"Dhoni should retire from international cricket now, and concentrate on winning the Ranji Trophy," the joke ran after India pulled off a heist against England to lift the Champions Trophy on a damp evening at Edgbaston in 2013.
From being plucked from obscurity to becoming one of the most successful captains in the world, Mahendra Singh Dhoni's epic Hollywood-esque story had a fairy tale script. It was Dhoni's captaincy that made him Dhoni and the wicketkeeper-batsman from Ranchi is India's most successful captain. He ended with a 54 percent win ratio in international cricket. But what made him extra special was his love for the big stage and his success in ICC tournaments.
Within six years of his leadership, Dhoni had already become the first captain to win all three major ICC tournaments. He had won it all – World T20 (2007), 50-over World Cup (2011) and the Champions Trophy (2013). He was the man for the big occasion with second-best win/loss ratio of 2.857 in ICC tournaments, behind only Ricky Ponting. He led a bunch of inexperienced youngsters into the World T20, his first full captaincy stint, while a shocked India was still recuperating from the 2007 World Cup loss, and steered his side to an epoch-defining trophy win which would change the face of Indian cricket forever. When Dhoni gave up captaincy earlier this year, he left behind a massive legacy.
As India head into the 2017 Champions Trophy, Virat Kohli's biggest challenge won't be just defending the title but, more than anything else, it will be carrying forward Dhoni's ICC tournament legacy. The highly scrutinised sport is such that no one remembers the bilateral and multi-team tournament wins but it’s what you have done on the grandest of stages that matters.
Dhoni's mix of preternatural calm, tactical brilliance, hunch and a gambler's mind gave him the edge over the rest. However, what stood out was his ability to bring out the best from his players in the big tournaments. He knew his players inside out and the way he handled them was the key.
"The main job is to make sure that whatever is the potential of the player, he is performing to 100 percent," Dhoni said in January this year. "Usually if you can achieve something between 90 to 110 percent, you know you've done really well.
"You can't really get 150 percent performance from a player who is 80 percent. That's where you have to be very practical, very honest. There are different ways to handle everyone: for some it is a kind word, for some it is a harsh word. For some it may be just an expression with your eyes. At times it may be the false confidence you give the guy because that is what is really needed at that point of time. You have to be clever enough to evaluate as to this is what is needed at that point of time. If you know the potential of the team, you can definitely make sure that they perform to the potential," Dhoni added.
Kohli is an intense, expressive and an ultra aggressive captain. Yes, he injects intensity and enthusiasm into the side. While some players are still trying to adapt to his style which is quite different from Dhoni's, the 28-year-old's biggest challenge lies in extracting the best out of his players on the big stage.
The Champions Trophy is that first big step. Unlike Dhoni, who led a bunch of relatively raw talent in his maiden ICC tournament – the 2007 World T20 – Kohli has an experienced side at his disposal laced with the guidance of Dhoni. It was in the previous edition of the tournament that India discovered the opening pair of Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan. Both the batsmen have been going through a tough time of late. Rohit, after returning from a long injury lay-off, didn't have the best of times with the bat in the Indian Premier League (IPL) while Dhawan, despite not doing much wrong in ODIs, finds himself at a crossroads in his career. India would want them to rekindle the joy of 2013.
One of the things Dhoni struggled with for most part of his captaincy tenure was getting the best out of his pacers. It was in the 2015 World Cup that he finally got them to click in unison. Under Kohli's captaincy, the fast bowlers have flourished even more. The pace battery of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav, Mohammad Shami, Jasprit Bumrah will go into the tournament as one of the best after Australia's and will hold the key to India's chances in English conditions. It's remarkable how, once a perennial weakness of the Indian side, is now their greatest strength going into a big tournament. A lot of credit goes to Kohli in the way he has believed his pacers and nurtured right through his captaincy tenure.
Good bench strength will give Kohli a selection headache: whether to go in with the experience of both Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja – who did well in the last edition – or follow a four-pacer-one spinner strategy. The batting order also poses a quandary with Yuvraj Singh, Ajinkya Rahane, Kedar Jadhav and Hardik Pandya all fighting for a place in middle and lower-middle order.
"I am very excited to be playing as captain in my first major ICC competition," Kohli said after reaching England. "As far as the team goes, we won last time because our fast bowlers did very well, our spinners were strong and our opening batsman did well.
"They were the main three factors. This year the team is a lot fitter, the cricketers are a lot more mature because that was a very young group four years ago. It has gained a lot of experience in the last three or four years. I love the tournament because it represents a challenge from the (word) go," Kohli added.
What will hold importance is how swiftly India can carry out the transition from T20s to ODIs. India have played the least number of ODIs among the top eight nations in the last 12 months – 11. Most of the batsmen didn't have the best of times in the IPL, including the captain. Kohli was a bit circumspect about adapting to the format change quickly but he asserted the fact that the IPL experience will help the players be match ready.
"I don't think you can have too much similarities in both formats, but from a game planning point of view I think it helps a lot of people to stay in the zone of being match ready to say the least," Kohli said in the pre-departure conference. "It is different for different people. Some people cannot connect the two formats at all, some people take bits and pieces and put it into place in all formats. So just being match fit, just having the rhythm of bowling, the flow of batting, the mental set up of scoring runs, being in tough situations are things which you can carry forward to all formats. IPL being a high competitive tournament allows you to play against world class players from all the teams. I think it could be the most competitive game you could be a part of before something like Champions Trophy," he added.
The other cause of concern is the fact that India have won just three of the 10 ODI series/tournaments away from home, excluding those in Zimbabwe, since the 2013 Champions Trophy.
Back in 2013, a young, flamboyant and expressive Kohli was the most animated of all, dancing to the tunes of Gangnam style while lifting the Champions Trophy. But a lot has changed since then. What we are witnessing right now is a calmer and more mature version of Kohli. However, the on-field aggression hasn’t relented.
"Ruthlessness is something that we definitely speak about all the time," Kohli said in the Champions Trophy pre-departure conference. "Even if we close the series off we want to win it without losing a game or maybe drawing a game as well, if possible. We go in with that kind of mindset, and I think that goes a long way in a tournament like this. If you can think about the games in that manner, I think you will get the results you want more often than not."
Kohli has had an impressive start to his captaincy career. He hasn't lost a single international series so far. It hasn't been a smooth ride in his overall leadership stint though. The horror experience of captaining RCB in the 2017 IPL season might have had a strong impact but he has taken it positively.
"I was pretty fortunate that I got to experience that kind of a time. It teaches you a lot as a captain, it teaches you a lot composure-wise. You take away a lot from failures, and that's something I have always cherished," said Kohli.
India have lacked that final push in the last three ICC tournaments having reached the final of 2014 World T20, semi-final of 2015 World Cup and 2016 World T20. This is Kohli's chance to set the record straight. He can take the inspiration from their past heroics in the tournament and the fact that they have the best win-loss ratio of 8:1 in the past five years in England. He has the required ammunition to retain the title and a win here might just set the tone for bigger things to come in the post-Dhoni era.