The decisions taken at the start of the first day of the final Test in Jo’burg against South Africa ensured that Virat Kohli’s captaincy was once again in the focus. Two changes to the XI, no spinner in the side for the first time since 2010-11 at WACA, Perth, opting to bat first on a visibly spicy wicket despite the batsmen struggling throughout the series - these were all decisions that brought the team’s think tank under the scanner again.
And, given all that has gone in the series so far, one couldn’t help but think that Kohli’s time in South Africa had a Tendulkar touch to them in more ways than one.
Sachin Tendulkar was a bit of a magician. He did it all. He could bat, he could bowl, he could do the sprints, he was an all-round fielder with a good arm and he expected the same from his team-mates. Kohli does much of the same... except the bowling bit, of course.
But to deal with this – day in and day out – is not easy for the team. In fact, it is anything but.
Former India fast bowler Javagal Srinath had spoken, during the 2014 India Today conclave, on what it was like to play under Tendulkar.
“Some of us could not emulate what he wanted.”
According to Srinath, Tendulkar would turn up in the nets and take the ball and bowl whatever he wanted. Outswingers, inswingers, leg spin, off-spin. It didn’t matter. It would all be Test quality.
“That is his ability to connect with the game,” Srinath had said. “Those three hours in practice you would not see him while away his time. Even the optional practice he never missed. To expect the same from others was tough.”
Tendulkar’s always had one of the sharpest cricketing brains. He would make meticulously make plans for the opposing batsmen and expect his bowlers to execute them flawlessly.
“When I was not able to bowl the outswinger, he would shout from the slips: ‘bahar dalo, bahar dalo,’” Srinath added. “But I told him I could not.”
After the day’s play, Tendulkar would take the ball in the nets and bowl outswingers at will, then turn to Srinath and say ‘do it like that’.
“You could see him getting frustrated. He wanted to win so badly,” Srinath had then said.
Unfortunately, the same seems to be coming true of Kohli too. He wants to win so badly that he is perhaps setting impossibly high standards of his team-mates; standards that come pretty naturally to him but not so to the others. That maybe the burden of genius.
On a green track, Kohli chose to play five seamers – Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah and Hardik Pandya. But despite winning the toss, the India skipper then strangely chose to bat.
They said the wicket would crack later in the Test match and it would have still made sense if the Indian batting line-up was in great form. But they are not. Kohli thought he would be fine on this wicket but he did not consider the mental state of his batting line-up which has been struggling badly through the series.
His batsmen would not have been comfortable with his choice. But who will bell the cat?
Former South African skipper Graeme Smith’s criticism of Kohli’s captaincy made a similar point.
“He has all the capabilities tactically, he knows his own game, he sets the standard in the field for everyone else. We all know he’s an outstanding player, his intensity really benefits his own personal game, he loves that confrontation, that intensity brings the best out of him,” Smith said.
“Sometimes as a leader you’ve got to consider how you impact the others in the environment, that’s an area of his leadership that he needs to grow. You can see he’s often at his players. He’s very aware, he’s focus on the game is on, sweeping or mid-on,” he added.
If India’s bowling, which has been firing, had taken the new ball and got wickets; it would have been a huge morale boost for the batsmen too. That is how team sports work. The pitch would have lost some of the early moisture and been a little better for batting. Instead, Kohli just threw them into the deep end – this despite some of them clearly not knowing how to swim.
If you chose to bat first, 187 cannot be good enough. This when South Africa gave away 26 extras, dropped catches and were generally sloppy in the field. This isn’t a trial by fire, this is a trial by Kohli.
This tour reminds one of the 90s, not because Kohli seems to be the only batsman taking on the bowlers a la Tendulkar but also because of how he is captaining this side. The Master Blaster led India in 25 Tests between 1996 and 2000 - losing nine, winning four and drawing 12 matches. Away from the subcontinent, he led India in 11 Tests - the team lost six of them and the remaining five were draws. It was not a pleasant time for him as the leader.
“It was hurting me badly and it took me a long time to come to terms with these failures. I even contemplated moving away from the sport completely, as it seemed nothing was going my way,” he said in his autobiography.
Maybe, Kohli can learn more than just batting from Tendulkar. He has a long road ahead as the Indian captain and the sooner he rectifies, better it is. For him and for India.