Virat Kohli’s template – perennially riddled with twists and turns

Post the first Test at Trent Bridge, where India were comfortably placed before rain played spoilsport, Virat Kohli was effusive in his praise for his players. Not only did the Indian skipper beam that inclement weather had taken away what seemed an inevitable victory (at least in India’s eyes), he also quipped that India had […]

Post the first Test at Trent Bridge, where India were comfortably placed before rain played spoilsport, Virat Kohli was effusive in his praise for his players. Not only did the Indian skipper beam that inclement weather had taken away what seemed an inevitable victory (at least in India’s eyes), he also quipped that India had found the “template” that would serve them for the rest of the series.  

The “template” being referred to here was one that included Ravindra Jadeja as the spin-bowling all-rounder and four fast bowlers, with Shardul Thakur being one of them. The idea behind it was that Shardul could bat, as opposed to the other potential incumbents, which considering the shambolic recent returns of India’s middle order, seemed reasonable.

Interestingly enough, Shardul got injured before the second Test at Lord’s, meaning that the extra batting cushion Kohli so dearly craved was swept from underneath him. To be fair to him, he did continue with the four fast-bowler (and five-bowler) tactic – a tactic that ultimately paid rich dividends.

Since then, things have changed a little. Not only has Shardul returned to full fitness, India also have to contend with the ignominy of Headingley – a game where they were second best (barring Day 3) and hardly resembled the side that tore England to shreds at Lord’s.  

Unsurprisingly, Kohli looked twitchy at the post-match press conference that followed. When he wasn’t busy sarcastically applauding the media for asking “cricket-related” questions, he reiterated that his “template” didn’t comprise of an extra batter (which in this case would be one of Hanuma Vihari, Mayank Agarwal or Suryakumar Yadav).

More importantly, he remarked that this combination of fielding an extra batter was a balance that he simply didn’t believe in. For the cameras, that seemed a statement that was resounding enough. On further introspection, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that even that comment or any such observations need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Back in 2016, when India toured the West Indies, Kohli was adamant that he wanted to play with five bowlers as long as he was at the helm. Against the Caribbean outfit, their batting unit wasn’t really put under the cosh, meaning that the Indians were able to field five bowlers consistently.  

However, whenever the push has come to a shove, Kohli has a tendency of retracting on his statements and choosing the extra batter, despite it apparently being a balance he “doesn’t believe in”.

During the away series in New Zealand in 2020, India had almost all of their resources available. With the batting unit not in fine fettle though, the Men In Blue played both games with six proper batters and a wicket-keeper.

They still failed to cross the 250-run barrier in the four innings they batted, with the lack of an extra bowler hampering them too. In contrast, New Zealand notched up the only 300-plus total (at Wellington) before coasting to victory at Christchurch.

Similarly, in the pink-ball fixture against Australia at Adelaide, India had the extra batting security. The second innings score of 36, however, doesn’t really tell that particular story. As soon as Kohli departed Australian shores, Ajinkya Rahane made the bold call of including Jadeja – a fifth bowler who could also double up as a handy batter. He repaid the faith, scoring 57 in the first innings and taking 3-43 across both innings.

Even when Australia toured India in 2017, Kohli stood firm by his five-bowler assessment at the start of the series, only to shelve it with the rubber deadlocked at 1-1. A prosaic stalemate at Ranchi followed and it was only when Rahane assumed the reins and included Kuldeep Yadav at Dharamsala that India put the series beyond the Aussies.

Thus, there is truth in Kohli saying that the extra batter doesn’t always guarantee better collective batting performances. The problem, though, is that he also tends to hinge on that combination when there is a lack of confidence in the rest of his batters, which coupled with his own paucity of runs, is a real possibility at the moment.

It feels strange that this debate is still raging because India, at present, have a genuine all-rounder in Jadeja and a more than adept batting option in Ashwin, who lest one forgets, is arguably the best spinner in red-ball cricket too.

Apart from that, Kohli has previously gone back on his own comments in the press. The most recent indication was during the T20I series against England at home in March 2021. Before the 1st T20I, the Indian captain openly stated that KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma would open the batting.  

When the game came around, Rahul walked out alongside Shikhar Dhawan, with Rohit being “rested”. By the time the series ended, Kohli was opening the batting with Rohit. Incidentally, that will, barring any late rescheduling, remain the Indians’ last competitive T20I before the T20 World Cup in October and November.

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As far as the World Test Championship final is concerned, it was Ravi Shastri who was making all the right noises when he suggested that India’s bowling attack, which comprised of two spinners in Jadeja and R Ashwin, plus the bowling trident of Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma (or Mohammed Siraj) took the pitch and the conditions out of the equation. They were and are that good.

Hence, it seems a little ironic that that particular ploy was cast aside after a solitary game – an encounter in which the famed Indian batting unit struggled and one where Bumrah had an uncharacteristically bad day at the office.

If one were to stretch it a little further, it seems as if the bowlers are having to bear the brunt of the batters’ lack of runs. Not only are the bowlers being rotated, based on their ability to bat, they are also having to shoulder immense burden to turn games around – something that happened at Lord’s but something that certainly can’t happen every time.

Most tellingly, such decisions often seem knee-jerk and appear to be taken by someone not having absolute conviction. When such occurrences are applied to experienced cricketers, there could be a possibility that they are able to tide over it. However, when such instances take place with players who aren’t necessarily assured of their spots, it could have drastic consequences.

To add further context, in 2018, post Umesh Yadav’s 10-fer against the West Indies at Hyderabad, Kohli said that the performance was something that he can build on. To an extent, he has done so too, averaging 19.71 since the start of 2018 having scalped 49 wickets. Fascinatingly, he has been given only 12 Tests to build on and at the moment, is perhaps the last fast bowler in the pecking order having seemingly done nothing wrong. 

Kuldeep, on the other hand, was touted by Shastri as being India’s primary overseas spinner after his heroics at Sydney in January 2019. Since then, Kuldeep has played a grand total of one Test (at Chennai in February 2021) and has also been dropped from the Test setup altogether.

Karun Nair – the only Indian batter not named Virender Sehwag to score a triple ton in Tests, was omitted for the two games that succeeded (against Australia and Bangladesh). And, was completely dumped after the home series against Australia, featuring in just three Tests after his heroic achievement. 

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Thus, there is a lot more to Kohli’s leadership than what meets the eye. He has propelled India to unparalleled heights in Test cricket and has regularly crafted comebacks when the Indians have had their backs against the wall. Yet, the lack of decisiveness in his team selections, which is ironic considering it is one of the core virtues of his batting, might not be sustainable in the long-term.

Though that discussion is better left for another day, the recent press conference episode has just opened up a can of worms all over again. And, while it is not prudent to jump the gun after “just one bad game” (as was the case at Headingley), these bad games are happening more often than they were at the start of his captaincy tenure, despite having a more well-rounded side on paper. 

At first, Kohli’s trait of saying something in front of the world and then doing the complete opposite could be perceived as being flexible and more importantly, not being stubborn. As time has passed though, these instances appear more than just happy coincidences and seem to hint at a deeper issue, which spells the same as a lack of clarity.

Deep down, Kohli might still have a vivid picture of his “template” – one that he only wants to show within the confines of the team. Or, as far as the Indian fans are concerned, something that they would hope is the case.

Until then, this game of hide and seek, with Kohli’s statements in press conferences and the eventual action he adopts acting as antagonists or protagonists (based on allegiances) will remain a mystery that is decipherable to only a few.

From that perspective then, it might be fair to say that Kohli’s pursuit of his ideal “template” will be riddled with twists and turns at every possible juncture.  And something that will continue occupying the minds of the cricket-watching population, irrespective of whether it is the World Test Championship final or an impending and potentially defining Test against England.   

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