A brave new innings

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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Virat Kohli wears his heart on his sleeve, both on and off the field. Soon after leading India to a 5-0 sweep over Sri Lanka in the hurriedly put together ODI series, and just before the team left for Australia, the rising star came clean on his personal relationship with actor Anushka Sharma, while requesting privacy at the same time.

On the field, even after losing the first Test at Adelaide last week by 48 runs, while chasing a target of 364, Kohli made it clear that India was not playing for a draw. “We played to win. And we need to maintain this approach if we want to win overseas. Playing for a draw is a negative approach,” he said during the post-match press conference. “Even before we slept, I told the boys that no matter what target is set in the morning, we will go for a win. We have to believe we can chase it.”

Kohli himself led from the front. He scored a century in the first innings, but the innings folded soon after his dismissal. The same happened in the second innings. Surely, there will come a time when the other batsmen give him better support and the bowlers will make his attacking attitude more successful. But this almost seemed like a victory in defeat and a pleasant departure from the Indian attitude of playing for a draw.

Sure, 26-year-old Kohli was only the stand-in skipper; Mahendra Singh Dhoni will lead the team from the second Test onwards. But Kohli did raise visions of a positive future, where those dull dreary draws may soon be a thing of the past.

Kohli’s majestic performance at Adelaide has once again reignited the debate of who should lead Team India. He very nearly brought India to the doorstep of victory before a tired pull shot ended his innings and started a slide to defeat as the rest of the batsmen failed to build on what Kohli (141) — and Murali Vijay (99) — had created. The defeat notwithstanding, Kohli won a lot of accolades for his leadership, but none praised him more than Dhoni himself.

“He has been fantastic, not only as a captain but also as a leader, even in the odis that he has led in,” Dhoni, who is back to lead the team after a four-week break and recovery from a thumb injury, told reporters in Australia. “He is an aggressive character and is slightly different to what I am. What he did throughout the Test was great and especially his approach towards his own batting was fantastic. He had a lean series in England and it was good to see the way he prepared for this series and then the way he went out there and batted.

“He kept mixing it up. He wasn’t attacking over the top. When he felt he could put pressure on the batsmen, he brought in the fielders close. That is how cricket is played now; you have to see the momentum and decide when to attack or back off slightly. He did fantastically well in that regard.”

Dhoni added that India would continue the series with the same aggressive attitude. “I thought it was the right approach that we went for the target,” he said. “With the partnership (between Vijay and Kohli), we were in a position to chase down the target. Unfortunately, Vijay got out and we lost a few more wickets. From there it would have been very difficult to play for a draw and the only right approach was to go for the win. Our approach will remain the same in the coming Tests.”

This positive and aggressive attitude is not in-built in the Indian team and even Dhoni has been known to be somewhat defensive in the past. But Kohli, with his mindset, could bring a new approach to Indian cricket.

Less than four months ago, when India was getting whipped black and blue by England, all those knives that were out for Dhoni’s head were rendered blunt as Kohli himself went through the worst patch of his as-yet cgrowing career.

India lost the five-match series 1-3 and Kohli scored just 134 runs, with 39 as his highest. His 10 innings included two ducks. Dhoni needed to stay because there seemed to be no alternative, and to top it the skipper seemed to be the only one able to stand up to the English attack — he scored four 50s, including 82 in the final Test.

When the West Indies pulled out of the odi series that Dhoni sat out at home, Kohli used the Indian wickets to bat himself back into form. He scored 22, 49, 53, 66, capped by an unbeaten 139 in the five innings, and led the Indian team to a clean sweep over the Lankans.

Soon after that series win, Kohli told the media, “From the first match, I have spoken about creating a culture of ruthlessness and winning habit in the team, and it has come off beautifully.

“The more the young guys see these kinds of performances, and know that the intent and aggression is coming from the top, they would want to follow. So, I, as the captain of the team, need to be at that intensity level first before asking anyone else to be there. It’s a conscious effort I have to make, and it’s not that hard for me because I have always played my cricket like that.”

In the past 18 Test matches played away from home, India has won just one, drawn thrice and lost 14. Surely this calls for a change at the top. Even if Dhoni still commands a place in the team on his own strength — which he does — Kohli can surely be given charge to infuse some aggressive attitude into the team.

Another heartening comment from Kohli after the Adelaide Test was that he would like to converse and interact with his team members the same way as he has been doing whenever he has led the side. “I don’t need the captain’s tag to talk to the players,” he said. “I have enough respect and friendship in the team to be able to talk to them, whether I am the captain or not. That’s my job. The closer you are to your mates, the more consistent you will be. There is criticism and praise. But the consistency comes from the group. We all need to be on the same page. We need to be thinking the same way.”

Wow, that is some confidence. It is also his self-belief that captaincy is surely coming his way — tomorrow, if not today, and he is ready for it. He also wants to carry the younger players with him. They could be the pillars of his future side just the way Sourav Ganguly built his.

Dhoni has been at the helm of the side in the shorter format since 2007 and in Tests since 2008. Maybe, it is time for him to let go and allow the next generation to take over. Maybe it is a call Dhoni will do well to take himself, rather than wait for the selectors to do so.

Dhoni has ruled Indian cricket for close to a decade and it would be a great service if he could now point to the direction in which it should go — Kohli’s way.

Four years ago, on the tour to Australia, Dhoni had said, “It’s not something I want to hold on to or stick on to. If there is a better replacement, he can come in… At the end of the day, you want India to perform.” How true.

Last month, when asked about his personal relationship, Kohli had said, “It is out in the open… We are not hiding anything.” Hey, he was talking that about his relationship with Anushka, but it could hold true for the captaincy, too!

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