This was, as with many things said on Twitter, a remark made with tongue firmly in cheek. Few things are more fun than being provocative on social media, and then watching the comments fly. But as much as it was a comment made partly in jest, I still stand by the gist of it. This is Virat Kohli’s team. The captain gets to decide which XI he is most comfortable with, especially when going into such a big game. And no one sitting on the outside, expert or otherwise, will ever be able to gauge the various factors that go into selecting a side as well as those that are part of the inner sanctum.
Second-guessing football coaches or cricket captains is a fun exercise, but the reality is that we don’t know half of what they do. Which is why they’re in those jobs, and we’re not. And if they get it consistently wrong, in terms of results, they pay a price. Leaders of high-profile sports team don’t get the second chances that us Ordinary Joes do. Zinedine Zidane has won the Champions League back-to-back with Real Madrid, yet he could be out of a job before this summer is over. That’s how brutal the pressures are.
Kohli’s words after the victory at The Wanderers – he was far calmer than after the Centurion loss – gave great insight into how he views the whole selection debate. “We don’t think like people on the outside,” he said. “When things don’t go well, we as a team don’t say ‘Oh, we should have done this’ or ‘We should have done that’. That’s the easiest thing to do.
“I can say or write anything about anyone, but when you’re in there, facing their bowling attack on that sort of a wicket …when you decide to bat first, you need to be sure, and you need to have belief in yourself. We certainly back ourselves as a team and that’s something we have done throughout this tour. Yes, we were disappointed things did not come together in the first two games, but we are really proud of this effort.”
Even if he feels that leaving Rahane out for the first two games was a mistake, and there’s no indication that he thinks it was, Kohli isn’t obliged to go into a confessional box in front of the whole world. Teams learn their harshest lessons from defeat. The captain, who absorbs them far quicker than most – witness his imperious batsmanship in Tests two and three after failing to make a telling contribution at Newlands – will certainly have filed away plenty of things after going 2-0 down.
As for the siege mentality, that’s perfectly natural given how the media narrative has changed in the past ten months. Long before the differences of opinion with Anil Kumble became public knowledge, and he was instantly labelled the villain of the piece, Kohli’s behaviour had been under excessive scrutiny. It’s almost as if the Indian captain must be cut from a certain kind of moral cloth, and the Kohli fabric doesn’t fit.
Few positive stories have been written since. In South Africa, the focus was on whether Kohli’s attitude and demeanour would enfeeble his teammates, with the likes of Graeme Smith quoted on the matter. But there were plenty of others saying very different things. They just didn’t suit the prevailing narrative.
“What a fantastic batsman he is,” Dr Ali Bacher told me, after watching his half-century on the opening day in Johannesburg. “A lot of people are critical of his decision to bat first. But as someone who’s played and watched cricket here for so long, I can tell you your captain has made the right decision. A very brave one at that.”
He most certainly had. And the pacers he has reposed so much faith in rewarded him handsomely. They took 50 of the 60 wickets to fall, an unprecedented return for an Indian attack. As for Jasprit Bumrah, whose selection was a matter of such debate, he ended the series with 14 wickets at 25.21. Among those he dismissed? AB de Villiers (thrice), Faf du Plessis (thrice) and Hashim Amla (twice). Those are pretty handy notches to have on a new belt.
Unlike Indian captains of the past, Kohli has been steadfast about trusting in pace even at home. Before he got injured, Mohammed Shami was central to India taking a 2-0 lead against England. And the come-from-behind win against Australia would not have been possible without that magnificent second day in Bangalore, when India kept the visitors to 197 for 6. As superbly as R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja bowled, it was the control exerted by the pacers that was most eye-catching.
There will be more ‘controversial’ selections in England and Australia later this year. Controversial, because we have newspapers to sell, TV ratings to top, and website hits to match. For all the criticism that went Kohli’s way for leaving Bhuvneshwar Kumar out at Centurion, check out what Vernon Philander – the most accurate of the South African bowlers, and the one Bhuvneshwar is most similar to – did in those conditions after his 9 for 75 in Cape Town. His figures were 1 for 71, in a game where the heavy balls bowled by Lungi Ngidi fetched him 7 for 90.
Kohli is no fool. He knows as well as anyone that a poor run of results in England and Australia might cost him his job. But till now, in the three years that he has led the Test side, he has accumulated more than enough credit to be allowed to trust his own instincts. It’s convenient to scoff at his achievements – the 3-0 win in Sri Lanka, for example, a year after Steve Smith and Australia were routed by the same score – and downplay the hunches that have paid off, like Bumrah.
But to constantly focus only on the negatives would suggest agendas at work. And the Indian cricket captain, and the millions who follow the team he leads, deserve a lot better than that. After all, he hasn’t really played Coco the Clown.
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First Published: January 30, 2018, 12:40 PM IST