The moment I saw Virat Kohli’s tweeted statement of resignation I reacted on the same medium: “No Indian fan would have wanted you to go this way, after a defeat. Your contributions as captain have been immense, your presence & energy inspirational, your articulation impressive. You always led from the front. You embodied the spirit of the team. We will miss you.”
Like most Indian cricket fans, I am still processing the stunning news.
One comment of Kohli’s struck me hard: that he had always given 120% and the moment he felt he could no longer do that, he had to step aside rather than be less than honest with his team. That says that for whatever reason, he no longer has the heart to lead the Test side.
Events behind the scenes, still largely unknown to the rest of us whose loyalty and support sustain cricket in India, have convinced him that he cannot lead India as he has done for seven years. So in a matter of two months Kohli has gone from being India’s captain in all three formats of the game to just being an ordinary player.
There’s something wrong with this picture. Kohli is just 33, and uniquely positioned to build and nurture the next-generation India team. His prowess as batsman, fielder and leader meant that he could lead by example, and mould the youngsters coming in to assume the mantle his peers would be doffing.
A cricket team is renewed gradually: a player or two makes way for another (or two), they are assimilated into the ethos and habits of the winning combination, then they help integrate the next entrants. This is how change comes in successful teams – not through the chaos and disruption of abrupt decapitation, but through managed transitions, with the wise head at the top stewarding the evolution away from his era to the next.
Surely that is how Kohli would have wanted it: to manage a gradual change so he could depart at his peak, leaving a proud legacy behind. Not on the back of a trio of defeats – the World Test Championship, the World T20s, the South Africa series – and with no warning at all. No one – not the BCCI, not the fans, not his teammates – could have been in any way prepared for such a sudden development.
Kohli has been – I find it hard to write “was” -- a hugely impressive captain. He was marked for his leadership qualities as a teenager, but with growing maturity and responsibility have come a gravitas and sensitivity that balance his exuberant confidence. He leads by example, not just by scoring runs but by never ceasing to try to direct the game. He is everywhere on the field, exhorting his fielders, advising his bowlers, setting the placings, shining the ball himself, a restless blur of energy wanting to be involved in every single ball and unwilling to cede the slightest advantage to his opponent.
Kohli’s winning percentage of 59% in his 68 Tests as captain is already the best ever for any Indian who has captained the side more than five times. His own performance has a lot to do with those results: he is the only Test player in the history of the game to have scored three consecutive centuries in his first three innings as captain.
Above all is his manifest commitment to his team that has been a hallmark of his career ever since he battled to save his Delhi side in a Ranji game a few hours after his father passed away. He is a player who consistently puts the team first. It is inspiring to see the genuine pleasure he takes in his teammates’ accomplishments. Every landmark reached by an Indian batsman features the skipper rising enthusiastically in the pavilion. Kohli has been a captain whose commitment to his team is absolute.
Most important, Kohli has taken India well beyond the era of playing for a draw, as so many previous captains preferred to do, unwilling or unable to trust the resources at their disposal. Kohli goes for a win every time he can; while he has shown, when needed, the ability to bat out a draw when victory is mathematically impossible, when a win is improbable but feasible he will aim for it, as in his first test as captain, against the formidable Australians.
The reason Kohli has the highest win percentage record of any Indian captain is because he wants to win, every time. He doesn’t ask for favourable conditions or turning pitches, doesn’t lament his luck with the toss, doesn’t moan about injuries. He takes what he is given and always believes he can win.
It is no accident that India has adopted the Decision Review System (DRS) under his leadership, after having resisted it obdurately for years out of over-cautious suspicion when the rest of the cricket-playing world was benefiting from the application of technology to dubious umpiring decisions.
What are the personal qualities that make Kohli what he is? In a “chalta hain” society, he is a rare perfectionist, lean and well-muscled, who trains obsessively, plans and prepares meticulously, controls his diet and stays supremely fit.
Watching him run between the wickets is watching a sprinter in action; with the bat, his power is matched by timing and silken elegance.
On the rare occasions that he fails to make an impact with the bat, Kohli makes up for it in the field, saving runs, taking blinders and inspiring the rest of the side with his improbable athleticism. He is fitter and faster than younger men. If he has a fault it is that he attempts everything himself, even catches that should be left to other fielders. But it is the fault of a trier, and India has been lucky to have a trier at the helm.
And there is his passion and intensity, which are unmatched. There is a relentless focus to his approach that brooks no slackness. He wears his heart on his sleeve, though he has learned to curb the occasionally offensive words and gestures that marred his earlier expressions of cricketing passion.
Under Kohli, playing cricket has been about winning, not avoiding defeat. Kohli’s India was not just liked or admired – it had to be respected and feared. A country whose stars were labelled “talented” or “elegant” or “inconsistent” now found itself with a captain who is professional, tough and combative, the embodiment of athleticism, aggression and ambition. Individual landmarks, he has repeatedly made clear, matter much less to him than team triumphs.
When a triumphant Sachin Tendulkar was lifted onto the shoulders of his teammates after their victory in the 2011 World Cup, Virat Kohli declared: “Tendulkar has carried the burden of the nation for 21 years: it was time we carried him.” For seven years now, the young man carried an even bigger burden on his muscular shoulders than the departed hero: the burden of a team that, as long as Kohli is leading it, enters every cricket field as the expected victor.
It is a burden that Virat Kohli had proved himself able to bear. It is far from clear that a lesser man can easily adopt the burden he has so suddenly relinquished.
(Dr Shashi Tharoor is a third-term MP for Thiruvananthapuram and award-winning author of 22 books, most recently ‘Pride, Politics and Punditry'. He tweets @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)