There were two aspects to Virat Kohli’s press conference after the second Test – and series – against South Africa had been lost: one unsavoury, the other admirable.
Sparring with journalists was clearly unedifying. But to his credit, Kohli did not make excuses for India’s dismal performances. He didn’t blame the pitch or lack of time to acclimatize and took the disappointing result on the chin.
As captain of India and somebody who’s played a lot of international cricket, Kohli should know that when the team loses, searching, even uncomfortable questions will be asked.
That is the nature of the transaction between the media and the player in every sport, everywhere. These questions can be provocative, even seemingly taunting. But the captain has to brace up to such situations.
For instance, not playing Ajinkya Rahane despite his impressive record overseas was not flawed in my opinion. Statistics from 4-5 years back do not guarantee success in the present.
The choice to play man-in-form Rohit Sharma was not unfounded. But if this ploy had not yielded results, questions about Rahane’s exclusion are not illogical from the media’s – and fans' – perspective.
Similarly, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, India’s most successful bowler in the first Test being rested for the second will necessarily invite queries even though all bowlers did well in the second Test.
This can’t be construed as an affront to the team management’s authority and wisdom, rather an attempt to put together a cohesive, interpretative story of the off-beat decisions for readers/viewers.
Having not lost a single series before this, Kohli obviously found himself in a highly unusual space. There’s a learning to be had from this. Solace and remedies for disappointment have to be found within the dressing room, not in press conferences.
That said, it was commendable he didn’t end up with making peevish excuses for the defeats. In both Tests, the pitch had been spicy or dicey. India had also gone into the series without a practice match. But Kohli didn’t offer these as reasons for the setback.
Candid acceptance that India lost because of its own shortcomings shows a healthy outlook to sport. Defeated captains can end up wallowing in prolonged disappointment which can infect the entire team.
Kohli was obviously unhappy about lack of time to acclimatize before the Tests began, having expressed this when a home series against Sri Lanka instead had been thrust on the team. (Hopefully, India’s cricket administrators are now chastened)
Yet he still believed South Africa could be beaten.
The fact that he had a strong and varied bowling attack – with enough pace arsenal – at his command succored this belief.
By the end of the second Test, Kohli knew a fantastic chance to win the series had been lost: and the problem was not the difficult pitches or weather conditions.
The bowlers have been fantastic in taking 40 wickets in two Tests, a rare occurrence when India is playing overseas. But the fielding has been error-prone and most damagingly, batsmen failed abjectly to rustle up even modest scores.
Take away Kohli’s masterly 153 at Centurion and Hardik Pandya’s swashbuckling 93 at Cape Town, there is not even another half century by an India batsman, which shows how poorly they’ve batted.
Bowler-friendly pitches and the quality of attack of both teams put tremendous hardship on batsmen. Leave aside Kohli and A B de Villiers, who looked like they were from a different planet, all floundered.
The difference between batsmen of the two teams has not been so much about technique as about tenacity: the mental toughness to adjust, cope and somehow survive, as the innings played by Faf du Plessis and Dean Elgar in the second Test show.
From the outside, India’s batting approach seemed dictated by a script prepared in advance – to dominate the South African bowlers -- rather than adapt to the situation as it unraveled. The intent was right, the execution poor.
Anxiousness to tame the opposition led to repeated mistakes best exemplified by Cheteshwar Pujara running himself out in both innings of the second Test, and the loose strokes which led to the repeated dismissals of Vijay, Rahul, Dhawan, Rohit.
The line dividing bravado from recklessness is thin, and India's batsmen toppled over to the wrong side, belying the expectations of millions of fans and surely letting themselves down as well.
An aggressive mindset was the only way to take on a strong opponent on its own turf, but a rethink on the tenor of aggression was needed when things were not going according to plan.
Now, India are confronted with the daunting task of preventing a whitewash, suggestive of a bad team when in fact it is a good team that has played badly.
The bitter irony.
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