January 2015 photo of Virat Kohli talking to then Indian national cricket team coach Duncan Fletcher. (Image via Wikimedia Commons 2.0)
It would be challenging for us to truly know whether R. Ashwin, Cheteshwar Pujara or Ajinkya Rahane called up Jay Shah to air grievances about Virat Kohli’s style of leadership, unless the Pegasus technology is employed or the people involved confirm it.
Two famous former Indian players and the manager of a third declined to speak when contacted for comments on the ongoing debate about Dr Kohli’s bedside manner, so to speak.
But it can be said with certainty that this is not the best time of Kohli’s career. His form has dipped (44 and 13 in the World Test Championship final against New Zealand, 218 runs from seven innings at an average of 31.14 in the recent Pataudi Trophy series in England). M.S. Dhoni has been appointed as a mentor for the upcoming T20 World Cup, which has been interpreted by some as a lack of confidence in Kohli the captain. And then Kohli himself, after the World Cup, will surrender his T20 captain’s badge and pistol to Commissioners Shah and Sourav Ganguly. Likewise with the RCB (Royal Challengers Bangalore) captaincy after the current IPL (Indian Premier League) concludes.
You do feel for Kohli, despite his Kohliness.
Kohliness meant that the Indian team combination would often be changed. Rahane, Murali Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan, Ashwin, and Yuzvendra Chahal were some of the players who suffered (and sometimes benefitted) from this policy.
In 2018, Ganguly advised Kohli against constant tinkering. After India’s defeat in the first Test in England that year, Ganguly posted on Instagram.
"One criticism for @Virat.Kohli is that he should give a consistent run to his batters & more time before dropping them. The captain should give confidence to his players. It's his team & only he can change their mindset. He should give them time & tell them to go out & play without any fear.
"It is true that after continuous chopping & changing of the playing XI, players can get afraid that after all these years they've failed to garner the faith of the team management."
It should be noted that Ganguly also advised players to play all formats in the post. In that particular team, only Kohli played all varieties.
"The good thing about the great teams of the past - whether it be #Australia, #SouthAfrica or our very own team which won the Test series here (England) in 2007 - was that the boys used to play both formats of the game - #SachinTendulkar, #RahulDravid, #VirenderSehwag, including myself,” Ganguly wrote. "So even if you played badly in 1 or 2 matches you got a lot of time to get back into form at the international level. Playing & scoring 150 in first-class cricket can't compensate for international cricket. In this team no batsman except Virat plays all the formats."
Kohli’s response to even basic questions about his team changes has usually been one of defiance. His job, he said in England in 2018, was to pick the best side and not worry about someone’s career.
“For us, the priority is to win games of cricket,” Kohli said. “We are not thinking whether someone’s career is on the line or what’s going to happen to their future.”
Further on in that press conference, Kohli categorically said, “I won’t speak to the guys assuring their careers are not on the line.”
He is not one to mollycoddle players after a loss either. In 2018, after India’s loss to South Africa in Centurion, Kohli said, “Look, I’m not going to sit here and try to comfort anyone. We need to be hard on ourselves if we need to do special things.”
So why do we still feel for Cheeku?
While the complaints about the repeated exclusion of some players, and about frequent changes in the team, have some merit, Kohli is being criticized by some even for speaking his mind, a quality that is otherwise lauded. For example, his veiled reference to Pujara’s and Rahane’s slow batting after India’s defeat in the World Test Championship final are being portrayed as un-captain-like behaviour. That is not fair to Kohli.
(Pujara scored 8 off 54 balls in the first innings and 15 from 80 in the second. Rahane scored 49 from 117 in the first and 15 off 40 in the second.)
There was a time when captains were expected to be tough on players. Imran Khan’s motivational vocabulary leaned more towards Punjabi swear words than management textbooks. And when Dean Jones, reduced by the labours of his heroic double-century in Chennai heat to a dehydrated, involuntarily urinating mess, asked captain Allan Border if he could retire hurt, a ruthless Border played on Australia’s domestic rivalry and said, “If you aren’t up to the job, we'll get a Queenslander out here." (Jones was from Victoria). Jones got the hint and resumed his innings.
It’s another matter that the call could have backfired badly on both men had something serious happened to Jones. Surely, such decisions should not be encouraged. But the other extreme, of a captain not even being allowed to speak his mind, is not healthy either.
To be fair to Border, and to make a point relevant to the Kohli debate, Border had spoken to Jones in his hotel room two days before the Test, assuring him of the prestigious No. 3 spot.
“It was two days before the match that A.B. (Border) called me into his room and said, ‘I want you to bat No. 3 for Australia here. I like the way you play’. It was the first time he'd ever really spoken to me, even though we'd already been there for four and a half weeks,” Jones once told The Cricket Monthly.
In another interview, Jones said that Border’s gesture made him feel '10 feet tall’.
“I walked out of that room feeling 10-feet tall. I just thought I was invincible. I just felt Allan Border put a red coat around me and put an ‘S’ on the front,” Jones said.
Another reason you feel for Kohli is he is criticized for his aggressive gestures. It is true they can be annoying. But Ganguly was in-your-face too, and he was lionized for that. This is a case of ‘Tum karo to naach, hum kare to mujra’.
As of now, Kohli remains India’s ODI and Test captain. Maybe, if we show him some love, like New York did to the equally polarizing Novak Djokovic, Kohli too will break down into big sobs, and score an emotional victory that might also lead to elusive ICC Trophy wins.