Even before storm had subsided on the controversy caused on account of Indian side backing out of the last Test of the five-match series against England at Manchester, Virat Kohli dropped a bombshell by announcing his decision to step down from the captaincy of the national T20 side after the culmination of the World Cup scheduled to be held in the United Arab Emirates and Oman in October-November.
In a message communicated through Twitter on September 16, Kohli informed that he was taking this decision as part of “workload management”. He stated that he needed to get more space to be fully ready to lead the national team in Tests and One-Day International (ODI) matches. Later, on Sunday night Kohli announced that he was going to step down as Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) captain after the ongoing IPL 2021.
It would be an understatement to say that this developments took the cricketing community by surprise. Kohli has been leading the country in all formats of the game since 2017 and is one of the best batsmen in contemporary cricket. His attacking batsmanship, on field aggression and assurance with which he conducts himself have stood him in good stead all through his tenure in international cricket, which started in 2008. However, he has not been in best of form with the bat of late, with his last century in international cricket coming in November, 2019, in the day-night Test against Bangladesh. As one newspaper reported some weeks ago, he had completed 50 innings without a century, which make this period look like a barren phase in an otherwise illustrious career.
Kohli made news for the first time as the captain of the Indian side that won ICC Under-19 World Cup in 2008. His style of batting and the manner in which he led the side had impressed coach Dav Whatmore, who identified his ward as a future skipper of the national side. “A physical sort of player….who likes to impose himself on the game,” was the observation Whatmore had made about Kohli at the end of this championship. That these attributes remain his defining features even after more than 13 years in international cricket is tribute to the involvement with which he plays the game even today and the high energy levels he brings to the field.
It was during the Test series against Australia in 2014-15 that Kohli took charge of the national side in Test cricket, following Mahendra Singh Dhoni stepping down from this post. He took over the reins from Dhoni in limited overs versions as well a year-and-a-half later. Kohli has led India in 65 Tests, winning 38, thus giving him a victory percentage of 58.42. He holds the unique record of leading India in most Tests as well as for most victories as Indian skipper in the long version of the game. In the 95 ODIs played under his stewardship, India emerged triumphant in 65, while he could lead the side to 27 wins out of the 45 T20 Internationals. The winning percentage of 70.43 in ODIs makes him the most successful one among Indian captains who have led the side in more than 10 matches. During this period, one also saw India climb to the top of the ladder in team rankings in Test cricket from October, 2016, to April, 2020, and again from March to June, 2021. In ODIs India have briefly figured at the top of the rankings without being able to retain the position for too long, while in T20, we could never attain the pole position under Kohli.
However, when analysed further, one can detect some chinks in these impressive armour of statistics as well. His record as captain at home in Test matches is top class, winning 23 out of 30 games. However, when it comes to playing on foreign soil, India have won 15 out of the 35 Tests played under his captaincy, while losing 13. Though this still makes him the Indian skipper with highest number of Test wins abroad, the lustre of high success rate at home is dulled slightly by these figures outside the country. Further, the country failed to win even one major championship under his leadership, despite possessing the wherewithal to do so. Both in the 2019 ICC World Cup and in the World Test Championship (WTC) that ended in June 2021, India ended up losing to New Zealand. If a batting collapse put paid to India’s hopes in the semifinals of the 2019 World Cup, it was an all-round failure that caused the defeat in the WTC final.
The timing of Kohli’s declaration with the T20 World Cup round the corner has invited criticism. But I will congratulate Kohli on this move as lessons from the past tell us that captains who have announced their stepping down in this manner have invariably been successful. In 1985 Sunil Gavaskar was appointed as captain of the national side for the World Championship of Cricket in Australia. The decision drew widespread criticism as the performance of the team in the Test matches at home were disappointing. Stung by this criticism Gavaskar decided to step down from the captaincy at the end of this championship and informed this to the rest of the world. The team, which was playing like a bunch of losers till then, suddenly started playing to their full potential and emerged champions.
An announcement of this nature setting up a firm time limit for leaving captaincy invariably has a positive impact on the side. In the first place, there will provide additional motivation to team members for elevating their performance levels to give a parting gift to the departing skipper. It also helps to take the edge out of observations of critics, who will gladly bear the target of their attacks one last time. The contenders for captaincy will put their heart and soul into their task for coming up with superlative contributions to impress the selectors into considering them for the post. Thus, this move carries with it the potential to be the game-changer in a championship of this nature.
Despite all the victories in Test matches, ODIs and T20Is, it would rankle Kohli that he does not have a win in any tournaments after the U-19 World Cup of 2008. This includes the IPL where he has been leading RCB since 2013. It is not in doubt that Kohli is an excellent leader of men, makes sound cricketing decisions, inspires his teammates by his own personal performances and carries with him the trust and confidence of the Board of Control of Cricket in India (BCCI). He also has under his command a well-balanced side blessed with a surfeit of talent and a bench strength which will be the envy of other sides. But despite this, why has the one big win that would define his captaincy eluded him till date?
Observers and pundits might give several cricketing causes for this disconnect between the potential of the side and its performance on the big stage. But as I see it, the reason is simple - it is the lack of goodwill. Every champion side manages to generate positive vibes from the spectators and followers of the game by their behaviour. Even an acknowledged motor-mouth as Steve Waugh recognised this aspect and stayed away from sledging and needling the opposition after becoming captain. Kohli has been different in that he has continued with his trademark ‘on the face’ aggression even after taking over as skipper. While this may win a few ‘likes’ and supporters in social media, such inappropriate behaviour as showing the middle finger to the crowd or mocking the Barmy Army do not go down well with followers of the game, especially when it comes from the leader of the national side.
It is this lack of goodwill that has worked against the side at critical moments of crucial games. Every person associated with sports recognises the role played by good fortune in determining the outcome. India under Kohli plays great cricket but falls short at decisive junctures, as lady luck has tended to look the other way. New Zealand, who defeated India in both World Cup and WTC, have tons of good will in their account, thanks to the refreshingly refined approach of their skipper Kane Williamson. Further, a comparison of the actions of Kohli with the genteel behaviour displayed by Williamson will help to realise that one need not always demonstrate belligerence to lead the side with a steely resolve.
It would be a travesty of justice if Kohli leaves the helm without leading the side to a major championship victory. One hopes that the decision to step down from T20 captaincy helps him to relax and tone down his on-field behaviour when India takes the field during the World Cup. This will pave the way for the side winning the tournament, thus giving Kohli a befitting farewell from the stewardship of the side in the shortest format of the game.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)