Many Risks, Many Rewards: The Tough Calls Taken By Captain Virat Kohli
From playing five bowlers to backing a world-beating pace line-up, Virat's choices helped transform Team India.
The BCCI statement arrived a month before the Test series of India’s 2014-15 tour of Australia went underway: MS Dhoni, the Indian captain, would be "rested for the first Test as a prophylactic measure to ensure optimum recovery."
Virat Kohli had a horror tour of England earlier that year. However, he was India’s foremost batter across formats, and was vice-captain anyway, so there was no surprise when he took over the mantle for that one Test match.
The 'Kohli factor' became clear at the toss. Along with the three fast bowlers, India went in with leg-spinner Karn Sharma ahead of off-spinner R Ashwin. He probably reasoned on the struggles of finger-spinners with the Kookaburra ball in Australia. Ashwin’s days as a giant of spin bowling were still in the future, but even at that point, few doubted his inclusion ahead of Karn.
Over the next four days, Kohli was lambasted by critics as Karn returned 4-238 in the Test match. Nathan Lyon, the Australian off-spinner, took 12 wickets. Kohli’s gamble had failed.
And yet, Kohli emerged from the Test match with flying colours, and not only because he scored 115 and 141.
On their previous tour of Australia, India had been flattened 0-4. Here, set 364 in a single day, they were reduced to 57/2. But as M Vijay held one end up, Kohli put on an exhibition of exhilarating shots. Vijay fell, as did Rohit Sharma. Wriddhiman Saha, asked to abandon caution, went for an ugly slog and was stumped.
The plan was failing, but it was never abandoned.
India needed another 60 when Kohli’s masterpiece ended. They had three wickets in hand. Ishant Sharma, the most equipped of the fast bowlers to survive a few balls, was the likeliest No 9. Instead, Mohammed Shami, a bona-fide slogger, walked out.
India were bowled out for 315. In another era, it could have been 264/4, an honourable draw. But that would not have been Kohli.
"I wasn’t thinking of a draw at any stage," he said at the press conference.
Never in his career would Kohli’s India hesitate to risk defeat if there was a chance of a win. At The Oval in 2018, for example, they went for 464 after being 3/2.
Meanwhile, in less than a month after the Adelaide match, Dhoni announced his retirement from Test cricket. His replacement was ready and so started the seven-year 'Virat Kohli era' of Indian cricket.
Five Bowlers in the XI
As captain, Kohli implemented a fundamental principle of Test cricket better than any Indian captain before him. However strong the batting may be, one cannot win Test matches without taking 20 wickets, and for that, you need bowlers.
And outside the subcontinent, you need fast bowlers.
India toured Sri Lanka in 2015. In the first Test match, Kohli fielded five bowlers. Saha batted at six, Ashwin at seven, Harbhajan Singh at eight. He was willing to forego a batter just to bolster the bowling.
This is not as simple as it seems. Ravi Shastri, Kapil Dev, and Manoj Prabhakar had allowed India to play five bowlers at one point. Since then, the Indian XI invariably had batters up to six, a wicketkeeper, and four bowlers.
Kohli was set out to change the very look of the Indian XI, questioning the conventional six-batter theory.
India lost the first Test match. Kohli made a compromise. He got Stuart Binny into the mix. In the home season of 2016/17, Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, and Jayant Yadav, between them, compensated for the lack of that extra batter.
And then, Hardik Pandya arrived.
By 2018, India was playing Pandya alongside four bowlers. In the third Test match, India fielded five pacers. Even the all-conquering West Indian side between the 1970s and 1990s had done something of this order.
What made it even more remarkable was India’s reputation of not producing fast bowlers. There have been world-class batters and spinners, but a phalanx of fast bowlers was unheard of since the 1930s.
India lost the Test series in South Africa and England, but by the end of 2018, Ishant, Shami, and – their newest sensation – Jasprit Bumrah, helped India win their first Test series in Australia.
In 2018, Ishant, Shami, and Bumrah shared 130 wickets, equalling the world record for most wickets by a fast-bowling trio in a calendar year. India took all 20 wickets nine times and (18 once) in 11 Test matches, all overseas.
Confidence in Pacers and Rewards in Australia
On the 2018-19 Australia tour, Kohli gambled yet again after Ashwin missed the Perth Test match due to a side strain. India left out Jadeja and Bhuvneshwar Kumar for the pace of Umesh Yadav. They now had four genuine fast bowlers, but the tail began at No 8 (they were back to four bowlers after Pandya got injured, with Hanuma Vihari bowling occasional spin).
It was as aggressive a move as one could think of. Just like Adelaide 2014/15, it backfired (Umesh got 2-139) as India lost. In the press conference, Kohli explained the selection of Umesh (the ‘rough’ would not have assisted Jadeja, Bhuvneshwar lacked match practice).
India eventually won the historic series, and Kohli made every effort to acknowledge the main architects.
Kohli and his wife Anushka Sharma gave up business class tickets for his fast bowlers. The photograph of Kohli doffing his hat as Ishant, Shami, and Bumrah left the ground was among the most popular of the tour.
Ashwin or Jadeja, Always Accommodating
The pace domination had not come at the cost of spin, their core strength. At home, India invariably played both Ashwin and Jadeja, often with a third spinner, rotating their fast bowlers, and winning. Kohli’s vision had ensured India had two almost entirely different bowling attacks, for home and overseas.
Two years later, India were blown away for 36 at the Adelaide Oval. Kohli left after that Test match – we shall return to that – but not before a meeting with vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane and the coaching staff. Of the several changes, perhaps the most significant was replacing Kohli by Jadeja.
Not many Indian sides would have replaced their star batter with a bowler after a batting debacle. This time it paid off. Jadeja took 3-41 and scored a fifty. India won the Melbourne Test, as they did in Brisbane, once again with five bowlers.
Later that year, in England, India faced another conundrum. They wanted four fast bowlers – by now their mantra of an overseas win – but their middle order had been struggling. So, they left out Ashwin, the top-ranked spinner in the world, for four Test matches in a row.
Jadeja was the superior batter, and he could bowl in the rough of the right-handed batter. It was a strategic pick that infuriated many, but Kohli stuck to his decision. The series stands at 2-1 in India’s favour.
The same plan backfired in South Africa a few months later – but this time Kohli was forced to pick Ashwin instead of an injured Jadeja.
‘I Want This To Be the Fittest Team’
In a conversation with Allan Donald in 2015, Kohli had shared his dreams of making India the ‘greatest team on the planet.’ A strong bowling attack was going to be part of the process, he told Donald. The other was fitness.
His job was made easy by the improvements in sports science. Indian international cricketers now have to score 17:1 in the yo-yo test or run two kilometres in eight minutes 15 seconds (fast bowlers get a slight concession).
This was in stark contrast with the concept that cricket, being primarily a skill-based sport, does not demand supreme fitness levels as much as some other sports. The ability to swing or spin the ball, or to play strokes, need not depend on fitness.
Kohli changed that norm. He risked foregoing a talented cricketer for that. He has been criticised, even ridiculed, but the five ICC Test Championship maces – for the last five seasons – bear testimony to the success of his plan.
The Kumble Debacle
Even as the India achieved new highs on the field, tension was mounting within the dressing room as it all eventually unfolded publicly with Virat having coach Anil Kumble replaced.
Kumble resigned as Head Coach of the Indian men's team in 2017. The Cricket Advisory Committee, comprising Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, and VVS Laxman, failed to make a truce between the coach and skipper.
The CAC then also appointed Rahul Dravid and Zaheer Khan as support staff for the Indian team, but Ravi Shastri, Kohli’s coach of choice, was not keen on working with them.
"It was apparent the partnership was untenable," said Kumble while commenting on his decision to exit the dressing room. Admitting to a professional disagreement was the only comment on the matter that may pass as remotely close to controversial. Otherwise, the two men handled the incident with dignity. It was not the first captain-coach rift, but Kohli managed to take on, deliberately or otherwise, six cricketers of Indian cricket’s much-vaunted ‘Batch of 2000s’.
Well ahead of the Australia tour of 2020/21, Kohli had announced that he would leave his team after the first Test match to be with his family for the birth of their first child. Eyebrows had been raised, more so because Dhoni, his predecessor, had done exactly the opposite when he became a father.
The concept of personal choice remains elusive to some fans.
At Adelaide, India were bowled out for 36, their lowest total in Test cricket. Some sections of Indian cricket media and fans expected Kohli to change his mind. They compared Kohli to a General abandoning his force at the frontier.
In reality, Kohli was simply a professional availing paternity leave.
To stay back would have been easier. That would have sat well with the patriarchy deep-rooted across strata in India, a country where the female parent is almost always expected to make more sacrifices for a child.
Instead, he chose to return home, setting an example for Indian fathers across professions.
In their first match of the 2021 T20 World Cup, India lost to Pakistan for the first time in the history of the tournament. Not for the first time, the cricketers bore the brunt. Social media trolls assumed the role of new-generation effigy-burners.
But while virtually everyone in the side was abused, Shami was singled out. The derogatory words hurled at him had nothing to do with his on-field performance but his religion. The issue was dissected and raised, but the Indian team held their statement back.
Kohli’s chance came ahead of India’s next match, against New Zealand. Even after the BCCI media manager insisted on only cricket-based questions, Kohli insisted. In a no-holds-barred, clearly well-prepared speech, he did not hold anything back.
"Attacking someone over their religion is the most pathetic thing that a human being can do. They have no understanding of how much effort we put on the field. They have no understanding of the fact that someone like Shami has won India matches in the last few years."Virat Kohli
CK Nayudu had stood up against rioters in 1947. Sunil Gavaskar, in 1992. Kohli’s defiance was not as direct, but he was putting a lot at stake.
Setting the Captaincy Narrative Straight
Ahead of the T20 World Cup, Kohli had announced that the tournament would be his last as captain in the format. For good measure, he also resigned as captain of the Royal Challengers Bangalore. Soon, the selectors sacked him as ODI captain.
Ganguly, BCCI president by now, subsequently explained in an interview that the selectors had asked Kohli to reconsider his resignation.
Before leaving for South Africa, however, Kohli denied Ganguly’s statement – a move Sidharth Monga of ESPNCricinfo called "Virat Kohli’s biggest gambit yet".
The issue stands at who spoke the truth, but Kohli’s unwavering conviction at taking on the organisation is impossible to ignore.
(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor of CricketNews by day and biryani demolisher at night. He is the co-author of Sachin and Azhar at Cape Town, and tweets @ovshake42.)
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