At the time of writing, the fourth Test between India and Australia is already heading towards a decisive end with a riveting mix of twists and turns in the picturesque lap of the Himalayas. After exchanging even honours in the first innings, the Australians have folded sensationally in the second. India are on their way, looking to overhaul a short but tricky target on the morrow.
And tragic though it may sound, the first ever Test match at Dharamshala, the decider of this hard-fought series, is witnessing an Indian team without captain Virat Kohli. The shoulder injury has been serious enough to force him out of this crucial fixture, perhaps the one Test in his career that he would dearly liked to have played.
One can keep wondering what effect Kohli would have had on the fate of the series, and also on the maestro’s own figures in his incredible journey in Test cricket. However, now that he is out of the Test match, we are faced with some uncomfortable numbers.
The Ranchi Test was, therefore, the end of the series for Kohli, and as a result, he sits watching the tense proceedings at the HPCA stadium with 46 runs from five completed innings at 9.20. That is by far the worst returns from a full or partially full series he has had in his career, in fact, worse than his infamous 134 runs at 13.40 in England, 2014.
There is, of course, the option of not reading too much into this. One can perhaps ignore the current blip as one of the curious ways that the Law of Averages catches up with the greatest of them. After all, Kohli had scored 1206 runs at an average of 86.14 in the 9 Tests in the season prior to the visit of Steve Smith’s men. One cannot expect even a superb batsman of his calibre to keep producing runs at that astounding clip. Sooner or later there is bound to be a downtrend and perhaps this was one such.
— LALU (@manthenalalu) March 4, 2017
Yet, in some ways there is a faint pattern of an emerging full circle that makes us uneasy. After that disastrous England tour, Kohli had transformed himself from one of the most talented batsmen in the world to one of the very best. Starting with four hundreds in four Tests in Australia, he had stepped into a patch as purple as can be and had assumed captaincy of the Indian side. From the winter of 2014 right up to the England series followed by the one-off Test against Bangladesh, he had enjoyed an unbelievable 25 Tests, scoring 2596 runs at 66.56 with 10 hundreds.
But, just as the Australian odyssey had witnessed the unleashing of the great batsman in him, the return visit of Australia has reduced him to human again, with all the frailties associated with mortality.
It is one particular frailty that is most alarming. The failures against Australia seemed to be triggered by reasons other than plain cricketing lapses. Kohli, naturally aggressive and dominating, seemed to be too engrossed in beating the Australians at their patented game of mental disintegration. In doing so, perhaps his faculties were caught in a different sphere. The focus, with quite significant an effect, was removed from the task he is known for, that of wielding his willow with panache.
It may sound extremely clichéd, but my contention is that Kohli’s batting might have suffered in his zeal to outdo the Australians in the battle on the field and away, in manners and mannerisms that go beyond cricket. To be precise, according to some opinions, they go beyond the spirit of cricket as well.
That is not to say that such approach was not needed. Indeed, if we look at the Australian sides of the past and the way they have pushed the boundaries of gamesmanship to encroach, and even shamelessly parade, in the realms of barbarism, it makes every sense to be prepared for the eventualities, even catch them unawares with unexpected aggression. It may be frowned upon in terms of ‘pure cricket’, but that is an abstract concept anyway, that never quite existed other than in dreamy text books and ideals manufactured in secluded ivory towers. But, on the field, there have been too many occasions when the Australians have got away with virtual murder of this very spirit. In the warfare that cricket simulates on the twenty-two yards, counter measures are often a necessity.
Yet, if indulged in, these should be clinically planned and executed with a degree of detachment that ensures that one’s personal game is not affected. And indications are that with Kohli this boundary has become fuzzy.
In fact, one is alarmed that it may be a case of sad history repeating itself.
Kohli is known to be an aggressive captain. And in that respect, he has an illustrious predecessor.
In 2001, India played Australia in another fascinating series that has gone down in folklore as one of the best ever. And during that too, the hosts had one of the most aggressive captains who have led the country.
Sourav Ganguly did play the Australians at their own game, and also perhaps beat them at it. He arguably got under the skin of Steve Waugh, made him wait for the toss, infuriated the hell out of him — sometimes knowingly and sometimes by chance, and ultimately changed the concept of the accommodating, amiable Indian cricketer forever. The series was won 2-1, and one can attribute a certain credit to Ganguly’s approach; although on the ground it had to depend on the miracle of the Laxman-Dravid association, the extraordinary high point of Harbhajan Singh’s career and the continued brilliance of Sachin Tendulkar.
But, what seems more pertinent when we look back at history is that in that series Ganguly made 106 runs at 17.66. His opposite number, Waugh, the very man under whose skin he is said to have crept, managed 243 at 48.60.
Before the series, Ganguly had enjoyed a highly successful Test career, averaging 46.74 for his 2711 runs. In the 49 Tests that he went on to lead India, he managed 2561 runs at 37.66, which comes down to 1871 runs at 34.01 if we disregard Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. And yes, he did score the 144 at Brisbane, but his overall record against Australia as captain was 449 runs at 29.93.
To a great extent, Ganguly did change the way India approached cricket, and of course, he was helped by the magnificent set of cricketers at his disposal who simultaneously peaked under his leadership. However, his dip in batting form from excellence to mediocrity, and then his regaining the good days on return to the side after being relieved of the mantle of leadership, underlines that the instilling of aggression and other associated headaches of captaincy did have a largely negative effect on his prowess as a batsman.
Kohli has been largely different. He has shown he revels at batting as the skipper. He has reached heights of batsmanship while perched on the hot seat that he had seldom approached as one of the rank and file, especially in Test cricket. And as a batsman he belongs to a pedigree matched by only a very few select names in the history of the game in India.
But somehow, with off-the-ball antics taking precedence during the series against Australia, he seems to have gone the Ganguly way at least in this series. While he has managed 46 runs at 9.20, his opposite number has underlined his claims of being the best batsman of the world, and perhaps one of the best ever. Smith has ended with 499 runs in the four Tests at 71.28. The tussle for the crown of the best in the world, which could have been an engrossing battle within the great war of the series, has been a damp squib of a walkover.
There is perhaps no reason to predict that this one bad series is an indicator that Kohli is going to tread the Ganguly path as a batsman while leading the side, but it will indeed be tragic if that happens. He is too good a batsman to be sacrificed on the altar of mind-games and the other ridiculous shenanigans that are associated with the role of the Indian cricket captain.
Even if one does attach minor importance to the failure in this series against Australia, one should be wise enough to acknowledge the warning signs and take appropriate action to ensure that he can remain a batting great while continuing to play the role of the skipper admirably.
Captaining India is not an easy task, especially in the networked age when every move on and off the field is scrutinised to absurd levels. Men like Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid have quit their posts of their own volition, the latter even citing the extraordinary degrees of criticism as a factor. Ganguly did falter as a batsman and became prey to insecurity during the last days of his reign. MS Dhoni, on the other hand, maintained his sanity by developing absolute apathy for the opinion of the media, ex-cricketers and the fans.
In the last two years, Kohli has demonstrated that he can take all the facets of captaincy in his stride and continue as one of the best batsmen of the world. Perhaps this series can be a reality check which will enable him to adjust a few limits and boundaries. It will be an enormous positive if this experience ensures that for all the raging flame of ruses, subterfuges, gimmicks and stratagems; words, gestures and the occasional canny on-field move; his batting remains untainted as he leads India against other opponents down the years.