How he emerges from this series will greatly influence the way he is judged as a leader
There has now been an avalanche of criticism, from Geoffrey Boycott’s accusations of complacency and arrogance to former India captains’ rage at the team’s supposed failure to train hard enough.
Virat Kohli will have expected some of it but that will not make it any easier to take. India’s loss at Lord’s was Kohli’s first innings defeat as captain. Conditions are hard, his batsmen are out of sorts, and there are still three Tests left. Keeping team morale high cannot be a simple task.
Kohli will have realised in January that this year was going to be his toughest yet as captain, with tours of South Africa, England and Australia to deal with. Before 2018, his only full Test series as captain outside the sub-continent was in the West Indies. He now finds himself embattled and under pressure; how Kohli emerges from this series will greatly influence how he is judged as a leader in the years ahead.
Kohli’s batting has not been in question: as captain, he averages 65, as opposed to the 41 he does otherwise. What has come under scrutiny, however, is his leadership. Kohli’s team selection has been at times puzzling.
In South Africa, India chose Rohit Sharma ahead of Ajinkya Rahane for the first two Tests and dropped Bhuvneshwar Kumar for the second when he had excelled in the first.
“Overseas, you go on current form, you go on conditions. You see which player can adapt to certain conditions quicker than the other,” head coach Ravi Shastri had said in Johannesburg.
Kohli himself had bristled at any criticism of his choices. “What’s the best XI? You tell me and I will play that,” he told a reporter during a press conference in Centurion.
Ahead of the first Test in Birmingham, Kohli spoke of going by his ‘gut feel’ to make decisions. “It all boils down to your gut feel. If five people on the table agree that this is the right thing to do for the team, then we go ahead with that, there are no ifs and buts. There’s no looking back,” he said.
The next morning, Cheteshwar Pujara was dropped from the side, with Shikhar Dhawan preferred as opener while K.L. Rahul batted at three.
“You can have gut feelings of all sorts and you can be completely right or completely wrong,” Mike Brearley said at Edgbaston. “So gut feeling is neither here nor there.”
At Lord’s, India fielded a second spinner in Kuldeep Yadav, while sacrificing a frontline pace bowler in Umesh Yadav.
There had been talk of the surface being dry in the lead-up to the game but as he walked out for the toss on the second morning, with all the rain around and the dark clouds overhead, Kohli should have reconsidered choosing the left-arm spinner. It was a move that defied logic.
In the event, Kuldeep finished wicketless, having gone at nearly five an over. R. Ashwin too had a tough time, in conditions that offered him no help. England’s one spinner, Adil Rashid, was not required to bowl a single over in the entire match.
At least this time, Kohli admitted he was wrong, saying at the presentation that India got the combination “a bit off”. There will invariably be changes for Trent Bridge and it will again be put to the captain — much to his annoyance — that over the 37 Tests he has led the side in, the same XI has never been fielded in successive matches.
It surely cannot help the confidence of batsmen like K.L. Rahul, Rahane and Pujara to know that their spot is perennially under threat.
Kohli is arguably the greatest batsman in the world today. Whether he will come to be regarded as a great captain too remains to be seen.