Editor’s note: As Virat Kohli stretches the record in Johannesburg to 35 Tests without naming identical playing XIs, the charts in this article have been updated to reflect that. The article was originally published with the record at 33 Tests.
For Virat Kohli, change is the only constant.
At Newlands for the first Test against South Africa, Kohli tweaked his playing roster yet again, taking some big selection calls. Since he took over the captaincy, the Indian captain hasn’t played the same starting XI in back-to-back Test matches – a run that has extended to 35 games now with different playing XI at the Wanderer’s stadium in Johannesburg.
And not just that. It’s even more astonishing that he has not picked the same playing XI twice, ever, as established by this Reddit user and double-checked by The Field.
Horses for Courses
It’s no secret now, that Kohli has made a habit of experimenting with his side and since he took over in December 2015, 28 different cricketers have played at least one Test match for India. This is a clear indicator of his “horses for courses” policy.
Though, constant changes are expected in limited overs cricket, a lack of stability in a Test XI has the potential to disrupt the rhythm of the team, even if the results have largely indicated otherwise. While it is perhaps too harsh to judge Kohli’s bold selection calls ahead of the Cape Town Test, there is a school of thought that advocates a tad more conservative XI would have helped India’s cause in the first Test of such a hyped-up series.
However, that’s not how Kohli thinks. Not even close. Speaking ahead of his 20th Test as captain, against England in Mohali, Kohli clearly laid out the vision he had for this team:
“This is something that we made pretty clear when we lost the game in Galle [against Sri Lanka in 2015]. After that we had a pretty clear chat that we are going to play people that we think are suitable for different venues. Even the batting order changes; I have gone up and down the order as well and other batsmen are keen to do it as well. I think it sends the message across, that the eventual motive is for the team to win.
“It’s not like they are taking the pressure off not knowing whether they will play the next game. It’s all about focussing on that particular game and staying in the present and it has been really wonderful to see it and we just want to carry that forward.”— Kohli in November, 2016
And here we are, 15 more Tests later, Kohli has remained true to his word.
35 matches, 35 different teams
As the chart indicates, the only regular in Kohli’s teams has been Ravichandran Ashwin, who has been in the line-up 32 times and oddly enough he was dropped the first match under Kohli’s captaincy – Adelaide, 2014. And he’s made way for an extra pacer at the Wanderers. Rahane is the next most consistent, missing two Tests against England due to injury but, to the shock of many, dropped for Kohli’s first real overseas Test as the full-time captain. The Mumbai batsmen is now back in the starting XI in place of Rohit Sharma.
In fact, the only truly undroppable member of Kohli’s squads has been Wriddhiman Saha, who has now missed six Tests due to various injuries.
The other interesting number that emerges from that chart is the number of different players who have been a part of his playing XIs – the number that stands 28 with Bumrah’s addition to the list. That’s 28 different players in 35 Tests.
Comparison with the great sides
Kohli has made it clear that he will be his own man, when it comes to captaincy. He’s not MS Dhoni when it comes to team selection patterns – he doesn’t persist with XIs, he doesn’t believe in stability over maximising the chances of winning the match.
But how does his policy compare to the great teams of the past?
Here are a couple of examples.
Under Steve Waugh, the all-conquering Australian team believed in playing the best XI at their disposal and not XI players best suited for the conditions.
Something similar applies to the great West Indies side of the early 80s – a bowling attack and batting lineup so good that, there was hardly any tinkering needed.
These comparisons come with a caveat, of course. These teams had much lesser workload on them, in terms of the quantity of cricket being played. There was a concept of off season, something that is non-existent these days and makes rotation a necessity, more than a policy. But nevertheless, it’s interesting that great Test teams were built on stability – having a core group of players who knew they would play every match if fit.
The openers’ musical chair
Perhaps the most tinkered with position under Kohli is at the top of the order. Seven different batsmen have opened the batting for India under his captaincy. Most of the workload has been shared by Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay and KL Rahul with a few appearances from Parthiv Patel, Abhinav Mukund and Gautam Gambhir.
But even with his top three, Kohli can’t decide who to play. Vijay seems to be the closest to cementing a spot. While injury has been a factor in his non-availability, he too was not spared the axe in the name of rotation. The Test in St Lucia and the latest against Sri Lanka at Eden Gardens were instances when he was dropped. Dhawan and Rahul seem to trade the remaining slot, based on who’s not out injured.
The No 3 experimentation and the middle order
In his early days as the captain, the No 3 was a slot that Kohli tinkered with quite often. Pujara has, of course, played consistently at that slot, especially at home but it’s not always been straight forward. First in Sri Lanka in 2015 and then in West Indies in 2016, Rohit Sharma was preferred over Pujara, in Kohli’s quest for intent. Kohli himself has batted at that position and even Rahane made a cameo appearance when India couldn’t field a fit opener and Pujara had to fill in.
But beyond that, the middle order has been relatively stable with Kohli himself anchoring the batting at No 4. Though Rahane wasn’t picked for the Newlands Test, he’s been in Kohli’s side 30 times and one expects that number will only increase. The only other changes here were injury-enforced, with Karun Nair filling in for Rahane and smashing a triple century in a dead rubber against England, only to be dropped the next time India played a Test.
Behind the stumps, it’s been a more straightforward affair. Saha has been Kohli’s go to keeper for 29 Test matches. They’ve been a few matches where he’s made way for Parthiv Patel and Naman Ojha. A safe pair of hands and an average of 30.63, Saha’s been a reliable customer and has never made Dhoni’s absence felt in terms of the wicket-keeping – his record 10 catches in Cape Town and some spectacular catches during the home season, a testament to that.
The spin twins and beyond
As far as the spinners go, Ashwin reigns supreme. He’s made the highest number of appearances under the Kohli captaincy and to think it all started with him being dropped in favour of Karn Sharma in Kohli’s maiden Test as the leader. Ashwin has often spoke about how that was the moment his career turned for the better and perhaps unwittingly, would turn out to be the biggest call Kohli made as a captain, with a revitalised Ashwin breaking records with every other Test. In India’s long home season, he partnered with Ravindra Jadeja – who made a comeback under Kohli and zoomed to the top of the charts as the No 1 Test bowler at one point.
The other players who have made an appearance were mostly chosen as the third spinner on turning tracks, or, in Harbhajan’s case, a ploy to counter a left-heavy batting lineup.
The pace battery
Now here’s where it gets interesting. During one of the recent home ODIs, Kohli made a remark during a post-match presentation that the consistency of Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar with the white ball was due to the fact that they knew they were first choice in limited overs cricket, and hence, were always better prepared to execute their game plan.
But a look at the rotation of fast bowlers in Test cricket goes against that thought process.
Kohli, unlike Dhoni, loves to pack his side with pace. He prefers raw speed in the air over anything else. Unless the conditions aided swing, Bhuvneshwar was not in the XI.
Umesh Yadav has played the most over the last two years. Varun Aaron fell out of favour early in the Kohli captaincy, and for the most part, it’s been a toss-up between Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami and Bhuvneshwar. The added dimension is that of Pandya, which also endangers the extra spot for the pacers. His performance at Newlands justifying the faith his captain has on him.
Pandya’s late heroics in the first innings at Newland perhaps cemented his position in the Indian team. And with no clear all-rounder in the team over the past two years, his place is not under any threat.
Going forward in South Africa, it remains to be seen if Kohli finally breaks the trend of naming a different XI, but given that Bumrah, Kohli’s latest debutant, has had a good series so far, it is unlikely that the trend will be broken.
But with Kohli, one never knows what’s coming next.