There is always a great deal of external pressure on Virat Kohli. Being captain of India and the game’s most marketable player, pressure tends to come with the territory. Kohli’s numbers prove that he has dealt with it well in the past – a Test batting average of 57.96 as skipper is of course far superior to his average of 41.13 when just a batsman. Such numbers are what selectors generally look at while picking cricket captains, unless the team’s results have nosedived already.
Kohli has now been India’s captain for over six and a half years and looks keen to continue. But results over the course of the next three and a half months could either crystalize his leadership ambitions or break them. Four major events – the World Test Championship final, England Tests, IPL and the T20 World Cup – have been squeezed together in the space of five months. The WTC final is already lost, but each of the three remaining series are different challenges; Kohli has unfinished business to settle in each one of them.
Starting August 4, India begins the five-Test series in England. Less than a week after that series ends in September, Kohli will be leading RCB’s IPL campaign in the UAE. A week after the IPL ends in October, he will be wearing the armband for India again at the T20 World Cup. In this time, he could touch greatness as captain, or perhaps even underachieve.
With the bat in hand, Kohli rose from the batting debacle that was his first tour of England in 2014 and finished the 2018 series as the leading run-scorer. But captaincy is a double-edged sword. India’s tactics of dropping Cheteshwar Pujara from the opening Test in Birmingham and picking two spinners on a green surface at Lord’s for the second Test both backfired. Kohli had the runs to show, but his team did not get the desired results and they lost 1-4. He is yet to win a series in England as player or captain; India hasn’t won there since 2007.
Meanwhile, RCB look well placed at the half-way stage to make the playoffs when the IPL resumes. However, they have been undone in the playoffs several times before, never having lifted the trophy either. Plenty of talk of his leadership shortcomings is due to the IPL. So, if either or both results (England and IPL) go to plan, Kohli will deservedly get the credit. But if he has no trophies to show by the time the IPL ends, Kohli’s mental reserves will be severely tested at the World Cup – where too he chases his first white-ball ICC title as captain after three failed attempts.
Kohli, though, views things differently. He made this pretty clear before the WTC final by dismissing the big match talk as an “outside view”. “Just the way life goes on, you have to treat failure and success the same way. You have to treat the so-called outstandingly big moments the same way. You can’t pick and choose,” he had said.
SHORT OF RUNS
To win those big moments, Kohli will be keen to get back to his hundred-hitting ways. For 8 Tests, 15 ODIs and 18 T20Is, spread across 21 months and separated by a pandemic-induced lockdown, there hasn’t been a ton from Kohli’s blade. Now, hundreds alone don’t translate to good form. And all all-format batsmen are having to catch up with the rapidly evolving pace of T20 cricket, and it holds true for Kohli too.
But the 32-year-old might well be worried with his dry run in Test cricket. The 8 Tests he has played in 2020-21 have produced only 345 runs, averaging 24.64. No great batsman sleeps well when their critical numbers plumet.
During the previous tour of England, Kohli lorded over his own mind and overcame his 2014 nemesis – James Anderson. So desperate was he to redeem himself that he had even agreed to a short stint at Surrey on county wages to get in the groove. An injury spoiled those plans, but he got the runs anyway, 593 of them in five Tests.
Key to that success was a demonstrable change in technique. By standing outside the crease, correcting his right hip position, widening his stance and arming himself with loads of patience outside the off-stump, Kohli beat Anderson slowly but surely, Test after Test in 2018. But in the WTC final, New Zealand’s tall pacer Kyle Jamieson exposed chinks in that method by twice getting his IPL captain – once to a sharp inswinger, then in the second innings getting him to chase one outside off while expecting the inswinger. This was exactly the state of confusion Anderson had been able to create in Kohli’s mind, back in 2014.
Whether Kohli has the answers this time around will be known by how he squares up to Anderson and Stuart Broad; those contests could even become central to the series. Especially so, with two other senior batsmen in India’s top-order – Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane – having a few areas in their games to address by the time the Tests begin later this week.