For much of his early years as India’s Test captain, Virat Kohli seemed to be looking for something. He chopped, he changed, he took strange decisions, he took brave decisions, he shook things up to perhaps a point where even he didn’t know what was happening.
Ajinkya Rahane was dropped despite being the vice-captain, Cheteshwar Pujara was dropped because his intent wasn’t up where Kohli wanted it to be. Bhuvneshwar Kumar was dropped immediately after taking a six-wicket match haul because Kohli felt his bowling wouldn’t work on a particular kind of pitch. Ishant Sharma, because he wasn’t taking enough wickets. Ashwin Ravichandran, because Ravindra Jadeja seemed like a better option overseas. Rohit Sharma, because Test cricket was not his thing yet.
The Test team had only one constant: Virat Kohli himself. Everyone else was on edge or as someone else might put it, expendable.
Murali Vijay, Ajinkya Rahane, Umesh Yadav and Karun Nair came out and spoke about the impact that the chop-and-change selection policy was having on them. It was robbing them of confidence, of rhythm, of reason. The Indian team management called it a ‘horses for courses’ policy but to say that your best players were not capable of adapting to different conditions was a damning assessment of their current levels.
But 53 matches into his reign, it is hard to argue that his tactics haven’t worked. From the chaos, order has emerged. India are winning, like never before. They are bowling out the opposition, like never before. And now finally, the batting seems to be coming together too.
With their win over Bangladesh at the Eden Gardens, India have become the first team to win four consecutive Tests by an innings. They also became the first team to declare in seven consecutive innings and win seven consecutive Tests — an Indian record.
Kohli's captaincy record
Credit where credit is due
But this could have easily gone so wrong for Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri if the players had taken the criticism in the wrong way. It becomes easy to believe that someone has something against you when you see yourself being dropped, sometimes without clear reason.
But to their credit, the players who have emerged unscathed are the ones who chose not to wallow in self misery. Instead, they chose to get better.
Ishant made his way to county cricket and worked on his game. Pujara did the same and now has shown that his strike-rate can be better. Umesh has cut down on his pace and concentrates on moving the ball and his line. Rahane finally has emerged from his shell and has averaged 70.60 at home in 2019. Shami has spoken about getting fit after watching his weight balloon to 94 kgs. Jadeja worked on his batting to improve his utility value.
Perhaps they did it because they knew there was no way back unless they worked hard to meet Kohli’s exacting standards. But then again, perhaps they did it because they bought into the Indian skipper’s dream of world domination.
When Kohli became skipper, he made winning matches away from home a clear priority. That was the change he wanted to effect. But he also knew that it would not be possible to realise the dream unless things were changed drastically.
So, he stated that he wanted five bowlers because ‘Test match hamein bowler hi jeetayenge.’
It is this belief that worked wonders because India’s recent success has been built on the back of a bowling attack that has few parallels around the world. One might say Kohli got lucky with Jasprit Bumrah but on the other hand, one might say he made his own luck too.
Kohli took risks. He took them because he wanted his team to win matches – no draws, just wins and his record shows that he has succeeded more than his predecessors.
1. “If I don’t take wickets even in one innings, I think my career for India is over.”
2. “Anyone on the outside knows mediocre performances aren’t enough.”
3. “I know that there is a lot of competition in the team so whoever comes in has to do well. I knew that it was important I do well if I get a chance. The way we are winning matches, you have to have the mindset to grab your chances.”
The first quote comes from an interview Ishant Sharma gave to ESPNCricinfo. The fast bowler has had two of the finest years of his career but he still doesn’t feel like he can rest easy.
The second quote comes from opener Mayank Agarwal. He said this just after India’s win over Bangladesh at the Eden Gardens. It tells us of the perception that this squad is creating in domestic cricket. You need to be something special to even break into it, as Agarwal has shown. It is a perception that demands excellence.
The third quote comes from Umesh Yadav, who has fought his way back into the side on the back of some excellent performances. He was dropped but he went back and worked hard on his game. He found a way to succeed.
The three quotes, from three players at very different points in their careers, highlight the tough competition that exists for places in the team. Given how Kohli functions, every player knows by now that they will be backed but their effort and output cannot be anything less than 100 percent.
So when the team management felt that Rishabh Pant’s keeping against spinners in India won’t be good enough, they quickly swapped in Wriddhiman Saha. An opportunity for Saha, one that he grabbed and a message for Pant, one that will push him to work harder.
For a long time in India cricket, the big names would just seem to hang around the squad for a bit too long. But it started to change under Mahendra Singh Dhoni and under Kohli, it has been done away with completely at least in Test cricket. If you can’t do what the skipper wants, he’ll swap someone else in.
The motive seems to be solely about what will make the team better.
There was a lovely conversation Kohli had with Agarwal after the opener scored 243 against Bangladesh in the first Test in Indore but the words he ended the chat with told us a lot about the Indian skipper’s priorities.
“He hasn’t come into the team wanting to grab the opportunity. He has come in wanting to make the team win,” said Kohli about Mayank.
These are not empty words. Rather, this is the essence of the Kohli style of captaincy. It is cut-throat, it is brutal but it is also what one needs to succeed in professional sport. For him, the results and the team come first. Everything else is secondary.
It is a belief that has driven Kohli forward through the years and now, it is doing the same for India’s Test team too.