After India sealed the series against England in Mumbai, Virat Kohli – yet to lose a series as a full-time Test captain – was asked what trepidation or doubts he took up the job with, and how he had fared against them. Was it communication or strategy, or anything else, and whether he felt he had nailed it by now, with five series wins in a row and a 17-match undefeated streak to his name? Kohli’s answer left you wondering.
Kohli said one of his priorities when he started out in the job was to get rid of the quest for personal performances, which can come in the way of the team’s success. That, at times, when you are in a position to dominate an opposition, a batsman can choose not to do so lest he gets out. Kohli said these are the things “we have gotten out of our system completely”.//rcm-na.amazon-adsystem.com/e/cm?o=1&p=12&l=ur1&category=bestsellingproducts&banner=145H1HTA41NXJPV0C0R2&f=ifr&linkID=89445f6ea25389beb9d5dd76f637e38a&t=harisingh13-20&tracking_id=harisingh13-20
One of the more obvious conclusions – and dangerous if you start thinking in terms of names – is that the selfish attitude detrimental to the team’s cause existed in the side when Kohli took over. It was a battered side that had won one Test in its last 19 attempts in England, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Or perhaps when the side had chances to obliterate the visiting opposition, they chose rather to stack up their own numbers? That a ruthless winning culture perhaps missing in the side has been inculcated by Kohli.
Why else would Kohli say eliminating selfishness – there cannot be another term for “not willing to go for it because you are close to your milestone or things like that” – was one of his main priorities as Test captain? Whether Kohli saw selfishness in MS Dhoni’s side – Glenn Maxwell saw it, for example, during the ODIs in Australia earlier this year – and whether a move to a team-first philosophy has been the most important change under Kohli is hazardous for those on the outside to decide.
There must be a good reason for Kohli to consider this vital, but to an outsider he has made more tangible difference through two decisions: demanding high levels of fitness from his bowlers and going into the first Test of a series thinking victory first.
We all knew that Dhoni didn’t have great bowlers to work with – even Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan were towards the end of their careers for a majority of Dhoni’s captaincy – but the big difference between Dhoni and Kohli so far has been that Dhoni tended to make peace with what he had. He expected professionals at international level to know their responsibilities, just like he himself did. After a while you could see Dhoni would give up on his bowlers. Kohli places more premium on them. On the evidence of Kohli’s captaincy so far, good luck to you if you are a bowler and are looking to just go through your motions.
Traditionally the problem with Indian bowlers has been the lack of ability to persevere for a wicket, and releasing pressure through loose balls. Kohli has realised one big reason behind it was ordinary fitness. In Australia in 2014-15, when he captained in two Tests in Dhoni’s absence, Kohli asked his bowlers to learn from Josh Hazlewood, who he said didn’t give away loose balls even in his last spell of the day.
Kohli made it a point to say Hazlewood was only in his second series. Kohli said he wanted his bowlers – more experienced all – to be willing to and, crucially, able to give him their best at the fag end of a long day. In a recent interview with Michael Vaughan, Kohli said that Duncan Fletcher made him realise how unprofessional cricket was when it came to fitness; Kohli now leads his team by example.
The other thing Kohli might have noticed as a member of Dhoni’s Test team was that when faced with a choice between going for a draw and taking a risk going for a win, there was only one answer. Sitting on leads – setting New Zealand 600-plus in Wellington in 2008-09 and bailing out of an impossible-to-lose chase in Dominica in 2011 – was the done thing. And because India hardly ever played enough warm-up games, there was a culture of going into the first Test subconsciously thinking of safety and looking to get into a series unscarred.
In Adelaide in 2014-15 – you can argue he didn’t have much to lose because it was a one-off Test as captain – Kohli picked a legspinner, which in his mind was a more attacking option than the fingerspinner R Ashwin. Between chasing 364 and batting out a day to go 0-0 into Brisbane, Kohli chose the former.
More crucially Kohli is unlikely to do what India did in Southampton earlier that year or Durban in 2013-14. They had taken a 1-0 lead after the second Test at Lord’s, but the cost of that victory was an injury to Ishant Sharma going into the third Test. Their response was to drop their fifth bowler, strengthen the batting and bowl defensively from the first morning of the Test. From the outset, India gave the impression they just wanted to leave Southampton with the lead intact; they couldn’t.
Kohli himself admitted recently that they started looking at the rain and lost focus of the Test, collapsing from a good position. Having pushed South Africa to bat out a draw in the first, India now just looked to leave with a drawn series, which would have been a big achievement. They stopped looking for wickets, and had to be forced to take the new ball, in the 147th over. India lost with time to spare.