Captaincy for Virat Kohli is turning out to be a number’s game. Here is the first one for you – every time he has gone out to toss in his 28-Test reign, it has been with a different playing eleven (in consecutive Tests) on the team sheet. You want to wonder if MS Dhoni changed his Test eleven 28 times in his entire six-year captaincy reign.
How many other Indian captains changed elevens so frequently too? It is an onerous task to sift through history’s pages, especially when consistency has long been the mantra for success for team India. Remember the golden era, when the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Virender Sehwag, VVS Laxman, Rahul Dravid, Dhoni, Anil Kumble, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh were part of the same playing eleven. There wasn’t much need of chop and change then, no?
Yet, the standout aspect of Kohli’s playing eleven isn’t in the changes he makes. It is in the simple fact that like the golden years, the crux of this side has remained the same over the past 3-4 years. It is backed up by another fact that India’s bench strength is currently bulging at the seams. The four-openers’ conundrum – Murali Vijay when fit, KL Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan and Abhinav Mukund – is a perfect example of this scenario wherein one player – fit, in-form and ready in all sense – simply walks into the side in place of another like nothing seems out of place.
“This is across all formats, not just Tests. When we have good bench strength, there is competition for places it’s a good headache to have. At the same time, ideally, you want your core team to be fit and on the park as often as possible,” said coach Ravi Shastri of this ‘good’ problem of plenty.
It sits in with the core group of cricketers who have represented India for a while now. R Ashwin (51) and Cheteshwar Pujara (50) have just crossed the 50-milestone in Test cricket in this series. Virat Kohli has already played 59 Tests, injured Murali Vijay has 51, Ajinkya Rahane 39, Ravindra Jadeja 32, Shikhar Dhawan 25 and Umesh Yadav 33. Then, there is Ishant Sharma who sits on the bench with a 77-Test experience, whilst someone like KL Rahul is quickly climbing these charts with 18 Tests already.
This is in parallel to that golden generation, but where Kohli has been different – by chance or design – is in making simple adjustments to the playing eleven as per conditions and opposition. A simple case in point is Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s inclusion whenever situation calls for it. India have mostly played Test cricket in sub-continental and tropical conditions since 2015 so you don’t encounter too many grassy surfaces aiding swing bowlers.
But, when twice it happened – at St. Lucia on the West Indies’ tour last year and at Kolkata against New Zealand, surprisingly – Kumar came into the side without a second thought. Umesh Yadav – India’s best Test bowler in 2016-17 – was only too happy to make way. “It is not about individual performances, it is only about the team. We are all performing for the winning cause of the team so if I have to sit out a few games but the team will benefit, I am happy to do that. We have all discussed this and the whole team agrees with this thought process,” the pacer said, some time after that Kolkata Test.
It underlines the method of Kohli’s captaincy. Never mind the bitter after-taste of the Anil Kumble saga, the star batsman runs this ship as democratically as possible. On Monday, keeper Wriddhiman Saha revealed in full how Kohli makes DRS decisions, and how he even relies on his teammates for fine-tuning field placements.
“He asks everyone who is close in to the batsmen. He asks bowlers about their surety of a wicket and asks my opinion too. Then he makes a decision. But if it goes wrong, he doesn’t turn around and say why did you ask for review. It is the same with field settings, we can all contribute and fine tune settings, but he only asks us to inform him before we do,” said Saha.
From subtle changes in his playing eleven, to allowing his teammates certain leadership freedom on the field, Kohli has embraced leadership in a manner that few envisaged. On the face, it is all about pumping action, exulting in every run scored, celebrating every wicket fallen, maybe decorating it all with a few choice expletive as well. Underneath, there is a cold, calculative mannerism that keeps this Indian team ticking. This is best illustrated in his penchant for not enforcing follow-ons.
In his relatively short captaincy stint, Kohli has only asked the opposition to bat again 3 out of 8 times when he had the chance to ask for a follow-on. On the other five occasions, Kohli looked to bat on and provide a cushion of tall runs for his bowlers. It is no surprise for you need a mountain of them backing your bowling attack when in pursuit of 20 wickets on sub-continental pitches.
“Our batting in the second innings has changed in the last six months or so. It has become more positive, we are taking more chances and giving our bowlers extra 20-25 overs to get wickets if needed. Chasing a target batting last is always a pressure situation because you lose one wicket and you don’t know how the new batsmen will react under pressure. So we always like that format where we put opposition under pressure in the fourth innings more than we do it,” explained Kohli after the second Test at the SSC.
Clearly, India enforced the follow-on because Lanka collapsed for 183. If the lead had been cut down to 200, instead of 439, India would have batted again. It is a perfect template to carve out Test wins – out of three possible results you make sure that the opposition only has a choice of two – draw or loss. And then you go after them hammer and tongs to get the result you want – win.
Is this aggression too, you wonder aloud, caging your opponent and going for the kill? “Yes it is,” Kohli answered, calmly.