King Kohli Vacates His Throne, Can We See the Batting Behemoth Again?
Virat Kohli had said IPL 2021 would be his last season as captain of Royal Challengers Bangalore.
11 May 2011: Virat Kohli leads Royal Challengers Bangalore for the first time. They ease home in a 147-run chase against Rajasthan Royals at Jaipur. The skipper scores 39*(34).
11 October 2021: Virat Kohli leads Royal Challengers Bangalore for the 140th – and last – time. They lose a tight Eliminator against Kolkata Knight Riders at Sharjah, unable to defend 138. The skipper scores 39(33).
A journey that began just over a month after a 22-year-old had become world champion finishes almost a month before the conclusion of another world event, which will mark the end of a 33-year-old’s final stint as a T20 captain.
Through this decade, even focusing on this one format alone, he has been a behemoth – the leading run-getter in the world’s most elite competition, the only man to have been Player of the Tournament twice at the T20 World Cup – yet, in 20-over cricket of any kind, a major trophy remains elusive.
His time at the franchise, he assures us, is far from done; the only undisturbed player-club association since the inception of the IPL will continue, we’ve been informed.
“All I can say is I’ve given my best… I can vouch for the fact that I’ve given my 120 percent to this franchise every year leading the team, and I will continue to give that effort on the field as a player from now on,” Kohli said after the match on Monday, 11 October.
The words may not reflect it, but the eyes tell a tale. Of anguish. Of pain. Of unfulfillment, perhaps? For while the lows through the nine years since he was appointed full-term captain of RCB – and there have been a few – have been crushing, the highs never shattered the ceiling we often assume is there for any anointed great’s taking.
That pinch has been felt on countless occasions towards the end of different IPL editions with varying endings for Kohli’s RCB.
From “I was gutted we couldn’t cross the line” in 2016 – when they came within striking distance of finding the Holy Grail – to “It’s really disheartening, I don’t know what to say in games like these anymore” after the wooden-spoon finish just a year later. To “I certainly feel your pain” following another bottom-of-the-table end in 2019, to his final address as RCB captain on Monday evening.
As he calls time on this decade-long stint of leadership, the forlorn feeling isn’t so much a function of not winning a trophy – Brian Lara, Jacques Kallis, Rahul Dravid and even Kohli’s conjoined superhero twin at RCB, AB de Villiers, all finished their careers without a ‘major’ trophy, and contrary to hot-take perceptions, their legacies are no lesser for it.
Instead, arguably, Kohli and RCB is a case of a confused legacy.
In the nine seasons of Kohli as permanent captain, RCB were the most wildly oscillating team in the tournament. There were four playoff entries, but there were also two wooden spoons. There was the runners-up finish of 2016, but it was followed by a campaign with only three wins – the joint-fewest for any team in an IPL season since 2014.
The lazy narrative lent itself towards billing Kohli versus Dhoni and Kohli versus Rohit as ‘crunch battles’, but the reality was more disjointed: while Dhoni’s Chennai Super Kings and Rohit’s Mumbai Indians were runaway leaders in the competition over this period, the Royal Challengers, on the whole, meandered around mid-table mediocrity.
Of the nine players to have led IPL teams more than 50 times, only Adam Gilchrist has a lower win percentage than Kohli’s. It’s a far cry from the success rate achieved by the Indian team under Kohli across international formats.
Stability: What’s That?
The club versus country comparison, with respect to Kohli’s captaincy, falls flat on one of the primary building blocks of any successful team – stability. From support staff to playing personnel, RCB, in the Kohli years, had virtually no continuity.
Kohli and De Villiers are the only members from the 2013 squad who stayed put at RCB throughout these nine years. Bangalore, in fact, hold the shared ignominy (with Delhi) of having used more than 100 players in the IPL from 2013 to 2021. Only six cricketers have turned up for 40 or more games for RCB in this period – the lowest figure for any of the eight existing teams.
It adds up with the constant chopping and changing of the management staff; during his tenure, Kohli teamed up with five different head coaches – Ray Jennings, Daniel Vettori, Gary Kirsten, Simon Katich and Mike Hesson. Of the five, Vettori was the only one to serve at least two full seasons.
Speaking to Cricbuzz after Monday’s Eliminator, Ashish Nehra – who himself served a brief term as RCB’s bowling coach in 2018 – alluded to how the instability of the setup only made life more difficult for Kohli:
“There are some things that you can't see from the outside. The amount of changes in the management at RCB in the last 4-5 years has obviously not been too helpful for Kohli. There has been no constant at RCB, apart from Kohli and AB de Villiers. You never saw a core group, which could've helped the captain.”
The other side to this coin is that through these nine years, Kohli remained a singular power-center at RCB. Does he, then, warrant questions around not using that power well enough in shaping decisions that could have provided stability? Did he leave the broader task of composing the team on the ever-changing management crew around him?
One way or the other – without ascertaining the blame on one or the other – RCB, for the best part of a decade, remained a team of two to three superstars, and not a lot more.
For most of the 2013-2017 period, it was a case of Gayle-Kohli-De Villiers or bust; post-2018, for large portions, it became a story of Kohli-De Villiers or bust.
The closest they came to having at least a bit more of a core was in 2016 – RCB boasted a potential all-time top-five of Gayle, Kohli, de Villiers, KL Rahul and Shane Watson – and that also happened to be, by a huge margin, their most successful season of Kohli regime was no coincidence.
Even then, it took two of the greatest individual campaigns of IPL history (Kohli 973 runs, de Villiers 687) for Bangalore to make their deepest run in the tournament, because their bowling was the leakiest of that season.
That, too, was a recurring theme: in six of these nine editions, RCB were in the bottom-half as far as season economy rates were concerned.
An absence of batting support for the big guns, coupled with a generally below-par bowling setup – for it to go unaddressed for the large part of nine years is a blot that will remain on this tenure.
It’s ironic, then, that Kohli’s last campaign as RCB skipper saw so many others raise their hands so emphatically – Harshal Patel (32 wickets in 15 matches) levelled the all-time highest wicket tally for a bowler in an IPL season, Glenn Maxwell became only the third batter to score more than 500 runs from outside the top-three in an edition, Yuzvendra Chahal was a fair shout for being the best bowler of the UAE leg, and Devdutt Padikkal, while slow in his run-making, amassed 400+ runs for the second time in as many IPL campaigns.
The irony? As the others chipped in, Kohli and De Villiers endured possibly their toughest individual seasons in the IPL for a decade.
Kohli the Batter: From Heroic to Hinged
Over the full sample of his captaincy term, Kohli’s primary suit remained elite: from 2013 to 2021, no batter has more runs, only one has more 50+ scores, and only two have a better average (min 50 innings).
But a closer observation makes the downslide of the past couple of seasons quite apparent.
Kohli finished IPL 2021 with 405 runs, at an average of 28.92 and a scoring rate of 7.17. The last time he registered a lower season average, he was yet to lead India in a Test. The last time he registered a lower season scoring rate, he was yet to establish himself as an international.
Over the last two seasons now, there’s been an alarming dip in Kohli’s numbers across all major batting parameters. The reduced effectiveness against spin has been glaringly evident – Kohli has gone at 6.32 runs per over while facing spin since the start of IPL 2020 – and that, in turn, has reduced him to size in the middle overs: Kohli’s scoring rate falls from 7.46 in the Powerplay to 6.45 between overs 7-16.
This is where RCB – and India – will hope they stand to avail the biggest benefit of Kohli’s decision to relinquish T20 captaincy.
While arguments can be made in favour of several other captaincy contenders, if any version of the pre-2020 batter in Kohli can return, you’ll be hard-pressed to find many better alternatives.
This isn’t to say that Kohli’s batting downslide is directly related to his captaincy troubles; but if the easing of the pressure that comes with the 24x7x365 nature of all-format captaincy leads to any amount of unhinging for this generational batter, cricket will probably be the better place for it.
A Tale With More to Tell?
The what-ifs of the chapter gone by, no doubt, can be overwhelming.
In 2013, losses to KKR and Punjab – both below RCB in the standings – in the last three rounds eventually proved the difference between fourth and fifth.
In 2015 – Kohli’s first playoff finish as captain – a rain-enforced abandonment in their last league game against struggling Delhi denied RCB a shot at a top-two finish.
In 2016, in the game that no RCB follower wants to remember yet no one can manage to forget, Kohli and Co, chasing SRH’s 208, were coasting at 140/1 in the 13th over when the skipper fell, 27 shy of the one-thousand mark for the season. In front of their adoring faithful at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium, RCB contrived to lose the final by eight runs.
In 2018, RCB were in a four-way race for the final qualifying berth going into the final round of fixtures, with all four teams level on points. They lost their league finale to RR, collapsing from 75/1 to 134 all out in pursuit of 165. Had they won, they would’ve been in the playoffs.
Last season, Kane Williamson and Jason Holder defied them in the Eliminator to take SRH through. This season, had RCB got over the line against SRH in their penultimate league outing – they lost by four runs, only the second time De Villiers had finished unbeaten in an unsuccessful run-chase for the team – they wouldn’t have needed to play the Eliminator, and would have found themselves in Qualifier 1 instead.
These are the what-ifs that will last from the years of Kohli, the RCB captain.
“As I've said, I don't see myself playing anywhere else. To me loyalty matters more than other things which from the worldly point of view seem more important. This franchise has believed in me, and my commitment is to this franchise till the last day I play the IPL.”
These were the final words of his final address as RCB skipper.
Perhaps it’s time to focus on the future what-ifs, the ones that leave room for optimism. As King Kohli relinquishes his throne, what if 'Batman' Virat finds a way to break free?
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