It would be unfair to haul this Indian team over the coals on the basis of one defeat, its first in 15 home Tests and after the inspired performances in Australia. But, as with all defeats, and particularly ones by 227 runs in conditions you are supposed to outperform your opponents in, hard questions have to be asked.
Virat Kohli insists England’s win in Chennai was not a result of better preparation. He feels that England had the better of conditions but says they fully deserved to win. He is disappointed by his side’s application with the bat but stood up for vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane after a pair of low scores. He has defended the team’s decision to recall the left-arm spinner Shahbaz Nadeem out of the blue instead of playing left-arm wrist-spinner Kuldeep Yadav, who sat out all four Tests in Australia.
Prima facie, it looks like Kuldeep might sit out the remainder of the series. After the loss, Kohli oddly defended Nadeem’s selection by saying that because the team had two offspinners in R Ashwin and Washington Sundar there was no real value in playing Kuldeep who he said “more or less becomes the same spinner, taking the ball away”. But offspinners take the ball away from left-handers, and England only had Rory Burns and Ben Stokes in their list of specialist batsmen. Dom Sibley, Joe Root, Ollie Pope, Dan Lawrence and Jos Buttler are all right-handed batsmen. Kohli’s argument doesn’t make sense.
If the team wanted a spinner who could spin the ball away from right-handers, then yes, a left-arm spinner made sense. But Kuldeep, a chinaman, can also spin the ball away. Playing three finger spinners who bowl at about the same pace proved, with the benefit of hindsight, a mistake. Kuldeep’s variety could have been vital on this track, and not playing the only chinaman in this Test seemed odd.
Kohli’s second mistake was to burn all three of India’s reviews in one day, of which two were blown in successive overs. In the 108th over of England’s first innings, Kohli reviewed a not-out verdict for lbw shouts off Stokes when he had clearly gloved an attempted reverse-sweep and then in the next over, another not-out lbw call against Root when replays showed the ball going over the stumps. Then, during the 139th over of the innings, Kohli took a last-second review for a catch at leg slip when Pope swept Ashwin, who was bowling to the right-hander from around the stumps. Kohli would later rue this wrong review when Buttler edged a ball from Sundar to Rishabh Pant.
On the third morning, Kohli waited 5.2 overs before taking the third new ball. During this time, Dom Bess and Leach added 11 runs. As soon as the new ball was taken, Jasprit Bumrah removed Bess lbw and not long after England were bowled out for 578. This is not the first time that Kohli has delayed taking the new ball and looked on as opposing tailenders have batted out overs.
Kohli the batsman has always trumped Kohli the captain. And you cannot fault him for his dismissals in this Test, out caught excellently at short leg and then bowled by a grubber on day five. Yet there are legitimate questions regarding his leadership in Chennai. That he is a suspect judge of players and conditions has been dissected during his tenure as Test captain.
In 2018, during the tour of South Africa, Kohli and the team management left out their vice-captain Rahane for the first two Tests in favour of Rohit Sharma. It was a call based on current form, as Kohli explained after the 72-run loss in the series opener. Rohit had Test scores of 102*, 65 and 50* against Sri Lanka versus Rahane’s 17 from three innings, and then slammed a third ODI double-century and a T20I century against the same team.
In choosing Rohit on “current form” India overlooked the fact that he had little prior Test experience in seaming conditions, whereas Rahane was their most improved overseas batsman. As it turned out, Rohit made 11, 10, 10 and 47 in two losses. Rahane took his place for the final Test and scored 9 and 47 on a dangerous track. India won and there was criticism of the Kohli-Shastri way of thinking. Would Rahane have made a difference in those first two Tests? We will never know, but the way he batted in India’s second innings on that minefield in Johannesburg showed that it was clearly a mistake to omit him earlier.
During the second Test at Centurion, Kohli delayed taking the second new ball and bowled Mohammed Shami for just one over during the second session after he took 3/26 in the morning. South Africa were ahead by 253 runs with three wickets left when the new ball became available. Kohli delayed taking it, and South Africa’s tail added 33 runs.India won the third Test to show they meant business, but there is no denying that the selection calls made for and during the first two matches were factors in defeat.
Later that year, India went to England for five Tests. In the first match at Edgbaston, where a second spinner was needed, India went in with four pace options and left out Cheteshwar Pujara; in the second, on a damp Lord’s surface, they picked Kuldeep instead of an additional seamer; at Southampton, they played an unfit Ashwin. Of course, it is a matter of conjecture as to what could have happened had Kohli and the think-tank chosen otherwise, but there is no doubting that these were poor calls.
In the first innings at Edgbaston, from a 50-run opening stand India lost three wickets in eight balls. In the second, chasing 194, they were 46/3. Would a batsman of Pujara’s adhesiveness at the crease not have helped, particularly on a surface where batting was easier than at Lord’s and Trent Bridge? Conjecture, yes, but a question worth asking. And India have suffered each time they’ve dropped Pujara.
A Lord’s, on a damp and seaming surface – day one was washed out – India picked Kuldeep, who went wicketless, as did Ashwin. England played four pace bowlers and smashed India by an innings, not even bowling their sole spinner Adil Rashid once in the whole Test. After the loss, Kohli and Ravi Shastri admitted to picking the wrong team combination.
After winning at Trent Bridge, India headed to the Ageas Bowl, where had Kohli read the surface better he would picked Ravindra Jadeja instead of Ashwin, who was clearly not 100%. The same Ashwin was defended as being match fit by Kohli and Shastri after the loss, and then four days later was declared unfit for the fifth Test. India knew that the ball would turn out of the rough on day four and still didn’t play a second spinner. England recalled Moeen Ali as their second spinner and he took nine wickets.
Also during that 1-4 series loss in England, Kohli’s choice of reviews, his delaying the new ball at Southampton and spreading the field on day three at The Oval to allow Buttler and Stuart Broad score easy runs were puzzling decisions.
A large part of captaincy is about reading your players fitness and the conditions. On this account, Kohli has been found wanting across his captaincy career, which is the most successful in India’s history. He remains the best man to lead India, because of his stature and success, but there are cracks that need papering over.