Leadership is a journey. When you start off, leading by example is the primary trait that earns you the respect of your group and puts you in good stead for the role. Virat Kohli had no issues in that regard when he became the captain of the Indian team. Already India’s best player and a role model for his work ethic and fitness, Kohli was the natural leader of the side. Everyone around him looked up to him, wanted to be like him.
The second stage of the leadership journey and perhaps the most satisfying part of it is being a motivator for your group and bask in the glory of their success. Kohli has entered that phase of his captaincy now and the glee on his face while talking about Hardik Pandya’s success in the post-match presentation and later on in the video he posted on Twitter told a story. The Delhi batsman is now expressing himself not just with his own performances but also through the performances of those he has entrusted to do a job for his team.
The hardest thing for Kohli in his early days as captain was to hold himself back. The India captain likes to be busy, he likes to see things moving, he likes to stay ahead of the game. You could sense he was always itching to change things around until something worked for him. At times it seemed he was trying three different field placements for a bowler in the same over.
As the years progressed, Kohli learned the art of patience. The Bangalore Test match against Australia earlier this year when India were 0-1 down in the series and were all out on Day 1 for 189 against the visitors, was a fine example of this. With his back against the wall, it would have been easy if his team had come out trying to blow Australia away with uninhibited aggression. But the team reigned itself that day. There was aggression, but only in intent and body language. Instead of testing Australia out with guile, they tested them out with attrition. The team had fallen behind, but they stayed their ground without slipping further back and eventually fought back for a historic win.
Now that Kohli had learned to hold back, he had got the license for tinkering and move pieces in his attack based on inspiration, advice and whims. Unlike his early days though, his tinkering is less frequent and seems more thoughtful, almost like conducting experiments under carefully controlled lab conditions. It may be an effect of having Ravi Shastri by his side in the dressing room, someone who is known to give him a free hand while at the same time chiming in with a sage advice or two of his own.
India’s captains since Sourav Ganguly have all inherited part of the structures formed by their predecessors and added some sort of personal touch to them. Kohli has kept no secret in his admiration for Dhoni and seems to have learnt a few tricks from one of the coolest men to lead India. Even more so, he has imbibed the spirit of Ganguly in the way he backs himself and those in the team who mirror his fighting spirit.
A bit like Ganguly, who never fancied a left-arm spinner in the side as he himself didn’t rate them as a batsman, Kohli has a thing or two for wrist spinners, probably because he himself as a batsman rates them. It’s true that the teams around the world are witnessing the resurgence of wrist spin in limited-overs but Kohli’s love for the art extends further than what is in vogue these days. Remember he played Karn Sharma over the more fancied Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin in his very first game as India’s test captain in Australia?
Some believe Kohli wanted a wrist spinner even during the 2017 Champions Trophy and the lack of a wicket-taking options in the middle overs hurt him in the loss against Sri Lanka in the league stages and then again in the final against Pakistan. Kohli is the last guy to ignore the lessons from a defeat and we may never see him going into a limited-overs game without a wrist spinner in the near future.
In his post-match interview when he was asked about Kuldeep Yadav’s spell where he was expensive but picked two important wickets after going for runs, Kohli spoke about how the wrist spinners need to be backed and how they can be expensive at times but he will always trade that for a few crucial wickets. Kohli understands and appreciates the art of wrist spin better than most captains going around. It’s apparent in the way he continues to pick two wrist spinners in his side instead of going for the “variety” and “balance” in the bowling attack that looks good on paper.
Backing Kuldeep Yadav, who had been expensive throughout the day, paid rich dividends when he got two set batsmen out before the slog overs and played a crucial role in restricting Australia to under 300 when a score of 330-plus looked gettable at one stage. It was a brave move by Kohli, as some would say, to bring the Chinaman on at a crucial juncture in the match.
If Kohli on the field was proactive, inspired and a bit unorthodox; the move to send Pandya at four while batting was straight out of left field. With the match still in the balance after losing two quick wickets of both the set openers and more accomplished batsmen like Manish Pandey, Kedar Jadhav and the master of chase, MS Dhoni himself still to bat, watching Pandya strut across at the fall of Rahane’s wicket raised a few eyebrows.
But Kohli knew what he was doing. Sending Pandya in was a signal of intent from a captain who is already feeling the heat. It was a bid to throw Australia off their game plan. It was also a challenge for his own team to show him whether the individuals can step up to do justice to different roles. Unlike Dhoni who always believed in taking the chase deep, Kohli never likes getting too far behind the game. He wanted his impact player in early to take the spinner out of the game and make it easy for those who follow. Kohli and Shastri (whom Kohli credited for the Pandya move) may have also realised that run-scoring gets difficult on this pitch against an old ball and wanted to make sure that his batting order did the bulk of the work against a relatively new ball.
India is on top of ICC ODI rankings after Sunday’s win and it’s great news for the team and it’s fans. But perhaps the better news is how the captain of this team is thinking on his feet and maturing after every game and every series.