An early indication that Virat Kohli would be a tough and uncompromising skipper came in last season’s IPL when he minced no words to justify the exclusion of Sarfaraz Khan from RCB’s playing eleven.
One of the reporters at a media interaction enquired if Sarfaraz had been rested. “He was dropped,” said Kohli in no uncertain terms. He pointedly remarked that cricket was not about only batting.
“You need to sprint twos and threes between the wickets, be quick on your feet, excel as a fielder and also be really fit. He has been told what he has to do. Hopefully he will work on those areas and return a better cricketer next season,” he had said.
Kohli left no one in doubt as to what he expected of his player and ensured that Sarfarz got the message and the opportunity to work on his game.
It is this toughness that stands out in his handling of the team in the first Test against New Zealand. The aggressive manner in which the openers, KL Rahul in particular, and even an acknowledged grafter Cheteshwar Pujara boldly went for their strokes, could only have come about with Kohli insisting that they’d have to send a message to the Kiwis – India were coming after them.
Rahul even played a couple of strokes more in tune with T20 cricket and it was this sort of positive stroke play from all batsmen, including the skipper, that set the tone for India’s approach.
Consequently, the Indian team’s body language stood in stark contrast to that of their opponents. It also reflected on their state of mind. The Kiwis seemed defensive and even hesitant, while the Indians relentlessly pressed them all the time, both with bat and ball. Not even rain interruptions left anybody in doubt that Kohli was bent on carving up a win.
Kohli revealed similar intent on his Test captaincy debut against Australia Down Under. On that occasion the Australians had set a challenging target of 364 on the final day. Very few Indian captains of the past would have taken up the challenge but Kohli led from the front with a century in each innings. The second innings effort of 141 in 175 balls almost helped India past the post.
The criticism of Kohli’s captaincy came in the IPL. A common grouse was that he had failed to defend huge totals. Many felt that his habit of handing the ball to the bowler and retreating to distant parts of the field was a tell-tale that he was just sitting back and expecting things to happen. It was felt that he was not proactive and this allowed opponents to get the better of his team.
Fortunately this was a learning phase and when India embarked on their tour to the West Indies, Kohli exhibited the edge which defined his leadership.
In the first Test it was his aggressive move to field five bowlers that permitted the team to enforce follow-on and carve out the win by an innings and 92 runs. Had he followed India’s conventional wisdom of playing four bowlers, he’d have been forced to give them a rest by opting to bat a second time and that could have derailed India from its quest for a win. Instead, with five bowlers at his command he could afford to rotate them and keep them fresh for the two consecutive innings.
Again in the third Test India’s aggressive batting and subsequent declaration on the fifth day enabled the big win.
Thus, as evident, Kohli is the kind of the captain who will encourage his players to go for the jugular. Of course such tactics could backfire at times. But importantly, it would change the mindset of the team and its players.
In the first Test at Kanpur, it was not only the batsmen who played with a lot of conviction and purpose; even the bowlers were aggressive in their outlook and intent.
Kohli’s choice of four bowlers was interesting. He had a pacy Umesh Yadav to have a go at the batsmen even on the slow, sluggish pitch. Mohammed Shami presented a different challenge with new and old balls. His ability to reverse swing the old ball tested lower order batsmen while his probing spells with the new ball troubled the opening batsmen. Ravindra Jadeja with his flat and fast left arm spin was the best foil to the more classical off spin of Ravichandran Ashwin.
Thus Kohli had four bowlers of different virtues, each having a go at the batsmen on a pitch that the Kiwis were wary of. The fact that he was not bound by pre-fixed concepts and ideas came through in his choice of playing eleven.
Of course Kohli as skipper is a work in progress. The 13 home Tests is a fantastic opportunity for him to fine tune and polish his leadership skills. These are early days but hopefully by the end of the season we’d have a skipper and a team primed to conquer the cricketing world.