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Kohli & Co: Swagger is no substitute for success

SPINOFF: He is undoubtedly one of the greatest batsmen of the modern era, but as a captain, Virat lacks tactical nous, says Soumya Bhattacharya

columns Updated: Nov 04, 2018 13:59 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya
Soumya Bhattacharya
Hindustan Times
Cricket,India,Kohli
The margins are fine in elite sport. The ability to discern a turning point, win it, and change the narrative of a game is the hallmark of all great teams. This current India team has consistently failed to do that outside Asia. (HT PHOTO)

On the eve of the fifth and final Test against England in London in September, the series already lost 1-3, another abject away tour drawing to a close, India coach Ravi Shastri said he believed that the current side was the best India team to have played overseas in the past 15 to 20 years.

India lost the fifth Test by 118 runs, and the series 1-4.

After the match, India captain Virat Kohli was asked whether, in view of the score line, he agreed with Shastri’s assessment of the team. “We have to believe we are the best side. Why not?” Kohli snapped, with the combination of arrogance, disdain and sense of entitlement that is his default setting at press conferences.

Self-belief is a valuable asset in sport. In sport, as in life, self-aggrandisement can be a ruinous trait.

Elite athletes tend to live in a bubble. But that bubble should not be so impervious as to insulate them from context, recent sporting history, and facts.

Performances away from home, where conditions are unfamiliar and demanding, are the benchmarks on which any cricket team is judged. How an India team plays outside Asia is its genuine test, and indicator of quality and toughness. This side, led by Kohli, has so far played eight Tests outside Asia. All of them were in 2018, by which time the side had been together long enough to find its feet as a collective unit. India has won two, and lost six of those.

Players have not been allowed to settle. The lack of confidence in batsmen such as Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara, who had previously performed creditably away from home, is evident.

Of the three Tests in South Africa, India lost two and won one, a victory in a dead rubber, after the series had been surrendered. In England, India won one, and lost four. It emphatically lost both series it has played outside Asia.

This has not always been the case in the period Shastri referred to: the past 15 to 20 years. Ever since Sourav Ganguly became India captain in 2000, India began to travel well. In 2002, led by Ganguly, India drew 1-1 in England in a three-Test series. In 2003-04, again led by Ganguly, India held Australia, at the time easily the best side in the world, to a 1-1 draw in Australia. Rahul Dravid led India to a 1-0 series triumph in England in 2007. In 2010-11, MS Dhoni’s India drew the series 1-1 in South Africa. (There were many other famous series wins in this period, be it against the all-conquering Australians in India in 2001 or in Pakistan in 2004, but, for the sake of consistency, let us stick to Test series outside Asia.)

Kohli’s side has a long, hard road to travel before it can even begin to match these exploits.

It is easy to see why that is the case. Under Kohli, India has played different elevens in 38 consecutive Tests. There has been too much chopping and changing, too much uncertainty, too much ad hocism. For the upcoming tour to Australia, India has named a much larger than usual, 18-man squad, evidence that the team management is unsure of who the best bets are.

Players have not been allowed to settle. The lack of confidence in batsmen such as Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara, who had previously performed creditably away from home, is evident. The team selection has been misguided, contributing to the series losses in South Africa and England.

Kohli is undoubtedly one of the greatest batsmen of the modern era. But as a captain, he lacks tactical nous. Aggression on and off the field cannot replace shrewdness, guile and quick thinking. He can make a start by reading Mike Brearley’s The Art of Captaincy.

The margins are fine in elite sport. Every team has to seize the moment. The ability to discern a turning point, win it, and change the narrative of a game to one’s advantage is the hallmark of all great teams. This current India team has consistently failed to do that, in match after match, outside Asia. Unless Kohli’s side can, at decisive junctures, hold its nerve, and win those big moments, it will not even be in contention to be the best India side to play overseas in the past 15 to 20 years.

And yet, inexplicably, talk of greatness swirls like white noise around this team. Self-congratulation echoes around it. The two touchstones Kohli and his men swear (and the verb is chosen advisedly) by are attitude and intensity. The messaging from both captain and coach has been that, as long as their play is enlivened by these two qualities, nothing else matters. But swagger is no substitute for success.

Redemption may arrive in Australia over the next few months. The hosts are enfeebled by the suspension of two of their best batsmen, Steve Smith and David Warner. Introspecting about what ails the culture of the game, Australian cricket is at particularly low ebb. But then, the England side to which India lost 1-4 was the weakest in years, and with the worst home record among the top Test teams.

This India Test team is the not the worst we have had. Not by some distance. It is not the best in the past 15 to 20 years. Not by some distance. It is merely the most overrated, the most hyped team to have ever played Test cricket for India.

(Spinoff will appear every fortnight)

First Published: Nov 03, 2018 18:31 IST