Kohli's Test captaincy in numbers: Why Virat's India is among the greatest ever Test teams?

  • Bowlers under Kohli's captaincy have averaged only 25.34. Among all 28 captains who have led their team in at least 40 Tests, Kohli's bowling attack stands second, only behind the English sides led by Peter May (21.94).
India's Virat Kohli (Action Images via Reuters)
India's Virat Kohli (Action Images via Reuters)
Updated on Jan 17, 2022 11:50 AM IST
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ByAratrick Mondal

"Captaincy is just a 'c' in front of your name, honestly," Virat Kohli had told Ian Bishop at the presentation ceremony at Sabina Park after the conclusion of India's 2019 tour of the West Indies. "It's the collective effort that matters. It's a byproduct of this quality team that we have here. If we didn't have the bowlers that we have, I don't think the results would have been possible."

On the 25th of September, 2019, Kohli was the cynosure of India's series win in theWest Indies. With the 2-0 clean sweep that sent the team to the top of the table in the WTC points table of the previous cycle, India had recorded their 28th win under Kohli's captaincy, making him the most successful Indian skipper, taking him past MS Dhoni (27). But Kohli decided to shift focus on the bowlers. And it wasn't the first or the only time he lavished praise on his bowling attack. A year earlier, India had scripted a memorable Adelaide victory, making them the first Indian side to win the opener of a Test series in Australia, but all Kohli could talk about was their bowlers' picking all the 20 wickets in the Test match. More recently, following India's record victory in the Oval Test last summer against England, Kohli had hailed the bowlers' exploits as "the top three bowling performances" he has witnessed during his tenure as a captain.

ALSO READ| Virat Kohli captaincy: A look at unique batting records held by former India Test skipper

Kohli ended his tenure as the fourth-most successful captain in Test history, recording 40 victories as the Indian skipper in 68 matches, which also includes 11 draws. And stands third in terms of win percentage (50%) among all 28 Test captains who have at least led a team in 40 or more matches. 

GC Smith2003-201410953290271.827
RT Ponting2004-20107748160133
SR Waugh1999-200457419074.555
V Kohli2014-20226840170112.352
CH Lloyd1974-19857436120263
AR Border1984-19949332221381.454

No Indian captain has led the team in so many Tests. No Indian captain has recorded as many wins - home and away. No Indian captain has had a better win-loss record. The simplest of metrics does place Kohli's India miles ahead of any Test teams that the nation has ever witnessed. But this metric is justified by a crucial stat that highlights that key feature of Kohli's India, which sets them apart from any other Indian Test side ever witnessed, placing them among legions of greatest teams of all time.

Bowlers under Kohli's captaincy have averaged only 25.34. Among all 28 captains who have led their team in at least 40 Tests, Kohli's bowling attack stands second, only behind the English sides led by Peter May (21.94). This means Kohli led an attack that recorded better numbers than the mighty West Indies side led by Viv Richards and Clive Lloyd, Hansie Cronje's South Africa and Steve Waugh's Australia. 

Kohli, a bowler's captain

PBH May1955-1961412010011221.94
V Kohli2014-20226840170112.35225.34
WJ Cronje1994-20005327110152.45425.84
IVA Richards1980-1991502780153.37525.97
SR Waugh1999-200457419074.55527.45
MA Taylor1994-1999502613011227.47
CH Lloyd1974-1985743612026327.93

The primary reason behind these incredible numbers is because India found the secret to winning Test matches in an aggressive and fearless manner - picking 20 wickets. Under Kohli, India picked all 20 wickets in a Test 28 times, 13 of them happened overseas, and won 23 of those matches. Under Dhoni, India managed it 16 times, 11 times under Mohammad Azharuddin's captaincy and 10 times by Ganguly's India.

"Our aim was to take the pitches out of the equation," former India head coach Ravi Shastri had said after India's 3-0 whitewash over South Africa in the 2019 home series. "You have to take 20 wickets, whether it's Johannesburg, Mumbai, Delhi, Auckland or even Melbourne where we won [against Australia]. So the task was to take 20 wickets. How do you do that? For that, you need fast bowlers, spinners, a complete bowling unit. Once you take 20 wickets, with the batsmen we have, if that clicks, it's like a Ferrari."

Another key stat that highlights the dominance of the bowling attack under Kohli's captaincy is that as many as six bowlers have picked 100 or more wickets during his tenure, with Ashwin (293 wickets) being the highest wicket-taker. The number is only behind Graeme Smith's South Africa that had seven bowlers achieving the same feat under his captaincy.

R Ashwin104648729322.132.7548.2215
Mohammed Shami87417116824.823.1547.150
RA Jadeja77408016524.722.4360.871
I Sharma79312812125.852.7855.650
UT Yadav74319110430.683.3454.921
JJ Bumrah46222010321.552.6349.170

This was an Indian team that could afford to pick five batters and five batters along with a wicketkeeper. This was a team that had the audacity to rest or drop either or both of their iconic spinners R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja and still win matches. This was a team that had the most versatile attack - a chinaman in Kuldeep Yadav and a left-arm pacer in T Natarajan. And this was also the team that had the largest pool of pace bowling riches. Besides the aforementioned four, Kohli's India had Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who would have definitely made the list had injury not hampered his Test career, and produced two others that is sure to benefit his replacement - Shardul Thakur and Mohammed Siraj.

Pacers have averaged only 26 under Kohli, with a strike rate of 51.3 - both are the best ever figures by a pace combination under any Indian skipper in Test cricket. Kohli was the first Indian captain under whom the pacers picked all 20 wickets in a Test match, not once, but twice - Johannesburg Test in 2018 vs South Africa and Nottingham Test in 2021 vs England. Overall, pacers have picked 18 or more wickets 11 times in Test history, 8 of them were under the leadership of Kohli.

Instances when pacers picked 18 or more wickets in a match under Kohli's captaincy

South Africa v India at Johannesburg, 2017/18139.22017.541.8
England v India at Nottingham, 2021135.3202140.6
England v India at Nottingham, 2018119.21921.4737.6
India v Bangladesh at Kolkata, 2019/2064.41912.5220.4
England v India at Lord's, 2021151.51922.5247.9
Australia v India at Perth, 2018/19172.51825.1657.6
West Indies v India at North Sound, 201974.51810.9424.9
South Africa v India at Centurion, 2021/22108.31818.1636.1

Can't rule out the batters

Batsmen under Kohli averaged 35.67. Only two Indian captains have had batters record worse figures than Kohli's India - 31.28 during Sachin Tendulkar's captaincy and 28.19 during MAK Pataudi's tenure. But Kohli's India have largely batted in an era dominated by the bowlers. Since 2018, the overall bowling average has dropped below well below 30 for the first time since the late 70s, the same period that saw an aggregate batting average drop below 30.

Comparing batting and bowling averages in Tests over the years
Comparing batting and bowling averages in Tests over the years

The period between 2015 and 2022 saw India produce some of the finest batters with an array of top-order options in KL Rahul, Mayank Agarwal, Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay, followed by impressive middle-order options in Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Rishabh Pant, Hardik Pandya, Hanuma Vihari and Shreyas Iyer.

Despite the mighty numbers that place Kohli among the greats of the game, captaincy is well beyond numbers and records and overseas victories. And only Ashwin had the perfect words to sum up the legacy that Kohli has left behind as a captain.

"Cricket captains will always be spoken about with respect to their records and the kind of triumphs they managed, but your legacy as a captain will stand for the kind of benchmarks you have set. There will be people who will talk about wins in Australia, England , Sl etc etc. Wins are just a result and the seeds are always sown well before the harvest! The seeds you managed to sow is the kind of standard you set for yourself and hence set the expectations straight with the rest of us. Well done @imVkohli on the headache you have left behind for your successor and that’s my biggest takeaway from your stint as captain," he tweeted.

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