As far as quick-fix solutions to sporting disasters go, change in leadership mostly wins the vote for its sheer convenience. It’s an easy approach to investigating what went wrong, starting with the head and ending at the neck. The optimism of a fresh start under a new captain takes the attention away from unhealed wounds elsewhere.
So within hours of India’s unexpected 1-2 Test series loss to England, the “sack Dhoni” murmur rose from the stadium and hit the streets. That evening, like so many times before, the nation’s inveterate cricketing helpline, Ask Sunny, showed the light by suggesting a replacement. “Virat for Dhoni, it should be,” said Sunil Gavaskar. Even halfway through the final Test, the master batsman-turned-voice-of-Indian-cricket was backing Dhoni, but suddenly he had a change of heart. Kohli’s ton did it.
In his last innings, Dhoni, after playing 398 balls, fell short of the crease by an inch while going for a desperate single at 99. Kohli, the man at the other end, faced fewer balls but scored four more runs. Both were to finish the series with an average of 31, half of what specialist spinner R. Ashwin recorded in four Tests. But suddenly Kohli, 24, was seen as the man who could lead the team in this difficult time.
There is no denying that the Delhi boy is a gifted batsman with an insatiable hunger for runs. He can be an entertaining after-dinner speaker and out-sledge the sharpest tongues on the field. Having led India under-19, the Bangalore Royal Challengers, Delhi and North Zone, he is used to leadership roles. But are these credentials enough to be a Test captain?
Those who want Kohli to be fast-tracked to the top speak about his under-19 world cup win as captain. But ask anyone who has covered age-group cricket and they will tell you that under-19 teams are mostly run by coaches and managers. During India’s famous junior triumph at Malaysia in 2008, renowned tactician and India coach Dav Whatmore controlled things from the sidelines. In the opening match, young Kohli, surprisingly, brought himself on before specialist spinner Iqbal Abdulla. The teen leader was put in his place after the game. Kohli rarely bowled again in the tournament.
IPL experience doesn’t prepare one for Tests either. Certainly not when you have match-winners like Chris Gayle, AB de Villiers and Daniel Vettori by your side. Besides, Kohli didn’t quite do a Shane Warne — the Royal Challengers Bangalore aren’t really a “rag-tag no-star” unit like the Rajasthan Royals.
So what has Kohli done when he put a captain’s armband on his whites? In the last few years, he has led two teams in the longer version of the game. Being part of a Delhi team that had Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Aakash Chopra, Mithun Manhas and Rajat Bhatia, Kohli never had much say on the field in his early days. Three seasons after his Ranji debut, with the big stars on national duty and a few seniors injured, Kohli led Delhi in two one-sided contests against relatively modest domestic sides like Saurashtra and Maharashtra.
His big test as a skipper came when he took the North Zone side to Rajkot, a venue known for its dead track, to face a West Zone side that had batsmen like Wasim Jaffer, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma and Ravindra Jadeja. With his just-above average bowling attack, Kohli was clueless on the field as his opponents made more than 1,100 runs in two innings. In the first innings, the eighth wicket pair of Abhishek Nayar and Ramesh Powar put on 200 runs as North Zone used 10 bowlers. In a nutshell, Kohli at Rajkot was not very different from Dhoni at Mumbai or Kolkata during the Test series. The adage about captains being as good as their teams certainly has some truth to it.
Moreover, tactics are generally dictated by the quality of men in the ranks. After being blamed for being over-defensive throughout the England series, Dhoni was criticised for picking four spinners for the final Test at Nagpur. But a pragmatic look at Team India will help one understand the Indian skipper’s decisions. Dhoni didn’t have a 140 kph-plus bowler on the bench who could partner the inconsistent Ishant Sharma, neither did he have a highly disciplined bowling unit that would stick to bowling to the field the skipper sets. Michael Clarke, with the likes of Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc, Ben Hilfenhaus and Shane Watson could afford to crowd the square with men as Australia pushed for a win against Sri Lanka at Hobart. Not Dhoni with his inexperienced and inaccurate bowlers.
After his hundred at Perth this year, Kohli improved his away Test average to 28 from 16. At this crucial stage of his career, he can do without the additional burden of shepherding an inadequate bowling unit and an uncertain batting lineup. Teams in transition go through long slumps and it is a no-brainer that Dhoni, with his past highs and his Zen-like calm, is more equipped to deal with reverses. Kohli’s time will come but it isn’t when India plays Australia early next year.