India in South Africa

From intent to form: The many contradictions of captain Kohli

While the India captain deserves credit for his great record, it’s time we start looking at the cracks in the foundation of his leadership.

Eight days. Eight days of cricket was all it took to shatter the aura of invincibility around the Indian team. It was an aura built on a superb season (primarily in Asia), in which, as captain Virat Kohli reminded a journalist in the post-match press conference at Centurion that India had won 21 matches (actually 20) and lost only two.

Virat Kohli has received heaps of praise over the last two and a half years for his captaincy. The fact that he has been in the form of his life with the bat has helped as well because let’s face it, when one of the best batsmen in the world is leading his team to series win after series win, very few people raise questions, and even fewer actually persist with them.

When India were handed a humiliating 333-run loss (an innings defeat for all practical purposes) by Australia in Pune, very few thought there was anything fundamentally wrong with the team. Anil Kumble’s unceremonious exit provoked more thought, but we were willing to bear with Kohli because of his great record, and were generally fine with him virtually handpicking the team’s coach.

This, however, was a double-edged sword, as the buck now stops with Kohli and Kohli alone. So now, when India have suffered their first series defeat in three years – which predictably happened the first time they played a competent team outside Asia – Kohli’s flaws are bound to come to light, and first among them is the gaping chasm between his talk and walk.

Current form

By now, anyone who follows Indian cricket is aware of how much the captain believes in “current form”. It was the primary factor in picking Shikhar Dhawan before KL Rahul in the first Test. Runs at home against Sri Lanka were considered good enough to face Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel, and Kagiso Rabada on a seaming pitch in Cape Town. Runs at home against Sri Lanka, primarily in limited-overs cricket, were also good enough for Rohit Sharma to earn a place ahead of India’s best overseas batsman, Ajinkya Rahane.

India's best overseas batsman, Ajinkya Rahane, hasn't played so far in South Africa (Image: BCCI)
India's best overseas batsman, Ajinkya Rahane, hasn't played so far in South Africa (Image: BCCI)

But the “current form” theory only seems to be applicable when Virat Kohli wants it to be. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who took six wickets in Cape Town, including three in the very first spell of the first day, wasn’t deemed good enough to make the team in Centurion. Neither was Rohit Sharma’s poor show in Cape Town reason enough to conclude that his “current form” wasn’t good anymore.

Chopping and changing

With a personality as aggressive as Kohli, there were bound to be a few sparks flying in the press conference after the Centurion Test with journalists asking tough questions. When asked about the best playing 11, Kohli had this to say:

“I’m saying the loss obviously hurts. But you make one decision and you back it. We certainly don’t sit here and say, ‘Oh, if you fail in one game you are not good enough to be at this level, or once the team loses...’”

Bear in mind that Kohli has played a different XI in each of the 34 Tests in which he’s captained the team. Ajinkya Rahane had to sit on the bench after one bad series against Sri Lanka. Shikhar Dhawan was benched after the loss in Cape Town. And yet, Kohli claims that he believes in making one decision and backing it, a sentiment he expressed not once, but twice during the press conference.

Casualties of ‘intent’

“Intent” might soon become the most hated word for Indian cricket fans, and with good reason. It’s a word that has been thrown around by Virat Kohli for a while now, but no one is really clued in to what he means. Given Kohli’s aggressive brand of cricket, one might venture a guess that by “intent,” he means being attacking.

But let’s think about what “attacking” means. Legendary Australian opener Matthew Hayden once said, “All these things going around is not aggression. If you want to see aggression, look into [Rahul] Dravid’s eyes.” Dravid’s nickname was The Wall, implying how difficult it was to get through his defence. Hayden’s remark indicated that having a solid defence, gritting it out at the crease, and being determined to not get out constitutes aggression.

Hayden wasn’t wrong. “Intent” has different meanings in different contexts. For a technically solid batsman like Cheteshwar Pujara who has taken Dravid’s No 3 spot, the intent should ideally be to ensure that he doesn’t give his wicket away. But Pujara has possibly been the biggest casualty of “intent” in the Indian team.

Cheteshwar Pujara has possibly been the biggest casualty of “intent” in the Indian team (Image: AFP)
Cheteshwar Pujara has possibly been the biggest casualty of “intent” in the Indian team (Image: AFP)

Getting run out twice in the same Test match for a defensive batsman like Pujara seems extremely unlikely without external pressure, especially considering that he was once dropped from the team due to his defensive game.

It isn’t just Pujara. In India’s second innings at Centurion, only the wickets of Murali Vijay and Virat Kohli fall under the “forced errors” category. KL Rahul tried to cut the first ball Ngidi bowled, albeit with no conviction. Parthiv and Rohit decided to hook the ball. Pandya poked at possibly the worst delivery Ngidi had bowled in the entire match.

Clearly, showing Kohli’s brand of intent didn’t get the Indian batsmen anywhere. But one would think that a captain as aggressive as Kohli would show lots of intent in the field. On day four of the Centurion Test, India started the first session with just one slip to AB de Villiers, showing no intent to attack. If you thought the intent was to stop runs, you’d be wrong. With Dean Elgar on strike, the point region was an easy tap-and-run area, giving South Africa easy singles and a very comfortable start to the day.

It isn’t just about field placements. For almost four years, India have struggled with slip catching. Even after Kohli took over as captain, there has been virtually no intent shown of working on this problem. The solution seems to be a knee-jerk reaction of banishing whoever grasses one in the slips to the outfield unless it’s Kohli himself, even though he’s been one of the biggest culprits in the slip cordon.

False confidence

With Kohli constantly claiming that his team has the belief that they can win anywhere in the world, that they are the best team, and that they back themselves, one can assume that he believes that confidence plays a huge part in cricket. His “current form” theory is also indicative of that.

Sanjay Manjrekar recently wrote that it would take a great batsman like Sachin Tendulkar a week to acclimatise to conditions overseas, while the others took much longer. The Indian team arrived in South Africa exactly one week before the first Test, and then cancelled the only practice match that was scheduled, opting for net sessions instead. According to a report, senior players were given the option of skipping the ODI and T20 series against Sri Lanka and going to South Africa to get used to the conditions.

So what can we conclude from this? Ideally, a team would like to spend as much time as possible in the country they’re touring and play a practice match or two to build up their confidence in foreign conditions. Refusing to go to South Africa early, cancelling the practice match, and choosing to practise in the nets makes it seem like the idea is to build a false sense of confidence by not even facing reality. Even now, after the series loss, Kohli is stubbornly sticking to his initial stand and claiming that the team was well-prepared for the series, when all evidence says otherwise.

Let’s keep in mind that Kohli’s success in Asia is not at all unprecedented. The nature of cricket has changed in the 2010s, and virtually every major team has become dominant at home. While he deserves credit for his great record, it’s time we start looking at the cracks in the foundation of his leadership, because it seems that Virat Kohli’s captaincy is built on a bed of contradictions.

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