The ambition screamed in everything he did as a player. That percolated to everything he did: batting, fitness, fielding, captaincy, vision for the Test team, intensity on the field.
It was 2011, we were at a small hotel room by the sea in Dominica in the West Indies. Virat Kohli had been harassed by Fidel Edwards’ bouncers, just lost his Test spot, and was watching some television in Harbhajan Singh’s room. At the door, Harbhajan turned, pointed to Kohli, lying supine on the bed, remote-pressing his way, and said, “Yeh ladka teen saal mein captain banega!” (This boy will be captain in three years). Next day, when Harbhajan’s remark was shared with Kohli, there was one thing in his reaction that stood out: There was no surprise. Just a matter-of-fact happiness. Here he was, just dropped from the Test team – he didn’t find himself in India’s tour of England that followed the Caribbean sojourn but one that he would eventually go to due to an injury to another player, was found out by bouncers, and captaincy might seem the furthest thing on his mind then, but there wasn’t any surprise. “Good to know that your teammates think of you like that,” he said confidently and proceeded to list out what he has learnt from watching MS Dhoni lead.
That how he would like to be an attacking captain when his time comes but for now, he would like to secure his batting spot. It was all said in a matter-of-fact manner and the confidence in a young player who was just dropped was startling.
The ambition screamed in everything he did as a player. That percolated to everything he did: batting, fitness, fielding, captaincy, vision for the Test team, intensity on the field. During his reign, the team rode on its pacers to climb from No. 7 to No. 1, was competitive around the world, respected by the opposition, admired by pundits for his passion for Test cricket – a legacy that will stand the test of time.
Much has been said about his on-field tactical nous. In the last couple or so years, though, there haven’t been many decisions on the field that one could question. As his former coach Ravi Shastri has said in the past, he has steadily improved as a captain on the field. Even his critics have quietened down. With him, though, Kohli off the field was what made him and unmade him in the eyes of others.
Here is where it gets interesting. At one point, it seemed he was using insecurity as a performance-enhancing drug, a point that Shastri didn’t deny but he saw it as Kohli setting standards very high and having to take tough decisions to follow his dream.
What did he want from Cheteshwar Pujara, for example? More intent. A bit more positivity in stroke play. He would murmur about intent in the press conferences, later term his own comments as ‘outside noise’, and would offer support. Surely, he could have been more supportive of the methods of one of his foremost batsmen who has sparkled overseas. But here is the interesting rub: the support might have been lacking in generosity but the criticism wasn’t as off the mark as it was seen.
What transpired with Pujara in recent times? He has himself realised the need to bat with more intent, and when push came to shove with his spot under pressure, interestingly, he adopted the Kohli way and has batted more aggressively. He realised mere survival wouldn’t do.
What did Kohli want from Ajinkya Rahane? Runs under pressure. Rahane was dropped from the Test team in South Africa in 2018, and one can see that from then on, he slowly became a batsman without trust in his defence, and someone who started to score quick runs, but sporadically. Was it the result of Kohli or a batsman who struggled against quality spin in home conditions and who didn’t have much trust in his own defence overseas? On the evidence of the last few years, it has to be said that Rahane’s own game caught up with him. Would he, a man who has always seemed a touch short of self-confidence, have done better had he found a more supporting captain? The honest answer is that it would be purely hypothetical conjecture. No one can say for sure. The main letdown and fault, if one could call it, was in Rahane’s own game, in his own mind. Again, as with Pujara, the support at the start of the personal crisis could have been stronger and more empathetic. But that’s about it.
Who made Rohit Sharma open in Tests? It was primarily Shastri’s idea but Kohli bought the idea wholeheartedly, especially after he found M Vijay fading out. Vijay is an interesting case in itself. In 2018, he was dropped mid-series in England – perhaps harshly and one could sense his frustration and rapidly-rising pressure in chats from that time, but it wasn’t as if his career was buried there. Kohli got him back for the Australia tour and it was Vijay’s own batting that let him down. Vijay wanted to be backed during the England series but in Shastri’s words, it was a big decision that the captain had to take then. So, the mantle fell on Sharma, who was being pursued for a while by the management to open and who was told not to worry about his spot in the side. That he would be backed as an opener. The tide turned.
By his own admission, KL Rahul thought he might never play Test cricket again a year or so ago. In 2018, Shastri had told this newspaper that Rahul was the batsman that Kohli wanted to partner with Sharma. Even as runs didn’t come in as consistently as he would have liked that made him doubt himself, Kohli has stood by him.
Before the start of the epochal series in Australia that India won under Rahane’s captaincy, Kohli had picked out Hanuma Vihari as the batsman to watch out for. That didn’t quite materialise but Vihari played his part in saving a Test though hasn’t always found a spot in the team. For that, Kohli’s “outside noise” pressure on Rahane or Pujara had to take effect but that never quite materialised – and Vihari’s fate continues to be in limbo. Probably moved up from waiting list to RAC, but that’s where he stands as of now. Clearly, Kohli would have liked more, but hasn’t quite managed to swing it. The fact that Vihari played ahead of Shreyas Iyer in South Africa must be credited to Kohli, who does rate him highly.
Another contentious handling has been that of Ravichandran Ashwin, who in a recent interview, talked about how he felt targeted when he was injured or felt “crushed” when Kuldeep Yadav was raved about by the management. Even that game in Sydney in 2019, where Kuldeep performed, it was Ashwin who pulled out in the morning of the game due to injury. And by 2018, it was, for whatever reasons, clear that his body wasn’t allowing him to play a full series. His performance was a reason that India lost that 2018 Southampton Test which derailed the England series. The injury was preventing him from finishing the action properly. But at the end of the day, it was his body betraying him; not the management.
Ashwin’s and Pujara’s cases and, to an extent Rahane’s, suggest that the players themselves might have wished that Kohli was more empathetic with them. One can accuse him of lacking in emotional quotient, but that’s about all. The cricketing logic wasn’t too off. A Kohli with more emotional bandwidth would have been nice but that’s how he operated. Like in the Oval Test of 2021 against England on a track that assisted spin, he left out Ashwin, and went with just Ravindra Jadeja. A huge debate ensued but Jadeja bowled 30 tight overs in the second innings, took a couple of wickets, and the seamers ensured India won. Kohli had Jadeja playing at three-down in the order, ahead of Rahane. Both Kohli and Shastri have been gung-ho about having a left-hander in the middle order and have backed Jadeja overseas since the 2018 summer. And more often than not, he has delivered.
Not just Jadeja, he backed Rishabh Pant too after Dinesh Karthik’s horror run in that 2018 series in England. Ahead of the Oval Test in that series, when Pant wasn’t scoring much, Kohli called him to the room. “He said that it’s not compulsory that you have to play 30 matches or something to get experience. It can come in even two matches. Jo koi nahi kiya, tu kar saktha hai. Kuch likha thodi hai (what nobody has done, you can, it’s not written anywhere) if you are young, you can’t do it in Tests. That talk helped me a lot. For him to sit me down and make me understand things, was a very big thing for me,” Pant told this newspaper.
There is not much to be said about his backing and passion for a five-bowlers attack primarily dominated by pacers that isn’t known. No one questions his choice to go all pace-heavy. It would have been silly to do anything else but that when you have Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, a resurgent Ishant Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, and a young line-up of back-up pacers who have since burst through as well. It was his vision and since he was blessed with talented pacers, he went to town with it.
So what criticisms are we left with in the end as a Test captain? A lack of soft empathetic approach with a few players (not with everyone but with a few) but which seemed to make sense to him in his hard-boiled wonderland. If Pujara could score quicker, if Rahane could be more consistent, and if Ashwin can remain injury-free and deliver as a lower-order batsman everywhere… Else he was finding options. In Jadeja, in Pant, in Hardik Pandya, in Vihari.
Another criticism is the manic intensity that spilled over to unpleasantness as it did in the final Test against South Africa with his unsavoury remarks on stump mike. But how did he himself see it? Fascinatingly, he said this when asked if he had gone over the top. “If we’d have gotten all charged up and picked three wickets, that would’ve been the moment that changed the game,” he said. Kohli lives for a battle, he loves being the victim even when he isn’t but in his own mind, he likes to be pushed in a corner because it stirs him to greater things. And he thinks by extension, it would do the same to the team as well.
All this crossing of lines doesn’t bother him. Even 10 years ago, when he was just 22, Kohli had this worldview about the cricketing ecosystem. Whether it’s right or wrong isn’t the point here, but this is the way he saw it. “You should always believe in giving it back [verbally]. There is no point getting bogged down by some people thinking they are superior to you and they can just say anything and walk away. Like you know how teams speak with Indian teams on the field. And all the youngsters in the Indian team now like to give it back, and the other team is in shock. And when they get it back, they don’t know how to handle it. And that’s been one reason for the success of the Indian team, just being in the face of the opposition and being more aggressive than the opposition”. Nothing since has changed that view.
For seven years, especially for the last five years with Shastri by his side, Kohli’s power had grown immeasurably in Indian cricket. He did what he wished, almost. Of late, the inevitable sizing down has happened. He lost Shastri, quit his T20 captaincy, lost his ODI role, and now has quit Test captaincy. It won’t be a surprise if he quits the T20 format next. Now, for the first time in a decade, he isn’t the captain anywhere; not even in IPL. History would be kinder to his captaincy and there was never any debate on his batting. It’s as Kohli the batsman that he would enter the final phase as an Indian cricketer. Hopefully, another half-a-decade of sunshine remains in that world. Tactically, strategically, philosophically, temperamentally, he has done all he can as a captain. The Test team doesn’t need a reset but can do with a change of guard and infusion of fresh methods.