It’s the final day of a tense Test match. Australia have set a target for India that seemed, on paper, too tough to overhaul. India were missing their regular captain but the stand-in skipper was keen to make a statement. Deep down everyone knew perhaps that a draw would be the best result for India and a creditable one too but as time went on, chances of an Indian win went from improbable to wow-this-could-actually-be-happening. In the final stages of the match, India even were the favourites it seemed like.
The run-chase of Adelaide 2014 ended in glorious defeat for Virat Kohli’s men.
The run-chase of Brisbane 2021 ended in a historic win for Ajinkya Rahane’s men.
But in two matches six years and a little more apart, the underlying trait was the same: fearlessness.
“At no point did we not think about chasing the score down,” Kohli had said in 2014 at the end of his first match as Test captain.
“We have come here to play positive cricket. No sort of negativity is welcome in this group. That’s the kind of belief we have come here with. This has been one of our strongest performances overseas in the past two-three years, and I am really proud the way the boys played in this game. Showed a lot of heart and a lot of character.”— Virat Kohli in 2014
Most away Test wins as captain
Who deserves the credit?
It’s a tricky thing, credit. In the aftermath of a win — one as momentous as India’s Border Gavaskar Trophy triumph in 2020-’21 — there is plenty to go around.
There is nothing wrong with it, either. It’s only human nature. Success, after all, has many owners while failure tends to be a lonely place. Ajinkya Rahane led remarkably well, taking over from a near-impossible scenario and turning into an epic tour that is unlikely to be forgotten as long as Test cricket exists. Ravi Shastri deserves the plaudits that have come his way, His support staff Bharat Arun, Vikram Rathour too. Do not forget the physios, masseurs, slingers and so on. There are the individual coaches of the players, all of who stood up heroically at various points during a bruising series. The list will go on.
But an intriguing undercurrent through this all has been a narrative that has been bubbling: that perhaps maybe Kohli’s absence helped India, and that Kohli’s leadership should be scruitnised.
That Kohli’s captaincy is worth scrutiny is not a new sentiment but the reasons that have come up are worth questioning too.
For starters, India under Kohli have always prioritised winning a Test match, no caveats attached. That’s the one stand-out feature of the Kohli-Shastri era, where team selections were made with a horses-for-courses policy that bears some criticism. But the reason for such moves were invariably: this will help us win the match. A batsman who can change the match in a session at No 3. Packing the lineup with pacers when the pitch is green. A wrist-spinner as a X-Factor at Lord’s. A rookie pacer thrown in the deep end overseas because he had the zing.
Under his captaincy, starting from Adelaide 2014, there have been more heartbreaks overseas than glorious wins but India largely put themselves in such positions because of the attitude he brought to the table.
It is for a reason that Bharat Arun singled out fearlessness as the one defining trait of this Indian team:
“You fear when you have certain goals and you’re only thinking of the outcome and you do not have the process in place. There is an element of fear. You do not want to lose game, you want to play it safe. We as a team, that’s exactly what Ravi Shastri and Virat Kohli have been insisting with this team, we don’t mind losing.
“Even after the Adelaide Test match, yes we need to learn to get over it but what Ravi Shastri said to the team is ‘I don’t even mind losing 4-0, but we are known for the brand of cricket that we play, that should never change and we should never play conservative and we should always look to be more positive.’ That is the message that has gone to this team. Had we even lost in Australia that was not going to deter the way we play the game, the way we play cricket. Again, that paid rich dividends.”— India bowling coach Bharat Arun
Full circle from Adelaide 2014
And so, when Rishabh Pant was on track to complete the run-chase, such thoughts were inevitable. Is this another Adelaide? Is this another Birmingham or Southampton or Cape Town? But, Rishabh Pant’s madness ensured this was Brisbane 2021: a first in Indian cricket history. Unprecedented.
From the scenes that followed, the comparisons began. Rahane’s magnaminity stood out when he allowed debutant T Natarajan to take centerstage after a few seconds with the trophy himself? Sure, it did. But cast your mind two years back and you will find Mayank Agarwal was the one celebrating with the trophy in the group images not long after Kohli lifted it and gave it a kiss. It is by no means a new phenomenon in Indian cricket and certainly no reason to praise Rahane while throwing shade at Kohli.
It was a masterstroke by Rahane to play Ravindra Jadeja in Melbourne when Kohli left? Masterstroke yes, but as we now know, it is a decision that was made in Adelaide in the immediate aftermath of the 36 all out with Kohli, Shastri and Rahane coming together with the coaching staff and making a few important calls. Having the left-handed Jadeja in the middle order and the fifth bowling option, key among them.
Ashwin comes on to bowl in the first hour at MCG, must mean Rahane uses his ace spinner better? From the horse’s mouth, we have come to understand that Shastri told the off-spinner after the toss in the dressing room and added that the message had been passed on to Rahane. Also, in Southampton 2018, Ashwin came on to bowl in the seventh over of the first morning and dismissed Alastair Cook in the second over. Under Kohli.
It really went a step beyond the normal when the team spirit seen in this Indian side was seen as something that Rahane fostered. Look at how comfortable everyone looked with each other when Ashwin was interviewing the debutants (and debutant-ish Shardul Thakur) in Brisbane, eh? You might argue about many things when it comes to Kohli’s captaincy tactically, but building a team environment where there is joy in each other’s success is something you cannot take away from him. He has allowed his fast bowlers to thrive, he has made his colleagues buy into his horses for courses policy largely as you rarely hear a team member say the atmosphere is unhealthy in the dressing room.
There might be a few sticks to beat Kohli’s captaincy with but putting self over the team is not one of them.
If there is one thing that has become abundantly clear in the aftermath of India’s series win in Australia, it is that in a team sport where there are so many facets to the game behind the scenes, a major decision is rarely ever unilateral. Really, it shouldn’t be, when there are so many resources that are available for a captain to make the most of.
As it is, there have been plenty of reasons for this Indian team to take pride in. Rahane’s leadership, of which we only got a glimpse in Dharamsala against Australia in 2017, was in full view for the world to see and the way he took control of things in the middle must be celebrated. This was his moment to shine (Kohli’s words before the series, not ours), this is his triumph and he remains unbeaten as Indian captain in Test cricket: a record that was unthinkable when he walked out to the toss in Melbourne.
But, for the resilience India showed, for the courage it took to go for the win in Brisbane, for the fearlessness that has been near-universally hailed, Kohli deserves his share of the credit. For the seeds of positivity sown in Adelaide back in 2014, India reaped the rewards in 2021 at Gabba.
Read Scroll.in’s coverage of India’s epic series win Down Under here:
- Rishabh Pant, the maddest of them all
- Wanted: A Rahul Dravid (and a robust cricketing structure) for the Indian women’s team too
- Opinion: The Ravi Shastri turnaround – From ‘why him?’ to ‘who can carry forward his legacy?’
- Shubman Gill: One for the future, who arrived in the present
- How Australia’s fortress was dismantled: The method behind India’s miraculous win at Gabba
- A generational phoenix: With historic win in Australia, Indian cricket comes of age. Again