August 17, 2014, London
On the last day of the Oval Test, in the muggy mid-August of 2014, Virat Kohli stands with a group of men whose spirit, it appears, has left them for good. The men still chat, perhaps trying to put a brave face in front of relentless glare of the numerous camera crew, but Kohli makes no pretence of the turmoil within.
Cameras pan on him, even as skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni rambles on about finding positives from a wretched tour. Kohli’s piercing glare scorches the abstract; it’s destination unknown, it’s path uncertain, much like his batting throughout that English summer. He had been rudely exposed. The England pacers, led by James Anderson, had developed a gnawing affinity to his outside edge, and almost each time after edging one, Kohli had stared helplessly at the good length spot in disbelief, unable to fathom how a cricket ball destined to follow his command had suddenly developed a mind of its own.
His series stats read 134 runs from 10 innings. Sunil Gavaskar calls for “patience” and “discipline,” and hopes, “for Indian cricket’s sake,” that Kohli overturns his torrid form.
December 9, 2014, Adelaide
Four months from that sombre English afternoon, Kohli strides out to sunshine at the Adelaide Oval, as the stand-in captain of India. His playing eleven includes three fast bowlers and one spinner. The spinner in the eleven is not Ravichandran Ashwin; it’s a debutant leggie Karn Sharma. It doesn’t have Bhuvneshwar Kumar, India’s lone bright spot in England. In his place plays Varun Aaron, a genuine fast bowler with the propensity to drop at least one boundary ball an over.
It’s an adventurous selection. One may even call it optimistic, aggressive or downright dimwit, depending on how one sees such traits, but this is a bit of a shake-up for the tradition of sedate, safe, static selections.
The unfortunate death of Phillip Hughes hangs in the air when Mitchell Johnson–the handlebar-moustached, fire-breathing phantom who had consumed the English and South African line-ups not long back- lets go a bouncer that finds its way to the badge of Kohli’s helmet. Embarrassment on the field, know-it-all smirks in drawing rooms.
Visibly flustered, not least by the concerned bevy of the Aussies that has surrounded him for help, he gets up to notch the first of his four centuries on the tour. They make a fine couple, Virat Kohli and Australia; their tenderness is un-Aussie-like, his intent is un-Indian.
India are chasing 364 runs on the final afternoon, and dreaming of the unthinkable. They would eventually fall short by 48 runs. There’s no glory in loss, but the respect has been earned. The loss hurts, but the pain doesn’t endure. This looks different, feels different. Kohli walks back to standing ovation in Adelaide, his second century of the match has laid the template of what is to come.
Team Director Ravi Shastri is chuffed after India have drawn in Melbourne. The draw means India have lost the four-Test series, having lost in Brisbane earlier. Shastri, at his bombastic self, appears on the official broadcaster and asks for 12 months for a turnaround. Slowly, news emerges that Dhoni has retired from Test cricket, and the man who was spotted lost at The Oval some four months back is India’s Test captain.
An era has begun.
For the record, Karn Sharma was taken apart for 238 runs in Adelaide, at an economy of 4.85 runs-per-over. He is yet to play another Test for India. Varun Aaron picks three wickets in the match; his economy reads 5.91 and 4.30 in either innings. He hasn’t played a Test in two years.
November 27, 2015, Nagpur
It’s the third day of the third Test against South Africa. India have won the first Test in Mohali on an uncharacteristically turning pitch, and look on course for an encore in Bengaluru before rain plays spoilsport. Now is the chance to seal the series, and India’s three-men spin attack of Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Amit Mishra are wheeling away tirelessly.
Virat Kohli wants to win this. It’s evident from the way he chirps from the slip cordon to his animated appeals each time ball beats the bat, which is almost every ball. The track looks grossly underprepared, making toss vital. Virat Kohli wins it.
India’s spin trio snaps all 20 South African wickets, and there are insinuations that the pitch was tailored to suit the hosts. Some suggest the win was ugly. Kohli responds by saying he is ready to sacrifice batting averages for series win. When was the last time an Indian captain said that? But then, when was the last time an Indian captain stretched home advantage to such limits?
The times, they are changing.
March 7, 2017, Bengaluru
Virat Kohli’s favourite opponents are in town. They have trounced India inside three days; their margin of win-333 runs-suggests the match was played in Perth. Except that India were beaten at their own game on a Pune dustbowl.
The teams are in Bengaluru, and Kohli’s men show a resilience that is fast becoming their hallmark. The match is won on the fourth day, but the tension has simmered between two sides for much longer. It comes to boil during Australia’s second innings, when their skipper Steven Smith looks towards the dressing room after he is given out LBW to Umesh Yadav.
The Australia captain would later call his act of seeking DRS advice from his chums in the pavillion, “brain fade.”
Kohli, walks into the press conference, and the questions have little to do with his team’s performance. “Brain fade” is the buzzword, and Kohli, articulate and combative as ever, smoothly rounds up his opposite number. He stops short of calling Smith a cheat, and explains the scenario in some detail.
The series is won in Dharamsala on 28 March, a Test Kohli misses due to shoulder injury. He, however, has the final say.
When asked if he would still be friends with the Aussie cricketers, Kohli says, “No, it has changed. I thought that was the case, but it has changed for sure. As I said, in the heat of the battle you want to be competitive but I've been proven wrong.”
This is a monumental departure from an archetype Indian cricketer. Not so long back, the golden generation had laid ground rules of public conduct for Indian cricketers. They hardly engaged in verbals, rarely stared, never cussed. After the infamous Sydney Test of 2008, Anil Kumble, then captain of India, had questioned Australia’s spirit.
“Only one team was playing with the spirit of the game, that's all I can say,” Kumble had said, firmly, gently, gentlemanly, memorably.
Two months later, Virat Kohli would lead India to the under-19 World Cup summit and barge his way into the Indian dressing room, straight among these fine gentlemen.
Things were destined to change.
On June 23, 2016, Kohli tweets his welcome for “Anil Sir” into the dressing room. Almost a year later, after Kumble decides to move on, the Indian skipper chooses not to comment for 48 hours. He finally breaks his silence in the Caribbean, where he says he respects “Anil bhai as a cricketer” before going on to talk about the “sanctity of the change room.”
Anil Kumble is never heard of again. Kohli’s juggernaut rolls on.
November 20, 2017, Kolkata
Since the winter of 2016, India have embarked on a grand home season of 13 Tests, winning 10, drawing two and losing one Test. In October 2016, they became the top-ranked Test team in the world, a position they currently hold.
They have mauled Sri Lanka 9-0 across formats in 2017, and Nic Pothas, their interim head coach, compares Kohli’s men to All Blacks, possibly the greatest benchmark for a team. They have also won limited-overs’ series against Australia and New Zealand at home.
It is under this backdrop that Sri Lanka arrive in Kolkata for their first Test tour of India since 2009. They are expected to be rolled over.
The pitch at the Eden Gardens is green, and sixth-ranked Sri Lanka have India reeling on the first morning. Kohli is one of the two players who scored a duck in the first innings. India eventually fold for 172.
The importance of Ashwin and Jadeja can’t be stated enough, especially on Indian tracks, but Kohli has read the pitch well. Even when the sun is out on the third day, his spinners bowl a total of nine overs.
Sri Lanka begin with a flurry of boundaries, and Kohli, conscious of bleeding extra runs, switches to in-out fields. The fastest legs are sent to patrol the ropes, the sharpest ones stand in the slips —a catch still goes down nevertheless.
When Rangana Herath attacks, Kohli places men on the square boundary and deep cover. One of those, the deep point, catches Herath. The lead is still a handy 122.
This, however, is Kohli’s India. They turn the 122-run deficit into 70-run lead inside 45 overs. This is the day when Kohli, the batsman, has turned up.
He plays couple of drives on-the-rise and away from body, runs like he usually does and as wickets begin to tumble, particularly after Wriddhiman Saha’s dismissal, takes off.
Sri Lanka take the new ball, hoping to get rid of lower-order quickly. Kohli is slowly getting in the mood though. He begins to show his entire range of off-drives, closing the bat face early or late to beat the deep cover on his left or right.
Dinesh Chandimal sends more men to the ropes. Mid-on goes back, point goes back and third-man goes square. Kohli walks across his stumps and fetches a ball on the fifth-stump to lace a straight drive between the umpire and non-striker. Moments later, a similar ball from exactly the same spot is worked to mid-wicket fence. He hits two inside-out sixes on balls pitched on same length and similar spots, as if to confirm he has more shots for one ball than you could imagine.
Before you realise, he has carved a classic. He roars wildly after reaching his century, declares, and unleashes his pack of fast bowlers on the Sri Lankans.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar is in the middle of a dream spell. He has altered his line significantly from the first innings, and is moving the ball both ways at pace. Mohammed Shami is breathing fire at the other end.
Kohli is fond of his fast bowlers. He believes an angry fast bowler is a captain’s delight. He is working up the crowd. He wants them to chant for his fast bowlers. The crowds oblige. The bowlers oblige.
The field looks surreal. Four slips and a gully on a fifth day track in India, by India. Kohli is on the attack. India are on the attack. He knows Umesh Yadav can be inconsistent, so he summons Bhuvneshwar and Shami from either end. No Ashwin, and only one over from Jadeja. When did this last happen on a fifth-day pitch?
Niroshan Dickwella is slowly getting under the skin of Mohammed Shami. The feisty Sri Lankan keeper has backed away twice, and no fast bowler likes that. Virat Kohli is a batsman with fast bowler’s temper. He rushes to the square-leg umpire and engages in animated discussion.
Sri Lanka are doing their best to bide time, but Kohli’s men show remarkable match-awareness. He zips through his field placements, his bowlers actually sprint to their marks, and there are no unnecessary throws. There’s hardly any mid-pitch conference either. Kohli is clear in his intent and explicit in its execution. He wants his pacers to blow away the Lankans. They very nearly do.
There can be alternate views. One may argue that the declaration could have come an hour early to give his bowlers enough time. Chasing 50 runs less with 15 more overs in hand would have given Sri Lanka a sniff too, and they could have possibly attacked more and got out. Or won. It’s moments like these that define cricket captains.
His predecessor, leading a bunch of Indian Premier League-bred stars, once gave up a chase of 86 runs from 15 overs, with seven wickets in hand. Then too, India were the number one Test side in the world. By comparison, Kohli has brought Indian cricket a long way forward in his limited span.
It later emerged that India had asked for such a track to prepare them for the long overseas season. Juxtapose this with the times when a former captain reportedly mysteriously missed a Test match at home after inspecting the pitch in Nagpur. Remember it’s the same venue where, with series on the line, MS Dhoni’s demanded a rank turner against England in 2012, and his demands were called “immoral” by the late curator. Virat Kohli seems unchained from the tyranny of tradition. He prefers losing in quest for victory, an approach that has paid rich dividends to teams like Australia.
There's an inherent tendency among Asian cricket fans to benchmark their cricketers' performances with their numbers abroad. The approach irks some cricketers no end. Kohli though is made of sterner stuff. He values his performances abroad, and he would be aware that no Asian team has ever won a Test series in South Africa. The last time India went there, Kohli scored 119 and 96 in the first Test in Johannesburg, but India almost lost the match.
Set 458 to win, South Africa ended at 450/7. On the fifth-day pitch, Ravichandran Ashwin sent down 36 wicketless overs, a debacle that probably cost him his place in the Adelaide Test of 2014, an exclusion that probably cost India that Test. Such is Test captaincy.
2017 is different. As early as March, Kohli gave an inkling of his larger goals and thought process. As the captain of top-ranked Test team sat down with the press at the end of a long home season, a scribe urged him to smile broadly. "If we can conquer the overseas season, that’s when you will see a broader smile on my face when I sit down for the press conferences,” Kohli replied.
An Indian captain with an Aussie-like approach? The times are changing.