Since the turn of the century and India’s first overseas coach, there have been, interestingly enough, four significant captain-coach combos – Sourav Ganguly and John Wright (November 2000 to April 2005), Rahul Dravid and Greg Chappell (October 2005 to March 2007), Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Gary Kirsten (March 2008 to April 2011) and Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri (July 2017 to November 2021). There was also the Dhoni-Duncan Fletcher alliance (June 2011 to March 2015), but it was singularly devoid of excitement outside of the 2013 Champions Trophy, India’s last meaningful outing on the world scale.
Each of the others had its moments. Under Ganguly and Wright, India started to believe that they could compete with the best in the business on equal terms, a belief fortified by the stunning come-from-behind triumph against Australia at home in 2001. The Dravid-Chappell era is overshadowed by the first-round elimination from the 2007 World Cup, but it wasn’t all gloom and doom – a first Test series win in the Caribbean in 35 years, a first ever Test victory in South Africa, the first steps towards playing five specialist bowlers in the five-day game, a stirring run of 16 consecutive successful chases in 50-over cricket.
Results-wise, the most successful pair was Dhoni and Kirsten. India won away in New Zealand for the first time in 41 years (2009), climbed to the top of the Test podium that same December and capped their time at the leadership helm with success at the 2011 World Cup at home.
Kohli and Shastri together, however, rewrote the DNA of Indian cricket. A match made in heaven, an unusual case of like poles attracted to each other, the charismatic skipper and the one-time pin-up boy linked up to make the Test team the most vibrant and productive of all Indian Test outfits. They oversaw a period of extraordinary gains in the longest format, with the piece de resistance being successive series triumphs in Australia, though in their time, India seldom consistently threatened global silverware, a glaring lacuna that can’t be wished away.
From all accounts, Kohli was the boss and Shastri a willing, able ally who attempted to insulate the skipper from public outcry, which wasn’t insignificant. Their association was spread across two stints – between August 2014 and April 2016 when Shastri was the team director, and then this latest four-and-a-half-year run by the start of which Kohli had risen to become the captain across formats.
History will look back with fondness on the contributions of this twosome, though it will also be hard pressed to overlook uncharacteristically hesitant decision-making that prevented India from maximising their potential at World Cups of both the 50- and 20-over kinds. We shall come to that later.
It was in Test cricket that this pair was at its most effective. Even though Fletcher was the coach during Kohli’s first Test as captain – albeit in a stand-in capacity in Adelaide in 2014 when Dhoni was unavailable – it was clear that Shastri was calling the off-field shots. In their collective wisdom, the star batsman of the team and the one-time Champion of Champions decided that leg-spinner Karn Sharma’s form at nets was too good to be denied a bigger stage. Consequently, proven match-winner R Ashwin was benched, with disastrous consequences. Nathan Lyon, Ashwin’s off-spinning Australian counterpart, took 12 wickets while Karn’s only Test was an unmitigated failure.
It was during that Test that the contours of India’s Test future began to take tenuous shape. Set a target of 364, India kept going hammer and tongs, refusing to pull down the shutters even when the writing on the wall. Kohli’s twin centuries failed to prevent his side from going down by 48 runs, their bold chase coming to an end at 315. The law had been laid down – if the consequence of chasing victory was defeat, that was acceptable. What was not, was embracing safety-first tactics; going for a win only after first making sure that there was no possibility of defeat went out of the window. It was a culture the captain and the director (later to become head coach) impressed upon the team. Such was the strength of their personalities that, when Kohli became full-time Test skipper on that same Australian tour following Dhoni’s surprise retirement, the rest of the squad had no option but to fall in line.
Kohli’s predilection towards Test cricket meant the world leaders in every sense of the word became the perfect ambassadors for the under-threat long form. India utilised their standing in world cricket to espouse the virtues of Test cricket and walked the talk with tremendous displays at home and away. One of the great contributions of the Kohli-Shastri duo was to explode misgivings around the toss and the venue where they were playing. India started to take the uncontrollable out of the equation – they didn’t bother if their captain won the toss or not (good thing they didn’t, because Kohli lost way more than he won), nor did they care anymore whether they were playing in Delhi or Durban, in Manchester or Mumbai. There was a studied slant towards embracing every game as a home Test. India started to relish challenges, especially overseas, in a marked shift from the past when they used to travel with the lambs-to-the-slaughter attitude and consequently invariably came second best.
While the early period of this strong-willed alliance was marked by bluster more than results, the tide started to turn on the tour of Australia in 2018-19. After unsuccessful outings in South Africa and England, India stepped up to rain a flurry of punches against an under-strength Australia. With Cheteshwar Pujara as the batting vanguard and Jasprit Bumrah as the battering ram, India made the most of the absence through suspension of David Warner and Steve Smith to eke out a 2-1 triumph. It was India’s first Test series win in Australia and had taken 71 years in coming. Finally, bombast was matched by outcome; Kohli and Shastri had a base to build on and they did so spectacularly. A second series victory in Australia came two years later (though Ajinkya Rahane was the one who masterminded that after Kohli returned home on paternity leave) and India were up 2-1 in England thus summer when the final Test was abandoned and subsequently rescheduled for next July.
That India had so much success in the Test arena was a surprise. After all, there were massive inconsistencies in selection – Kohli didn’t repeat a Test XI for 39 consecutive games at the helm – and a distinct disregard for established names, not least Pujara and Ashwin. The former was publicly castigated more than once for his lack of ‘intent’, a euphemism for his strike-rate which didn’t conform to the template Kohli had come up with. The latter, clearly India’s greatest match-winner in the last decade, came to be regarded as somewhat of a ‘home’ bowler. By the England tour this year, he was considered superfluous to the overall scheme of things despite India playing five bowlers, Ravindra Jadeja winning the nod as the sole spinner on the back of his unquestioned all-round skills.
The tentative first steps towards five bowlers, taken during the Dravid-Chappell phase, became pretty much the preferred mode under Kohli and Shastri. Driven by the conviction that 20 wickets were more likely to be taken by five bowlers than four, the pair was willing to go one batsman light. The success of that formula can hardly be disputed, though it helped immensely that India had the pace resources on which to fall back.
It didn’t take long for Kohli and Shastri to arrive at the conclusion that the only way India would be an all-weather side capable of being competitive in all conditions was if they used pace as their principal weapon. In bowling coach B Arun, they had the perfect Dronacharya to mentor a plethora of Arjunas. India’s pace arsenal is more bountiful and potent now than ever before. That, as much as the results in the Test arena, will remain the everlasting legacy of the Kohli-Shastri combine.
They had no little success in white-ball cricket, but that was restricted to bilateral series, at home and away. In ICC tournaments, India failed to make a single final under the Kohli-Shastri regime, encompassing the 2015 World Cup, the 2016 T20 World Cup, the 2019 World Cup (all semis) and this current T20 World Cup. As much as the lack of success, the lack of foresight and planning when it came to key positions also stood out. At the 50-over World Cup in England, that centred around the No. 4 position. Incumbent Ambati Rayudu was unfairly dumped after three failures at home against Australia, just a couple of months before the big bash. To be fair, that slot wasn’t under scrutiny until the semifinal against New Zealand when suddenly Dinesh Karthik walked in at two-down and predictably was unprepared for a role thrust on him without warning.
Hardik Pandya’s was a similar imbroglio heading into the T20 World Cup. Despite doubts over his ability to chip in with the ball, the insistence on his inclusion at the expense of team balance was baffling. In any case, his batting too has fallen on hard times, which made the push for Pandya even harder to comprehend.
Monday’s dead rubber against Namibia was Kohli’s 50th as T20I skipper, and the 150th game across formats for Kohli and Shastri together. The nine-wicket win was the perfect going-away gift for both; they elevated the standing of Indian cricket and did so in their own style, sticking to their beliefs and swatting aside any resistance as unwarranted, uninformed interference. There was a swagger to their reign bordering on the arrogant, but allowed to do their bidding, they delivered more often than not. Of that, there is little doubt.
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"I have no comment to make on either. We understood what happened on the field and people on the outside don't know exact details of what goes on on the field," he said in the post-match press conference in Cape Town on Friday.
Former India cricketer and current commentator Sanjay Manjrekar feels that if he were a selector, Rahane would have been out of his plans a couple of years ago, but felt that there was ‘something left’ in Pujara.
Virat Kohli signs off as India's most successful Test captain of all time with 40 wins from 68 matches, having taken over the role from MS Dhoni in the 2014-15 tour of Australia