Beleaguered Kohli and the big Dravid factor

  • His batting needs a re-set and the pre-tour clash with BCCI chief Ganguly has looked poorly timed. Can Kohli team up with coach Dravid for revival on the South Africa tour?
Rahul Dravid (L) and Virat Kohli. (Twitter) PREMIUM
Rahul Dravid (L) and Virat Kohli. (Twitter)
Published on Dec 21, 2021 09:56 PM IST
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By, Mumbai

In the last six months of Rahul Dravid’s Test career, he had one bright young batter in Virat Kohli as team-mate. He was the only promising talent the Indian selectors were grooming in a high-profile batting list. Kohli’s initiation wasn’t in keeping with the promise he had exuded after easing into the white-ball team. But in those six months, he got the hang of Test cricket.

On debut against West Indies in 2011, he didn’t manage many runs, but got to watch from close quarters the senior pro Dravid bag a Man-of-the-Match award after registering an away hundred, in Kingston. Six months on, in what turned out to be Dravid’s last Test at Adelaide, Kohli signalled his arrival with his first century.

A decade on, Dravid is working with Kohli again, this time officially as India’s head coach. The two are the poster boys of the Indian team that’s in South Africa. Kohli, for being the team’s leading batsman and most marketable star and Dravid, for his stature and coaching nous, a rarity in international cricket.

Kohli enjoyed a special rapport with previous head coach Ravi Shastri, whose long reign coincided with the ascendancy of Kohli the batter. His batting average touched 50 across formats and he pulled off imposing run-chases in limited-overs cricket routinely. Towards the end of Shastri’s stint, one felt Kohli’s batting required refuelling.

The charismatic batter is three matches shy of his 100th Test, but Kohli’s presence at the crease no longer intimidates bowlers. The batter who otherwise converts 50% of his fifties into 100s has not scored a hundred for over two years. Since his 136 in the Kolkata pink-ball Test against Bangladesh, he has scored five half-centuries with 74 being the highest.

Kohli’s judgement of his off-stump hasn’t been as commanding and fast bowlers have latched on to his technical frailties. But for his first year in Test cricket, Kohli’s career average had never dipped below 40. In the past two years, he has averaged 26.4 across 13 Tests, starting with failures in both matches in New Zealand at the start of 2020.

With Dravid, he can forge a professional rapport that sees him through a delicate phase to reclaim the tag of run-machine. Kohli is stuck in a controversy with BCCI president Sourav Ganguly following contradicting comments over his exit as white-ball skipper, though the easing of leadership cares could be channelled to focus on his batting.

An intensely competitive Kohli has seen other claimants to the No 1 batter tag—Joe Root, Steve Smith and Kane Williamson—race past him. More than ever before, Kohli needs to chew on Dravid’s technical and tactical expertise.

Kohli’s abrasive personality has left some wondering how smooth the transition from Shastri to Dravid will be and South Africa provides a big test. Dravid has preferred to remain non-controversial through his career. But things haven’t always panned out that way. In 2005, he became India’s captain amid dressing-room unrest after Ganguly was sacked following his run-in with head coach Greg Chappell. Kohli’s tell-all press conference before taking the flight to South Africa hasn’t made Dravid’s task any easier. He now has to work with a captain who has enraged BCCI for publicly expressing displeasure over the process of his removal as ODI captain.

Kohli called Ganguly’s version of events “inaccurate”. The BCCI president had said Kohli was asked to stay on as T20 skipper before the World Cup and once he refused, his ODI leadership had to go. “I was not told that you don’t give up T20 captaincy. I was told it was a progressive step and in the right direction,” Kohli told the pre-tour media conference.

The controversial removal of Anil Kumble as head coach in 2017, after only one year, is proof enough that Kohli chooses to stand-up for what he thinks is right, even if it stirs up a storm.

Kohli has promised full support to Dravid, calling him “a very balanced coach and great man manager”. What would be Dravid’s approach? Would he play peacemaker between Kohli and Ganguly, who was an influential captain whom Dravid himself replaced in equally tense circumstances?

In an ideal world, Dravid would want to step aside and let Kohli and BCCI sort things out. But dressing rooms from time to time throw up dynamic challenges. He has been brought in, amongst other things to oversee a smooth captaincy transition in white-ball cricket from Kohli to Rohit Sharma. Above all, Dravid has to look for team results which may become difficult to achieve unless the captain can channel his hurt to produce runs.

Curated BCCI posts paint a rosy picture. Dravid and Kohli are captured exchanging high-fives over a game of foot volleyball. The team may be bonding well within the confines of the bio-bubble. But in the centre of action in South Africa, Dravid will have to make tough calls—make playing eleven choices with the entire middle-order comprising Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane and Kohli lacking consistency over the past two years. The solid bench strength Dravid helped build behind the scenes is now pushing for places and challenging the established order.

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    Rasesh Mandani loves a straight drive. He has been covering cricket, the governance and business side of sport for close to two decades. He writes and video blogs for HT.

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