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Captain Uncool

By Anil Dharker

08th September 2018

“We made England earn their win.” That and similar other uncharacteristically modest statements formed the gist of Virat Kohli’s post match press conference after the Fourth Test at Southampton. That merits a look at the record so far on this English tour: India lost by an innings at Lords, won handsomely at Trent Bridge, and lost the other two Tests by 31 and 60 runs. So, yes, Kohli is right in a sense. But the question to ask is: Should the Number One team in the world be satisfied just being combative? The danger is that losing “competitively” can become a habit: Remember the series in South Africa?

Soon our cricketers will be back to their welcoming hearth and home, cuddle up to their bulging bank accounts and all will be forgotten. But if we really care about the game, serious soul-searching is required in matters both on and off the field in our cricket.

Take off-the-field issues first. The Cricket Board is in a complete shambles. The Supreme Court-appointed Committee of Administrators, down to two members with zero experience of top level international cricket (one is a superannuated bureaucrat, the other a retired woman cricketer of another era), seems to be in no mood to give up its power. So who is to blame for the crazy tour scheduling? There was a fortnight’s gap between the short format internationals which started off this tour and the first Test. There was also an entire blank week between the third and fourth Tests. Yet only one, repeat one, three-day practice match was arranged (that too was cut down to two days because of weather). India could have played three games against counties before the first Test, and one after the Third Test, giving our cricketers exposure to English conditions, and also testing the team’s bench strength. Obvious? Not to our cricket administrators.

Then there is the selection of the playing eleven, which goes from being whimsical to absurd. To recap, dropping Bhuvaneshwar Kumar after his incredible performance in the South Africa first Test and preferring Rohit Sharma to Ajinkya Rahane there; in England, dropping Cheteshwar Pujara in the first Test, to be topped by the ultimate idiocy of taking two spinners on a seaming track, and one spinner on a spinning pitch. This would be a huge joke if it weren’t for the fact that these ridiculous decisions probably cost India the series.

Ravi Shastri has an astute cricketing brain. Has it been numbed by Virat Kohli’s much celebrated intensity? Cool and objective heads are needed for selection, and the time has come for curbing the captain’s powers in this important aspect of the game. The chief selector, accompanied by another member of the selection committee, should be on tour: The two of them, plus the coach and captain should select the playing eleven (with a casting vote for the chairman, just in case). A sensible selection committee would have long ago jettisoned the idea of playing only five batsmen, especially when it’s your batting that’s letting you down. Wouldn’t Karun Nair for Hardik Pandya have made eminent sense in the current series?

However, the problem doesn’t end there. Let me say the unspeakable: Virat Kohli is a one-dimensional captain. Worse, he refuses to learn from his mistakes. The fact of the matter is, he doesn’t even know he makes mistakes. Some of them even a novice captain would avoid. Too much is made of Kohli’s passion and intensity on the field; in fact it’s obvious these cloud his judgement about important things like bowling changes and field placing. Joe Root doesn’t jump around and shout out loud to celebrate the fall of wickets; he is quiet because he is thinking and planning, qualities that seem alien to our captain. One can fill this whole page with examples of Kohli’s lack of tactical nous, but let’s look at just one example: Sam Curran, just 20, and batting at no 8 has scores of 24, 63, 40, 78 and 46 in this series, averaging 50.20. He has, single-handedly, taken the game away from India time and time again. But Kohli works in only one key, glorying in his own aggression. Why not, instead, go defensive when the situation calls for it? Pack one side with fielders; ask your fast bowlers to concentrate on that side of the wicket and out of frustration Curran will hole out. The question is, who will bell the cat named Virat Kohli?

The only one who could do it is Mahendra Singh Dhoni. His cool head and sage advice would calm Kohli down and make him study the situation instead of screaming at it. Dhoni should never have been allowed to choose limited overs cricket over Tests: His finishing prowess in ODIs is, well, finished, but his wicket-keeping skills and steady batting would be just what’s needed for Test cricket. Even now, the selectors should speak to him. And while they are doing this, they should, at last, do justice to two brilliantly performing, but unfairly ignored, cricketers, Mayank Agarwal as an opener and Shreyas Iyer in the middle order. We want to win, dammit. Let other teams be competitive.

This article was first published in The Indian Express.