Adelaide, 2014. Day 5 – pain and anguish as India fell excruciatingly short of a major upset win over Australia. The lasting memory was of a master batter resting on his hunches. On a turner, he had scored 115 and 141, and showed us a new brand of cricket. His trademark. This was Virat Kohli – India’s 32nd Test captain.

The signs were all there, even before the game had begun. Mahendra Singh Dhoni was ruled out of this first Test due to injury. Kohli, as stand-in captain, walked into the pre-match press conference, wearing whites, carrying his jacket and adorning the India match cap. He had just come from the trophy photo shoot.

Kohli talked about playing Test cricket aggressively. He spoke about the team’s desire to win in Australia, and elsewhere overseas. He said the conditions shouldn’t matter, and then over the next five days, showed us they didn’t matter. Defeat yes, but a fighting one, and it outlined his vision for Indian cricket.

“This is an Indian captain I like,” remarked an Australian journalist. We all did, instantly.

Mind you, this isn’t about pulling down his predecessor, no. Dhoni’s Test reign had its moments, including the initial rise to number one ranking, the sad downward spiral in 2011-12, and then a tough transition. Even so, Dhoni was a limited Test captain, restricted by the expanse of this format. Kohli, on the other hand, had already become a dominant batting force across formats. There was reason to believe he would offer something different.

It was no wonder that the captaincy transition was smooth thereafter. Dhoni left quietly in Melbourne, Kohli took full charge in Sydney, and thus began a new era in Indian Test cricket. Quite the opposite of what we are seeing right now.

Kohli’s Team India cooked up a storm. Forty wins in 68 Tests. Dominant series wins in Sri Lanka, West Indies and Australia. Test wins in England and South Africa. Unbeaten at home in seven years, Kohli helped his team rise up from a lowly No 7 in the ICC rankings to No 1, and stayed put for a long, long time.

Winning is the keyword herein. At home, he unleashed the spin twins Ashwin Ravichandran and Ravindra Jadeja, and drew up a winning template which no visiting team could dream of shattering. Australia came closest in 2017, but they lost eventually. More than that, they were mentally drained at the end of that series because Kohli’s India knew how to raise its intensity. It wasn’t hard to mirror their captain’s aura.

Very early into his captaincy, Kohli realized the formula for winning Tests. Take 20 wickets, period. In Sri Lanka (2015), when he first led India as full-time Test captain, Kohli spoke about the risk of losing. “We don’t mind playing a batsman less. As long as we can take 20 wickets, that’s the best chance of winning,” he had said. You could almost carve his words in stone and place it as a traveling plaque in every Indian dressing room since.

It was a form of aggression previously unseen. Sample this. Six out of India’s seven biggest wins (by runs) came under Kohli. He liked setting an imposing target, often not enforcing the follow-on and aiming for 400-plus declarations. These tall targets would take out two of the four results.. The opposition only had two options left – lose or bat out for a draw.

On the field, Kohli brought a new energy to Test cricket. Playing to the gallery, he energized the crowd. ‘Win the crowd, and you win half the battle’ was the gladiatorial adage. Kohli, as a demi-god of Indian cricket already, had the crowd eating out of his palms. He just needed to unleash this power. From Visakhapatnam to Wankhede, from Eden Gardens to the MCG, from Johannesburg to Lord’s, when Indian bowlers steamed in, the crowds roared.

Obviously then, he was the poster boy for selling the longer format in India and elsewhere. Whether it was Star Sports or their sister concern in Australia, Fox Sports, broadcasters realized the value of Test cricket in Kohli’s name. The only trick they missed was not introducing a “Kohli cam” – focussing a square inch of the screen with a camera following him around all the time.

Perhaps the most prized moment in this storybook relationship came at the Wankhede. In December 2016, batting on a two-paced pitch against a dogged English attack, Kohli played one of his most crucial knocks. It was a clutch double hundred, and the crowd swelled as he roared on reaching the landmark. From Adelaide to Wankhede, racking up those Test batting numbers, much like Sachin Tendulkar, Kohli had become an emotion.

Sentiment alone cannot measure a phenomenon though, and this is where the overseas story comes in. Five bowlers was the strategic norm, and apart from Rahul Dravid, no other Indian captain has used this tactic more. “We need to take 20 wickets, the batting needs to take more responsibility,” Kohli often professed as India toured overseas.

The greatest lasting imprint of Kohli’s Test captaincy will be measured in the success of India’s fast bowlers. Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Umesh Yadav, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, and now Mohammed Siraj as well as Shardul Thakur – unlike any of his predecessors, he was spoilt for choice. He knew not to take credit though.

At Perth in 2018, when one asked the Indian captain about this fast bowling quality that no other Indian captain enjoyed, Kohli replied, “I wouldn’t take credit for building this pace attack. This is a result of what has happened in the past, and it has all come together now.”

A workman, of course, can only use the tools at his disposal, and this is true of Test cricket as well. Kohli’s pace attack, with 591 wickets in 68 Tests, is the most ferocious in Indian history by a distance. The next best? Under Kapil Dev, 211 wickets in 34 Tests.

Armed with a battery of pacers, Kohli’s India notched up historical wins in Adelaide, Melbourne, Lord’s, Oval, Nottingham, Johannesburg and Centurion. The younger generation of Indian fans will forever celebrate these moments and maybe hold future Test captains to ransom over these achievements. For an older generation of fans, this was an embalming experience after decades of painful losses.

At the end though, as captain Kohli bids farewell, there is only one question to be asked. Could he have done more? Could India have achieved more, say in South Africa and England, and broken even higher ground?

It isn’t an easy answer. Kohli’s idiosyncrasies regarding team selection are well known. There is no doubt he could have made better decisions, twice in South Africa (2018 and 2021), and twice again in England (2018 and 2021). So much so, it numbed his batting exploits on those 2018 tours to South Africa and England.

We, however, have the benefit of hindsight. And as much as we have the right to question and debate, Kohli too had the right of making mistakes. And he feverishly defended those mistakes, by right again, as one personally found out one afternoon in Centurion. It isn’t an easy answer, therefore. So yes, maybe, he could have. But also, no, for this is the stone on which Kohli’s successor will build his fortunes.

In the here and now, all that matters is what he has done for Indian cricket. If Tiger Pataudi taught Indian cricket to compete, if Sourav Ganguly taught Indian cricket to win, then Virat Kohli took it two steps further.

“Wherever we go, India is expected to win. If we lose, that’s a surprise, whether at home or overseas,” he said in Cape Town, in one of his last broadcasts as Indian Test skipper.

That, right there, is Virat Kohli’s legacy.

Also read:

Full Text: Virat Kohli steps down as India’s Test captain

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Book excerpt: Virat Kohli is the biggest boon to cricket so far this millennium – Ravi Shastri

Data check: The numbers that show why Kohli was India’s best Test captain by a distance

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