Leadership isn’t about individual brilliance
Virat Kohli is the manifestation of a culture that values personalities more than it does process, prioritises individual achievements over collective ones, and equates leadership with excellence. This isn’t unique to India; nor is it unique to sport. It is something that can be seen across domains - from politics to business to entertainment - and has become so much a part of how we see things that we are usually blind to it. To offer a recent example, just this week, newspaper headlines celebrated Kohli’s 10,000 runs in One Day Internationals (ODIs), not making much of the fact that India could only tie a match against a team that would probably figure in the middle of the Ranji Trophy rankings.
There is no denying Kohli’s individual brilliance, even genius. He is perhaps the only contemporary batsman who will figure among the top two across formats. Across generations, he will probably figure among the top five - again, across formats - and given his age (he is 29, and can play for a decade more given his fitness), this ranking will likely improve. He has scored runs at home and abroad, on surfaces of all kinds, and against attacks of all types. And except for one season against James Anderson at his prime , and on English wickets, Kohli has never looked beaten - not even when dismissed in the 20s or 30s. Not even Sachin Tendulkar can claim that; indeed, the only modern batsman who can is the King (Viv Richards).
Nor can it be argued that captaincy has affected Kohli’s batting. If anything, it has only made it so much better. His Test batting average in matches he has captained is around 12 higher than his overall average, which is around the mid-fifties. In ODIs, this difference is around 24 higher (and his overall average is nudging 60). There can be no better demonstration of leading from the front. His record as a captain isn’t bad either. In ODIs, his win percentage is a little over 75%; the only captain (minimum 50 matches) with a higher (marginally higher) win proportion is Clive Lloyd. In Tests, it is a healthy 57.14%. The numbers are marred to some extent by his away record in Tests - only two wins outside the sub-continent - but every other way one looks at it, Kohli seems the real deal.
Yet, the Indian team led by Kohli, despite all its (relative) success will find it difficult to figure among the all-time great teams of cricket, and not just because of its pathetic away record in Tests. For one, especially in Tests, there is an unsettled look to it - Kohli has almost never led the same team in two successive Tests, and the reason hasn’t always been injuries to key players. The captain’s obsession with strike rate in Test cricket hasn’t paid off; his bias towards finger-spin in ODIs has better results to show. And while Kohli’s own performance after he became captain has improved, the same cannot be said of many others, including those who once seemed destined for greater things.
By virtue of his talent, his personality, and, most importantly, the state of cricket administration in India, Kohli is the most powerful person in Indian cricket. India’s current cricket administration is characterised by in-fighting, legal oversight, and court appointed administrators who are very removed from the all-powerful mandarins who once ran Indian cricket. No one has the power to cross India’s cricket captain; and no one wants to. As a result, Kohli is perhaps the only cricket captain around the world who gets to pick not just the team but also the support staff. The former coach Anil Kumble didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye with Kohli and everyone knows how that ended.
There is also more to leadership than individual excellence. A team is like any other organisation; the best teams are like the best organisations and, to borrow from Peter Drucker, deliver extraordinary results using a bunch of ordinary people. Good leaders work on three dimensions: capabilities; motivations; and strategy. This translates both into processes and behaviours. These have straightforward parallels in modern sport where success is a function of talent, fitness and training (capabilities); attitude and belief (motivations); and strategy.
The current Indian cricket team scores well on the first dimension, although it can do so much better in the training front - especially if it gets the kind of coaches it needs, not those its captain wants. It does reasonably well (not as well as the first, though) on the second dimension - although the lack of communication and fickle selection policies have made several players, experienced as well as new, insecure. And it does poorly on the third - just being captain doesn’t make a person the smartest cricketing brain in the country.
The best leaders are those who recognise their limitations and work to address these. In Kohli’s case, these have nothing to do with his own cricket or the impact captaincy has had on it and everything to do with managing people and outthinking the opposition. The sooner he realises it, the sooner he will become the greatest cricket captain India has ever had.