Team India, in dire need of runs, will be hoping the task isn’t as onerous as it seems.
Kohli is now ‘merely’ Test skipper instead of the talismanic leader and multi-format energiser bunny who lights up your TV screens whenever India are in play. He is also without any serious Test runs for two years. The fourth-most successful Test captain in history finds his leadership status undermined by the happenings of the last few weeks.
The team itself is in a strategic transition as one head coach takes over from another. For Kohli, now 33, this is just the sort of late-career crisis every Indian captain hopes to avoid but inevitably stumbles into. The two most overtly combative captains in Indian cricket history going toe-to-toe on anything doesn’t make for good news.
When the issue concerns the best Indian batsman of this generation, who may still have a few good years left in him, it is doubly alarming. Ganguly may feel aggrieved that his ‘big-brother’ comment on having asked Kohli to ‘reconsider’ relinquishing the T20 captaincy was interpreted literally.
Kohli would have been aware he was breaching the board’s omerta for speaking out about not actually having been asked, officially, to stay back. For the rest of us, it may just be an indication that the decision to remove Kohli from the ODI captaincy in such a flippant manner may have been board-mandated rather than selector approved.
By laying his cards on the table and putting all the brinkmanship to rest, Kohli has cleared the air on his intentions but come in direct confrontation with his employers. Ganguly, himself no stranger to board politics during his playing days, has decided not to escalate the issue in public before such an important tour.
This isn’t a question anymore of who is right or wrong. The board’s penchant for cloakand-dagger operations goes back a long way and is unlikely to change now. If anything, there has been an error of judgment when it comes to calculating the cost of needling Kohli.
💬 💬 We’ve had a great week of preparation. Vice-captain @klrahul11 takes us through how #TeamIndia is getting int… https://t.co/8bZQqLD0Lu
— BCCI (@BCCI) 1640351430000
This is a cricketer who brings with him the streetfighter tendencies of a Javed Miandad and the stubborn wiles of a Ricky Ponting. His cricket is born out of conflict and thrives on conflict. It is the fuel he needs to fan his genius.
This is a cricketer who has been calling people’s bluff for a long time, for good or bad. He showed up Steve Smith’s infamous “brain fade” as a lie and revealed a pattern in the Australian’s tendency to seek dressing-room advice before DRS appeals.
Kohli also pointed his middle-finger to an abusive SCG crowd and impolitely refused to work with an “overbearing” Anil Kumble.
Given that India won 46.4% overseas Tests, the most, and 67.1% ODIs and 69.2% T20Is under Ravi Shastri, who’s to say who was right?
Team Headshots done. ✅Just a few sleeps away from the first Test. 👌We cannot wait. 👏 👏#TeamIndia | #SAvIND https://t.co/cVBjTmThXl
— BCCI (@BCCI) 1640156638000
Kohli also charged headlong into a heated mid-pitch conflict with the feisty Gautam Gambhir in an IPL game, and then shook his hand after. It was only Kohli, among all other active cricketers and board members, who took on an army of vicious, fundamentalist trolls and shielded teammate Mohammed Shami after India’s T20 World Cup defeat.
It’s not that Kohli is not aware of the cost. It’s just that he isn’t very amenable to manipulation. Maybe he needs a different sort of handling, and this is where new coach Rahul Dravid can come in.
There are lessons in this ugly episode for Kohli. The most important is that for top batsmen, only runs matter. Without runs you are a soft target. Remember, this is a cricketer who turned his career around with personal sacrifice. He starved himself, changed his lifestyle, punished his body till it was chiselled to satisfactory fitness standards.
Now it’s time for a second wind. Kohli’s last Test century, or century in any format, came in Nov 2019. Since then, in 58 innings across formats, he averages 39.70. The operative part is that in 23 Test innings since then he averages a shocking 26.04.
#TeamIndia had an intense nets session 💪🏻 at SuperSport Park 🏟️ in the build up to the first #SAvIND Test.Here’s… https://t.co/DhmQn7iXWU
— BCCI (@BCCI) 1639975131000
This steep decline comes without ever looking really out of sorts, though he has tended to look unsettled and flirt outside off stump in the quest for quick runs.
Since his last Test ton, he only has a 46.15% Test win record as captain, compared to 62.26% before the century against Bangladesh in the day-night Test. The good news is that he averages 55.80 from 5 Tests, with 2 hundreds, against South Africa away from home.
He is among the top five batsmen in terms of averages (59.72) against SA, following Neil Harvey, Michael Clarke, Wally Hammond and Jack Hobbs. This is august company indeed.
Score big in SA and India will have rediscovered its batting spine. Fail to score big and the knives will be sharpened. Can conflict fuel Kohli’s fire this time too?