ICC World Cup 2019: Virat Kohli’s perfect chance to shape a legacy
- Can the combative cricketer dispel growing perception that he isn’t a natural when it comes to leading in ODIs?
- The Kohli era will remain incomplete without a World Cup trophy in his hands as captain
- How hungry is Kohli to lead well in the World Cup could decide India’s fate in England
Is Virat Kohli a great one-day international captain? Just take a moment. Pause before reading further, and think. What do you really believe?
Is it true that there seems to be a shade of doubt, a lingering confusion… an unexplainable hesitation, when it comes to resolving this issue?
If your answer is yes, congratulations. You may have just handed Kohli his biggest motivation to do well in the World Cup in England. Kohli, it is time to remember, is adept at the art of overhauling himself when faced with criticism. Like most Delhi cricketers, he thrives best in a mental combat zone. Give him a target to hit out at, and he will raise his game.
He did it in 2012, after a particularly poor IPL led to criticism of his lifestyle. He woke up one morning, took a look in the mirror, and told himself, “You can’t look like this if you want to be a professional cricketer.”
Out went the long nights, in came the missionary zeal. Kohli changed everything about himself: his approach to life and the game, the way he trained, what he ate, when he ate it.
In transforming himself into a batting beacon who defines his era, Kohli became the king of self-denial. There are no cheat days in his life. He is good at pulling himself up by the bootstraps to deliver, time and time again.
He did it again in 2015, adding a more punishing training regime to raise the stakes. In between, he overhauled his technique after a poor outing in England, deciding to stand a foot outside his crease in Australia to counter poor form and throw the bowler off his length.
Every move was well thought out and successful, hard on himself but a harder slap on the face of an invisible enemy.
These changes came when he had already been part of a World Cup-winning team back in 2011. When he wasn’t yet the lead actor in his own movie, and hadn’t even discovered iron discipline. Three years before that, he led his team to victory in the Under-19 World Cup.
If he had stopped then, there would still be a story to write, but Kohli decided he didn’t want that story to be written. Not for nothing is he the most improved cricketer in the world over the past decade.
That makes this World Cup the perfect time to shape a legacy, especially with negativity swirling around his tactical abilities and handling of personnel as leader. We know that like Tendulkar, Kohli is capable of superhuman feats with the bat to shore up his team in big tournaments. However, just how hungry is he to lead well in the World Cup?
Kohli may be forgiven for wondering what the fuss is about. Statistics reveal only his supremacy: at 73.88%, Kohli’s success per cent is the highest among Indian captains who have led in more than 10 ODIs. He has led India to victory in 31 of 42 games overseas.
He has hit 10 ODI hundreds in successful chases, the highest ever by any captain. He is the first Indian captain to win a bilateral ODI series in South Africa and Australia. He remains the only batsman to average 80-plus (80.84) as captain in one-dayers, while scoring 19 hundreds and 14 fifties.
This is proof of stellar success, but the figures do not reveal the minutiae of good leadership. He has probably had the best pace attack in recent history, quite unlike Indian teams of the past. He has an extraordinary cricketing brain to fall back on in MS Dhoni, and another sharp reader of the limited-overs format in opener Rohit Sharma.
Kohli, to his credit, has maximized these assets, but concerns remain that the very qualities which spurred him to great heights as batsman may be leading him to expect too much from his team-mates at times. This is the curse, the disconnect of genius. It is unused to stooping low to perceive the less gifted. It’s also something a leader must do often.
Lately, it’s been a common sight to see Dhoni taking charge behind the stumps in ODIs, dictating field changes, instructing young spinners and conferring with umpires, while Kohli mans the boundary, seemingly content to cede charge in the crunch overs.
At odd moments without Dhoni, Kohli has seemed to struggle. There has been nagging discomfiture with the playing XI, leading to constant changes. The field settings and bowling changes haven’t always been spot-on. In Mohali in March, with Dhoni absent, it seemed all over for Australia at 229/7 in 46 overs but they came back to chase down 272. There was some criticism over the late introduction of leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal. Kohli misread the dew on two occasions, in Mohali and Ranchi, and seemed too excitable in tense moments. India eventually waylaid a 2-0 lead to lose the series 2-3.
Leading a much weaker team in the IPL, he read the pitch wrong in the season opener, botching up his XI. He talked about how he wanted to bat at No. 3 for RCB, then promptly came out to open in the next game. Against KKR, he boasted of having seven bowling options, then struggled with too many choices. RCB at one point lost six consecutive games.
The IPL is a different beast to international cricket but the notion grows that captain Kohli is a work in progress. In contrast to his masterful ability to perfectly plan an ODI innings, there remains a perception that Kohli isn’t the best reader of games as captain. Often, perception is truth. Failure in the World Cup could highlight these shortcomings. Can Kohli dispel the notion that he is not as keen a tactician as Dhoni?
All this, of course, boils down to one fact: Kohli still has something left to prove, and that can only be good news for India. England will show us how deep the itch is to prove detractors wrong, because the Kohli era remains incomplete without a World Cup trophy in his hands as captain.