Since the tour of Australia, in 2014-15, when Virat Kohli took over from MS Dhoni, he has matched and even exceeded his predecessors in terms of successes. The 2018-19 tour of Australia is the pinnacle of Kohli’s achievements as a captain in Test cricket, with a famous series win, the first Down Under for a subcontinent team. It helped to take India to the summit of the world rankings.
Apart from success alone, Kohli also brought in a new fitness regime, selection benchmarks for fitness, which has resulted in improved ground fielding and running between the wickets, on par with any international side in the world.
Kohli’s excellent handling of the fast bowlers has resulted in arguably the game’s best bowling unit currently in Test cricket. A unit that can bowl out any side in the world, to lay the foundation for an Indian win.
Along with the selectors, support staff, coach and the captain, India has ensured the future pipeline is overflowing with players waiting in the wings to replace the current lot. One may say, it is an embarrassment of riches, India has two teams that are currently on two different tours.
With such tall achievements, let us look at what the stats show. Here is a statistic depicting Indian captains’ performances at home in the last 25 years.
From the statistic above, it is clear beyond doubt, that every Indian Test captain had a better win/loss record at home, especially in recent years. The reason could be, quicker run-scoring, thanks to the T20 era that has evolved. Reduced skills to adapt to away conditions, and finally, pitches at home, which has been too much in favour of spin, as was seen in the last home series against England.
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To summarise, all Indian Test captains have been successful at home. What has differentiated them has been the away series. Especially in SENA (South Africa, England, New Zealand, Australia) countries, where the conditions, as well as the opposition, have been tough.
Now, here is a graph depicting how the skippers have fared in the same period in SENA countries.
It is not a surprise that, away performances have been dismal. Except for Rahul Dravid and Ajinkya Rahane, all captains have an awful win/loss record in SENA countries. It becomes worse for captains in recent years. Kohli has the second-worst loss percentage among all captains in SENA countries. Yes, it is a surprise.
Now the question beckons: with such massive clout, an army of support staff, say in selections of players, including the coach, a privilege not many captains have enjoyed in the past, why has Kohli’s performance still been so poor in SENA countries? Here we try to identify the reasons for them.
One of the criticisms Kohli often faced was not having the same XI in consecutive games. Not only has the selection of a playing XI been the biggest talking point, but also the only reason for the loss. Who can forget Bhuvneshwar Kumar being dropped for the second test against the Proteas in the 2018 series in South Africa, after being the most successful bowler and making useful batting contributions in the first test match ? Playing Shikhar Dhawan instead of Cheteshwar Pujara in the first Test in England in 2018?
Even the recent World Test Championship Final, where India picked two spinners in a rain-affected game, is yet another example in a captaincy career that is plagued with such bizarre selections. This has impacted players deeply with some losing form, others confidence.
The worst affected have been the youngsters. The fact is, not a single youngster can say that he has cemented his place in the side under Kohli. So many careers have been extinguished without a trace. One can understand a player not doing well in the given opportunities, and getting dropped, but, here, players who have achieved success, scored hundreds, taken five-wicket hauls, contributed to wins, but still have lost their place and are nowhere in the scheme of things. Their blemish could be as little as one or two failures or none at all. It is indeed a talent drain in Indian cricket.
An unstable batting lineup
Batting quartets like the famous Dravid-Sachin-Laxman-Sourav takes years of batting together. Building big partnerships, getting through difficult conditions and situations in the game, calls for a good understanding of each other’s game. It also requires confidence from the team management and captain, that one bad game or series will not affect their place in the side. With an uncertain selection policy, batting is the first skill that gets affected. Pujara, Rahane and Rohit Sharma have been dropped at different stages of their careers.Their confidence and their natural game have been affected. Players go into their shells. As a result, the team has seen far more number of collapses, as seen in the graph below. Only one reason can be attributed – lack of stability.
Here too, Kohli has been found wanting. The fiasco before the Australia tour, where Kohli had no information on why Rohit was not travelling, had raised serious doubts if the captain and the vice-captain of the ODI team are talking at all. So many players who got dropped, or retired, have mentioned, they had no communication.
Whether it is for Mumbai Indians or India, Rohit has often displayed a good camaraderie with the players. During the lockdown, last year, he went out of the way to make video calls to all the players. He has won multiple IPL titles and the Asia Cup and led in crucial junctures with Kohli in dressing room. It is a shame that Rohit has not got a chance to lead in a World Cup.
The same is the case when Rahane took over the captaincy, after the humiliating loss at Adelaide under Kohli. And what a turnaround he brought about. It is something about his leadership that gets the best out of the players involved. It was great to see, seniors like R Ashwin, Jasprit Bumrah and Pujara stepping into leadership roles. Youngsters like Shubman Gill, Shardul Thakur and Washington brought out their A game with a fearless attitude in the Gabba Test. Winning the series with a team filled with youngsters was no mean feat for Rahane or India.
In sharp contrast, under Kohli, players seem to lack confidence, display poor body language. An observation that Kohli has shared more than once. May be the players, get lost in the aura of Kohli. The standards that he has set for himself are so high, that players around feel unable to match them, which cause them to get bogged down. The same feelings probably are absent around Rohit or Rahane. Mohammed Siraj walking up to Rahane, after being abused at Sydney. Rohit is often seen cracking a joke with the players. Players feel comfortable to express under them. Whereas Kohli is seen as tough, aggressive and in your face, for the opposition and even his own team-mates. Even a minor fielding mistake causes him to go hyper. Not a trait that builds confidence.
After the WTC loss, Kohli had mentioned bringing in people with right mindset. Let us not forget, this same nucleus sans Kohli won a series Down Under. Whatever the change may be, unless the players feel stability, trust and confidence from the captain, no number of changes will help. Perhaps, the team needs a change in leadership. A two-captain setup is the need of the hour.