The day before the second Test began in Centurion, Virat Kohli sat in front of the media for the press conference. He was his usual self — at once combative, yet oozing confidence. He spoke about intent. He spoke about Rahane. He spoke about the batting. He also spoke about the bowling.
“No need to panic. We need to adapt and apply ourselves better,” said Kohli. “We are very happy with the way the bowlers went about their business. The batting did not come together well. So we are not worried about the bowling front at all. We are in a very good space and we believe that we can get them out twice again in this game and you definitely need to do that to win Test matches but you need a solid batting performance too.”
If Bhuvneshwar Kumar would have heard those words, he would have relaxed a little. It looked like his captain was pleased with the efforts of the bowling unit and Bhuvneshwar had had a particularly good match — four wickets and a vital 25 with the bat in in the first innings, two wickets and 13 not out in the second innings. He took the most wickets among Indians (6 wickets); second-most after Philander (9). As a batsman, he faced most balls among Indians (127 balls); second-most after AB de Villiers in the match (134).
The only argument against him could have been that he was perhaps a tad expensive in the first innings giving away runs at an economy rate of 4.57.
Still given that he was India’s best bet with the new ball, it was almost a given that he would make it to playing XI for the second Test.
But clearly, Kohli knows something the rest of the world doesn’t. After losing the toss, Kohli calmly announced three changes. One forced, two because the team management felt the change was needed.
In came Parthiv Patel, KL Rahul and Ishant Sharma. Out went Wriddhiman Saha, Shikhar Dhawan and Bhuvneshwar.
No need to panic? Yeah, right.
Former South African fast bowler Allan Donald’s reactions on Twitter said it all:
Three hours later, he was still reeling:
He wasn’t alone either. Tom Moody, VVS Laxman were in the same boat as him. Harsha Bhogle was simply “staggered” by the decision. This made no sense.
At the press conference on Friday, Kohli had argued that the line-up has changed in the past because of conditions and injuries. But this pretty much looked like him losing his handle on things. There clearly was a case for bringing Ishant into the squad, but would one do it at the expense of your best bowler in the previous game?
This has become a pattern now for Virat and frankly, that is worrying at many levels.
The Indian skipper tinkers around with the opening slot a lot. It is almost as if they are not allowed to fail. The middle order and keeping slots were pretty much settled but even that is starting to change with Kohli benching Ajinkya Rahane for Rohit Sharma.
And then we come to the bowling. Because he has a decent core group of bowlers, he seems to have made up his mind about what each one of them is good at — Ishant for bounce, Shami the all-rounder (who is among the top three fast bowlers in the world), Bhuvneshwar for helpful conditions, Bumrah for his variations and Umesh Yadav for his consistent pace.
And that is fine. He can slot them but his refusal to play them outside that given set of conditions means that he is also restricting their growth. How does Bhuvneshwar get the chance to show he can take wickets in all conditions? Horses for courses is fine but don’t the best horses win on all kinds of courses? Kohli seems to have no confidence in the ability of his bowlers to adapt and learn. The constant chopping and changing cannot be helping anyone in this team.
Just imagine turning in your best performance for the team and then being told that you didn’t suit the conditions even though the team is playing three seamers.
Just imagine being named vice-captain and then being dropped for the first two Tests of the series.
Just imagine the suspense that would accompany every selection meeting.
You’d never know who Kohli would train his guns on next and that is where it eventually will start to grate on the nerves of this squad. It’s all fine while you are winning but the moment, you start losing… the discontent will rise faster than a rocket heading to the moon. No matter how Kohli tries to justify these decisions, they will eventually come back to bite him.
Mike Brearley, one of the great player-captains, has always believed the psychology of the game to be vital.
“Cricket is a psychological game — a lot goes on in the head in terms, for example, of shrewdness, resilience, bluff, individualism and team spirit,” he says. “Captaining calls for a down-to-earth sense of what makes players tick, both to help get the best out of one’s own team and to probe the weakness of the opposition. People ask me if psychology helped me in this role. It did, but the reverse applied equally: cricket helped me to be more psychologically aware.”
And at this moment, Kohli needs to be more psychologically aware too. Is he playing this team right or is forcing them into a corner which will eventually see them rebel?
India ended day one of the second Test in command but that tells us more about the vagaries of the format than it does about Kohli’s captaincy.