The young, impetuous Virat Kohli slowly evolved as a captain even as MS ‘Captain Cool’ Dhoni showed signs of not being his usual self. Team India responded to the ebullience of Kohli in Tests as winning was all that mattered.
NEW DELHI: The biggest Indian cricket news in 2015 all developed off the field, either in stifling press conferences conducted by retired judges or from closed-door courtroom intrigues. Hushed confabulations among men in suits followed raucous open-forum attacks across Parliament to press club. A Test match was conducted by a legal doyen. A state government head was sued by a Union minister. Two leading IPL teams were given marching orders.
The game had a rough time, perhaps its roughest since the match-fixing scandal broke at the turn of the millennium. This was Indian cricket’s year of being loud, often ugly loud. Of being in-your-face, pummelled and torn by forces alternately hostile and hospitable, depending on which version was loudest on the day. In keeping with the tenor, a piercing revolution took place on the field too. Virat Kohli, he of the brash manner, persuasive talk and fierce combat-readiness, discovered winning ways as Test captain. Kohli left us all breathless with his energy, impressed with his enterprise and bemused at his audacity.
The only person who was quiet, even when he spoke at length, was MS Dhoni. He seemed out of sync and raged silently against the biggest scourge of every successful sportsman – a slow crawl to athletic obscurity as body ages and the mind tires. The limited-overs skipper is still around, and may be so for a while, but in 2015, for the first time since 2007, MS Dhoni offered glimpses of leading on reputation – a euphemism for having ceased to be relevant.
Interestingly, he relinquished captaincy in the longer format first, instead of letting the hungry, young leader test the waters in limited-overs cricket as is the norm.
In spite of a good World Cup this year – in which Dhoni orchestrated seven straight wins before India fell to the eventual champions – Test cricket hogged headlines because Kohli’s push for results made it unpredictable, watchable, controversial and often deliciously debatable. Dhoni didn’t win a single ODI series or tournament as India lost to Bangladesh away and to South Africa at home, but more lasting than the immediate result was the aftertaste of an ODI stratagem which has run its course.
Dhoni was silent even when, just before the year broke, he relinquished the Test captaincy in Melbourne in typically obtuse fashion, talking about everything from PETA to pace bowlers except the one thing on his mind. The indications had arrived a few weeks before, of course, when in his absence Kohli oh-so-nearly orchestrated a foolhardy, bravura Indian performance in Adelaide, talking up – in the company of supportive team director Ravi Shastri – a new-found willingness to risk defeat for victory, to punt on pace and wicket-taking prowess, to attack relentlessly with the bat even when faced with a logically insurmountable target. It all ended in defeat, of course, but for the first time in a long while in Indian cricket, a defeat didn’t matter – the need for injecting fresh ideas into a jaded outfit was a theme recognized all the way from the January Sydney Test, which followed after Melbourne, right up to December in Delhi and the series win against South Africa. A defeat in Galle, somewhat similar to Adelaide in the frittering away of a memorable opportunity, was followed by a turnaround, a first Test series win in Sri Lanka in 22 years. Kohli had shown he could be flexible enough to recognize the flaws and chip away at the shortcomings, all the while relentlessly enforcing his core beliefs on the team.
The year began with Kohli betraying his nerves, changing bowlers after every over in a session at the SCG, to adroitly applying the slow choke on opposition batsmen at the SSC and Kotla with an impressive interplay of attacking fields and penetrative spin options. He was patience personified when there were partnerships and a dynamo when it came to reviving flagging team spirit.
This willing to evolve offered reassurance that Kohli was man for the job, though his strengths were unfairly contrasted with MS Dhoni’s failings, including a new-found tendency to be unsteady in the face of criticism. The team, after all, was no longer always MSD’s to command.
Wins and losses aside, Dhoni also failed to recognize that an opportunity for communication, or connection, passed him by this year, maybe both within the dressing room and outside. His general reticence, the longwinded explanations which said a lot but revealed nothing, the disdain for debate, all went against him. There was a public run-down for his pacers when the same personnel were being taught to bring a champion mentality to the table in the other format. An ugly jibe at Ajinkya Rahane, who was India’s best Test batsman this year across conditions, was followed by Rahane’s appointment to ODI captaincy for a tour of Zimbabwe. An uncharacteristic barge into an opposition bowler, a tendency to offer to resign after every big loss, these were all signs that Dhoni wasn’t his usual self.
An impetuous Kohli wasn’t immune to skirmishes with the mass media either -witness his heated defence of the doctoring of pitches for the SA home series, or the run-in with a journo during the World Cup -but on most cricket matters he was forthright and earnest, and by being a bowler’s captain unlike Dhoni, he presided over an important turnaround in India’s approach to Test cricket. And, of course, positioned himself squarely as India’s man of the moment to lead across formats, if the selectors are so inclined.
Some cricketing empires fell this year but strangely, it may be time to celebrate this temporary clash of philosophies in the dressing room. To suggest differences may lead to discord is doing both men’s leadership capabilities a disservice – Kohli would do well to borrow some of Dhoni’s still – famed equanimity even as the more experienced campaigner seeks to pull a few remaining rabbits out of the hat.
This year, Kohli sought to win at all cost. In future, he may come across a line he must not cross. It’s best if Kohli identifies that line now, while Dhoni is still around to temper young steel.