A few days back noted historian and writer Ramachandra Guha wrote an article on how Virat Kohli’s arrogance helps only himself and not the team. Guha, who is renowned for his elegant prose and deep knowledge of the game, had also spent a short time as one of the members of the Committee of Administrators appointed by the Supreme Court to oversee the functioning of Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). He resigned from the post in the wake of the controversy surrounding the resignation of Anil Kumble as head coach of the national side. In this article, Guha praised Kohli for his abilities as a batsman and lauded his charisma before unleashing stringent criticism about for adding the “ailment” of superstar syndrome to the already existing ills of cronyism and corruption plaguing Indian cricket. The piece concludes with the warning that the captain’s arrogance and authority should be moderated for translating his personal success to institutional greatness.
While Guha’s position in the spat between captain and the erstwhile coach was well known, one did not expect a writer of his stature to come public with such observations about the skipper of the national side. The timing of the article was also relevant as it was published just after Indian lost the second Test of the three-match series against South Africa, thus surrendering the Freedom Trophy. Kohli’s stock was at a low ebb on account of the losses in consecutive Tests and there was widespread criticism over selection of the playing eleven. Thus, this was indeed the ideal time for a Kohli-baiter to bare his claws and add to the woes of the captain. Unfortunately, Guha too succumbed to this temptation and his comments gave the impression that he was having a go at the Indian skipper for forcing the exit of Kumble.
Proving a point
However, Kohli’s boys managed to turn the tables on the South Africans in the final Test, where they scored a remarkable victory, which was significant in more ways than one. Statistically the win did not mean much as India had already lost the series. However, for a side that has set its sights on remaining at the top in the longer version of the game this match was the last opportunity for redeeming their reputation during this tour. That the hosts took the match seriously could be seen from the fact that they had prepared a hard and fast-paced wicket seeking to take advantage of the presence of fast bowlers in their side and to exploit the “weakness” usually demonstrated by Indian batsmen on such surfaces. However, they overdid this aspect to such an extent that the match referee thought at one stage that the pitch was too dangerous to play on and seriously considered calling off the match.
Scorecards and match records would show that India won a low-scoring match by 67 runs. However, mere statistics would not throw light on the larger battle that was fought between bat and ball on a surface where the ball flew like a uncontrolled rocket after pitching. Traditionally Indian batsmen, who are bred on slow and easy-paced pitches in the sub continent where the ball does not rise above knee height, find the going tough when confronted with fast-paced tracks abroad. This weakness had been taken advantage of by pace bowlers from the time of Fred Trueman and Indian batsmen developed the avoidable reputation of being weak against genuine fast bowling. There were exceptions to the rule such as Sunil Gavaskar, Mohinder Amarnath and Gundappa Viswanath, to name a few, but invariably Indians lost Test matches played on fast wickets in foreign countries. The advent of Sachin Tendulkar and later the brilliant line-up consisting of Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid and V V S Laxman changed this image substantially during the first decade of this century. However, once their prowess waned, post 2011, most of the host countries with fast bowlers in their ranks reverted to the old and time tested strategy of preparing hard bouncy tracks to win Test matches against the visiting Indians. This had seen India lose Test matches and series in Australia, South Africa and England with a predictability that was almost embarrassing. Thus this victory was the most emphatic statement that not only can Indian batsmen handle quick bowlers without discomfiture on any surface but the side also possesses speedsters who can make life more difficult for the opposing side. It was the confidence inspired by this win that made India appear invincible in the first three one-dayers of the ongoing series.
In sublime form
As usual Kohli, the batsman, showed his class and mettle during the series. After the first Test was lost, on account of batting failure caused by the team virtually walking to the ground from the airport, the skipper led from the front in the second match scoring a brilliant 153 that saw India reach within striking distance of the first innings total of the hosts. In the last Test, Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara held the Indian first innings together with determined half-centuries, while, in the second knock, the captain and Ajinkya Rahane ground the South African bowling down and helped to set up a target that was beyond the capacity of their opponents. His run of tall scores during 2017 and the form displayed in this series would place Kohli at the top of heap among contemporary batsmen in international cricket.
Kohli faced considerable flak over the selection of the playing eleven, particularly for dropping Rahane to accommodate Rohit Sharma during the first two Tests and resting Bhuvneshwar Kumar, for playing Ishant Sharma, in the second match. The key roles played by Rahane and Bhuvneshwar in shaping the victory in the final Test would show that this criticism was not without merit. Team selection is one area where there would never be any consensus either among the experts or the ordinary lovers of the game. It should not be forgotten in the urge to criticize that captain is always the best person to know the strengths and weaknesses of the individual players and hence should have the final word on who all should play a particular game and the strategy to be adopted by the side. On the positive side, Kohli deserves credit for the confidence he showed in Jasprit Bumrah, which saw the youngster come up with remarkable performances with the new ball and emerge as the find of the series.
Keeping the morale high
One challenge that team managements invariably faces when confronted with back-to-back defeats in a short series is maintaining the morale of the side. It is to the credit of Kohli and Ravi Shastri, the coach, that the players sustained their self belief and went to the final Test with their chin up and a spring in their steps. There was no slouching of shoulders or lethargy which could creep in with a defeatist mindset. On the contrary, Indian batsmen, including the tailenders, stood up courageously, braving blows on their body on many occasions, without displaying any signs of fear or discomfiture. This positive attitude, even in the face of severe adversity, would remain one of the biggest takeaways of this victory.
Now a word about the pitch on which the last Test was played at Johannesburg. The surface was in the news for all the wrong reason and received an adverse report from Andy Pycroft, the match referee, indicating that it will be under the strict scrutiny of International Cricket Council (ICC) in future. It is to the credit of Kohli and his side that India did not complain about the nature of the wicket, which was prepared only for favoring the host side, but ended up doing the opposite. Home advantage is one of the oldest traditions of cricket and host countries have attempted to leverage this favor from the time that this game was born. It is always better to accept this reality and try to play better rather than cribbing about it, especially since both sides bat and bowl on the same wicket. Indian team management wisely stayed away from the debates about the pitch and demands for appointing neutral curators for international matches. This approach helped to send across the message that India emerged stronger from Johannesburg while South Africans came out wiser and one should view the match from this perspective alone.
Finally, a word about the expectations of Indian public about the captain of the national side. As a nation we are used to our cricket captains behaving like gentlemen on the field of play, displaying little emotions and maintaining a facade of civility and control. Sourav Ganguly remained the sole exception to this general rule, but even he never went beyond showing extreme joy when things went his way. Kohli’s style of captaincy is much more demonstrative and his aggression is a bit too much “on the face”. Old-timers might find this slightly disconcerting and some of them have already commented adversely about it. However, it is high time we realized this belligerent attitude, that he makes no effort to hide, is an integral part of the Kohli persona which has contributed substantially to making him the leading batsman in international cricket. It would do no good either to him or to the side if efforts are made to curb his natural exuberance to the game and life; a better way would be to accept this and channelize his energies and genius to the all-round benefit of the team. Shastri, with who Kohli gets along well, has realized this and is performing the task of placing a guiding hand on the shoulders of the captain in an unobtrusive, yet effective manner.
Kohli would savor the wins in the shorter format for a long time to come. In addition to helping to silence his critics, the victory in last Test and first three ODIs would go a long way in boosting the confidence of the team for the tougher battles ahead in England and Australia. Kohli is just coming into his own as a captain and conventional wisdom dictates that one should support him rather than finding fault at every step. Indian cricket needs Kohli at the helm, confident and comfortable in this post, if the Men in Blue are to regain the ICC World Cup in 2019. The win at Johannesburg might well prove to be the starting point of a successful campaign towards this end.
Tailpiece: Guha is primarily a historian who, like most of the other members of his tribe, tends to be a bit of a romantic, living in the past. Kohli, on the other hand, is a hard-headed realist who believes only in the present. The encounters between the two have seen the realist having the last laugh till date. Indian cricket fans would not mind the romantic losing so long as the realist keeps winning matches!
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)