Kohli the Captain Lacks the Clarity of Kohli the Batsman
Royal Challengers Bangalore's repeated failures in the ongoing Indian Premier League have put the spotlight on Virat Kohli's leadership skills. Before you read any further, it is important that you understand there is a clear line drawn here between Kohli the batsman, and Kohli the captain.
No questions should be asked about Kohli the batsman. He is undoubtedly the greatest white-ball batsman of our generation, perhaps the greatest ever, and is in contention to finish among the finest batsmen India has produced.
However, the same cannot be said of his captaincy, which has been found wanting on several occasions – particularly in the limited overs formats. Virat has a very good record as captain in Test matches; he has a 26-10 win-loss record, and has most recently led India to their first-ever Test series win in Australia.
While captaining a team in Test matches is extremely challenging, there is the benefit of time available to strategise and plot dismissals. However, in the limited overs formats, where the game is evolving so rapidly, Kohli perhaps isn’t a great reader of the game.
The word on the street – the popular opinion at least in a section of Indian cricket fans – is that there are two shades to Kohli the captain in limited overs cricket. When he plays in the Indian team, with all resources available, including a certain MS Dhoni behind the stumps, he gets things right more often than not. But take him out of that environment, and he looks a little lost on the field.
Take the last two ODIs against Australia as case in point. From the pictures one got to see in those two matches, it appeared that Kohli, who was patrolling the boundaries, was missing Dhoni’s guidance – particularly in placement of fielders and in the handling of spinners. Kohli certainly missed a few tricks when Australia chased down 359 in Mohali, and were then allowed to get to 272 from being 229-7 after 46 overs.
In the context of Royal Challengers Bangalore, Kohli – the captain has been extremely disappointing. He has got the poorest record among the eight captains who have led teams in at least 50 IPL matches; Kohli has a 45-53 win-loss record as captain of RCB in the IPL. He has been RCB’s captain since the second half of IPL 2012; his team has made it to the playoffs only twice in six full seasons thereafter.
Although this is being written in retrospective, there have been several questionable calls made by Kohli in RCB’s six matches this season. In the season opener in Chennai, he read the surface wrong and therefore picked the wrong playing XI. Then, he fielded three different opening pairs in the first three matches – and even promoted Shimron Hetmyer to the top.
In an interview after the loss to Sunrisers Hyderabad, Kohli explained to the broadcaster that it was in the team’s best interests that he and AB de Villiers batted in the middle order. “We've thought about it (setting the momentum early). But I feel myself at 3, and, AB and me batting together brings us more balance,” Kohli explained the reasons for opening the innings with Parthiv Patel and Hetmyer.
Yet, in the very next match, played two days later, Kohli was back at the top, opening the innings with Parthiv. What had changed in those 48 hours?
On Friday, 5 April, too, in the match against the Kolkata Knight Riders, Kohli’s captaincy was found wanting. First, at the toss, he claimed to be happy to have ‘seven’ bowling options, which only indicated the captain’s lack of confidence in his own bowlers.
"We wanted to get even stronger balance in the bowling, so Tim Southee comes in for Shimron Hetmyer, and Pawan Negi replaces Umesh Yadav. That gives us seven bowling options, which I'm pleased about. Once the situation becomes difficult, as a captain you can choose which bowler to bowl when,” Kohli said at the toss.
Why ever would a captain need seven bowling options in a T20 match?
Despite having the seven bowlers – which gave him the options to choose bowlers for match situations, Kohli missed a trick during the final stages of Kolkata Knight Riders’ run-chase. First, why didn’t he get Pawan Negi – who was one of this two stand out bowlers in the match – to bowl the 18th over when Andre Russell was still new at the crease? The pitch had offered a bit of assistance to the spinners, and Negi at that point had impressive figures of 3-0-20-2.
As it turned out, Kohli handed the ball to Mohammed Siraj, who bowled a second beamer and was taken off, and the over had to be completed by Marcus Stoinis, who was deposited into the stands twice.
Kohli still didn’t bring Negi on even for the 19th over, and instead handed the ball to Tim Southee; Russell hit him for 6, 6, 6, 4 and 6. Match over!
As a batsman, Kohli is focused and knows exactly how to go about the business of scoring runs. How else does one explain him scoring so many centuries? How else does one explain him mastering run-chases so clinically? But when he wears the cap of RCB captain, he possibly doesn’t have the same clarity of thought. It is puzzling, and at the same time worrying!