Virat Kohli is an eager captain. He is a bundle of energy on the field, emoting and gesturing to every member of the team to stay involved, ringing in bowling or fielding changes as soon as he sees the need.
While being proactive on the field is a desirable quality for a captain, overdoing it gives the impression that he doesn't have a clear plan. When the policy extends to off-field changes like team selection, it betrays a lack of planning and an overall state of confusion.
Before the Centurion Test, Kohli was yet to have the same playing eleven in two consecutive games in his 33 Test matches as captain. That meant hardly anyone was surprised when the team sheet had a few changes in Kohli's 34th Test as well.
Before the start of the Test, Kohli defended his decision to drop Ajinkya Rahane and play Rohit Sharma in the first Test at Cape Town. He also took a dig at his critics by saying, "Before the first Test, no one thought that he should be in the eleven and now suddenly people are looking at the other option".
Perhaps he didn't notice the clamour in the press when news of India's most consistent player in overseas condition getting dropped came out, or maybe he just imagines things to justify his decision. Either way, saying something like this sends the wrong message to a key player like Rahane and puts undue pressure on Rohit to justify his captain's decision.
The most noticeable miss from the team sheet in the second Test was that of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who picked six wickets in his first outing in this series and was India's best bowler in the game. This isn't the first time Kumar has faced the axe after doing well in a Test match. In 2016, he picked five wickets in an inning against New Zealand in Kolkata and was dropped for the next game.
Horses for courses is a perfectly acceptable selection policy but dropping in-form Bhuvneshwar and playing Rohit ahead of Rahane because of current form is one of the examples of many inconsistencies with the Men in Blue's team selection. Are benchmarks for form and quality different for batsmen and bowlers? If the team is picked based on pitch conditions, then wouldn't Rahane have been a safer bet on a lively track like Cape Town where he has performed well in the past? Not to mention Rahane's safe hands in the slips are a bonus for a team that is dropping at least one routine slip catch every game. Likewise, Bhuvneshwar's ability with the bat in holding up an end is something India may desperately need when they get their turn to bat in the ongoing Test.
Similar to form, fitness is another selection criteria that is applied selectively. For a team that lays so much emphasis on fitness, Mohammed Shami deserves to face a few questions. He has a habit of looking stiff and listless in some of his spells. One gets the impression that he is preserving himself at times and unleashes his fire only when the team finds itself in a corner. He can get away with it when India are playing at home, and he knows he has to bowl ten overs in a day. In overseas conditions, a fast bowler must be prepared to do the hard yards and be capable of running in for 20 overs a day when his captain needs him. Ishant Sharma's selection for the Test was justified on this count. He doesn't seem to lose intensity while bowling a long spell. But he should have replaced either Bumrah or Shami in the attack, not Bhuvneshwar.
India's selection problem runs deep but starts at the top. A good cricket team always has its openers locked. An unstable opening pair tends to destabilise the whole team. KL Rahul has been India's preferred choice as a Test opener for a while. Likewise, Shikhar Dhawan has been the preferred option in ODIs. Barring a severe dip in form or fitness, there is no need to select Dhawan ahead of Rahul in Test matches. Rahul finds himself batting for his place in the side again as he returns to the playing eleven, a situation no batsman enjoys.
This whole business of promoting a player to Tests based on his ODI form is a one-way road. Jasprit Bumrah, Dhawan and Rohit seem to be the beneficiaries of it in this team. In the past, Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina were given chances to play Tests based on one-day form. No one seems to suggest Murali Vijay or Cheteshwar Pujara deserve a place in limited over games based on Test match form and rightly so. But if India's form-based selection is format agnostic, then perhaps there is a case to considering Test regulars for ODIs too?
The way Kohli backs his players and trusts his instincts is reminiscent of the Sourav Ganguly era. His flamboyance rubs onto the team and pushes them to play hard much like Ganguly. But flamboyance alone can't win you Tests overseas if not coupled with precise method and preparation. Anil Kumble could have been the calming yin to Kohli's flamboyant yang, a voice of reason in a high-octane dressing room during overseas tours. We will never know. India still has a long offshore challenge ahead. Kohli and the rest need to think hard about their winning methods and a core team they can back to implement them.
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