much more including the brand value which he brings to the table.

If the need arises – I believe Rohit Sharma is ready to take up the role of the captaining India in all three formats. He has shown he is a captaincy material in the IPL by winning 4 out of 7 titles for Mumbai Indians. I, for one, am not in favour of split captaincy if both players will be playing all three formats. It may lead to confusion and chaos in the dressing room.

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