Virat Kohli’s legacy as captain could have a far-reaching effect on Indian cricket simply because in him, bowlers have found a man after their own heart.
It is the aggressive statement Kohli makes with his team composition that sets him apart as Indian cricket's game changer.
Earlier captains would invariably endorse a four-bowler strategy. The composition of the bowling unit could vary; three spinners and one pacer or two spinners with two pacers, or even three pacers and one spinner.
Captains lacked faith in the ability of their batsmen and hence seldom took the field with anything less than seven batsmen, inclusive of a wicket-keeper who could bat.
Batsmen who could turn their arm over, like Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Virender Sehwag, VVS Laxman or Kohli himself were pressed into service to relieve the main bowlers. Why, even Rahul Dravid was utilized as bowler in Tests and ODIs!
The lack of a frontline fifth bowler placed enormous strain on the team. The main bowlers could not go flat out as they had to preserve themselves for later spells. There was also the fear that niggling injuries could further deplete the bowling attack.
Skipper Kohli, though, came with a different mindset. He demanded that his main batsmen come good regularly. He also embraced the five-bowler concept to increase his options. This saw him aggressively target rival batsmen unlike earlier captains who were forced to adopt a safety-first policy.
The four-bowler option of earlier captains had driven the team into a situation where its bowlers were not feared except on rank turners. Additionally, because of the enfeebled bowling attack, Indian batsmen were almost always condemned to chase above par scores, whether in Tests or ODIs.
One former captain’s suggestion that the team would be better off if its bowlers could chip in with 15-20 runs apiece was met with derision. A livid bowler retorted in private that if each batsman could capture one wicket apiece his burden too would be lessened!
This apart, Kohli adopted the five-bowler strategy from his early days as captain. He suffered a couple of setbacks but stuck to the concept. His bowlers responded superbly to the faith reposed in them. Suddenly the same Indian bowling attack looks a different proposition altogether.
However, the five batsmen-five bowlers-one wicket-keeper theory can work well only if all play their part perfectly in every match, something that is highly unlikely. The batting still needs to be shored up and hence the search for all-rounders.
A wicket-keeper who could bat is vital to the team’s success. The investment in Hardik Pandya as future all-rounder too seems to be going well. In the interim, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja played useful roles with bat and ball.
The team with its mix of spinners, pacers, and batsmen looked a nicely balanced outfit until Kohli almost cast that to the winds with the choice of playing XI for the Delhi T20I against New Zealand.
Ashish Nehra had to be fitted into the team as it was his farewell match. This forced India to field six bowlers as a cushion in case things went wrong with him. They included four pacers in Nehra, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah, Hardik Pandya and two spinners in Yuzvendra Chahal and Axar Patel. In the process, the batting department was weakened, although Hardik, Bhuvneshwar and Axar can bat.
It was a big gamble to take the field with a weakened batting line-up. But this error was glossed over by the poor catching of Kiwi fielders. They dropped Sikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma early in the innings, ensuring India were not choked at the start. The openers celebrated the escape by scoring 80 runs apiece in quick time to put the team in an impregnable position.
Later, when the Kiwis batted, Pandya was underutilized as bowler. He sent down just one over and accounted for the prized scalp of skipper Kane Williamson.
Kohli’s earlier five-bowler strategy, where Pandya fitted in as an all-rounder was the ideal option. A six-bowler combination is lopsided. India got away with it only because the batsmen played on a flat track and on a day when the opposition fielders were prone to dropping sitters.
Certainly a six-bowler playing XI will not even be an option in matches played on South African or English pitches. Hopefully, now that Nehra has bid goodbye to the game, Kohli will never again be in a position where he has to provide cover to any bowler of suspect fitness and form.
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