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Captain Virat’s Aggression: Time, Patience and Caution

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Virat_Kohli_India_Test_Captain_cricketThere was a time, long ago, when MS Dhoni was perceived as an aggressive captain. And there were results to prove it. Irrespective of format, everything he touched turned to gold as trophies rolled in. From the T20 World Cup, to the CB Series Down Under, the Test no.1 golden mace and that elusive ODI World Cup in 2011, he had done it all.

Then, things changed. Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, VVS Laxman and Anil Kumble retired, not necessarily in that order. Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan lost form and fitness. The Indian team that had achieved unprecedented success home and away for a period of four yeas (from 2007 to 2011) was no more. The transition came about and a rebuilding process began.

It wasn’t a black and white process. There were many grey areas because careers of Indian cricketers do not come to an abrupt end. There is an overlap as seniors exit and youngsters come in. There is an incubation period as these same youngsters get used to the demands of international cricket and earn valuable experience, especially in overseas conditions. It was during this process that India’s Test form nosedived, and suddenly Dhoni was pronounced a defensive captain.

It is not to say that he didn’t have his limitations. Indeed, Dhoni the Test player was limited in terms of his technique, both in front of and behind the wicket, and more so in his imaginative powers. But his leadership alone wasn’t responsible for this downward curve of the team. It is a classic case of how victory earns you many friends, while defeat is a lonesome prospect. This puts a sharp focus on the Indian team’s new chapter in Test cricket as Virat Kohli takes over the reins.

 

First thing first! There is a lot of hyperbole about how Kohli will channel his batting aggression into leadership. This is a misnomer. History has taught us well that aggressive batsmen don’t always make good captains. Sachin Tendulkar is a case in point. Compared to Kohli, Tendulkar went about his cricket very quietly, never baring his emotions. Was he any less an aggressive player?

Also, remind yourself of how well India did in the limited-overs’ arena under Dhoni during this same time period when they were not doing so well in Tests. Winning the Champions Trophy in England in 2013, reaching the finals of the World T20 last year, and reaching the semi-finals of the ODI World Cup just over two months ago. Could an overly defensive captain have achieved that? Can anyone say Dhoni is a defensive batsman irrespective of the format?

A player can be individually aggressive, but as captain he has to pull ten other players in the same direction as one unit. It isn’t always easy to do, not when you are beaten in terms of resources and conditions.

Take, for example, Kohli’s first two Tests as captain. In Adelaide, he batted with such swagger not seen during the entire England Test series, and with back-to-back hundreds in two innings there, nearly won the match for India. Already there is a school of thought that he should have tempered his approach once only the tail-enders were left and batted for time, playing for a draw instead. A 0-0 score-line is always better than 1-0, no?

After the match, the young captain brushed aside any such thoughts, saying he didn’t regret the decision to go for victory even when faced with defeat. More importantly, Kohli proclaimed (as he has done time and again) that he would always risk defeat to pursue victory. This is where a revisit to his second Test in-charge is needed.

At the SCG on day four, the Indian attack, lacking in any discipline on a flat track, was plundered for 200-plus runs in one session. It can be a humbling experience for any captain, and indeed there were only two results possible the next day, given Australia’s highly disciplined bowling in face of a tall target. India played for a draw with Kohli leading the way. He didn’t throw caution to the wind and attack to achieve an asking rate of nine per over. Instead, he closed ranks.

In summation, Sydney revealed the shortcomings of this Indian team and provided a pertinent pointer as to why Dhoni had failed miserably until recently. Adelaide meanwhile had proved a breath of fresh air, if only because we saw something new in leadership after a long time.

There is a real desire for improvement in India’s Test results, both from the players and fans alike. But despite the year-long overseas Test schedule coming to an end, the road ahead is tough. Three Tests in Sri Lanka and four Tests against South Africa at home are already chalked in, with another three possible against Pakistan (at home or in UAE).

Yes, the Indian team will be in its element too, in a familiar environment. They have a good bunch, now firmly experienced, with Ravi Shastri playing a glorious cheerleader. They will enjoy sub-continental conditions in the coming season. But rest assured, none of those three will be easy opponents. Time and patience need to be afforded to nurture this unit into a world-beating one, as promised. Yet, caution too is needed.

The underlying point here is that aggression – or aggressive captaincy – is a matter of perspective, and it is a highly result-oriented concept. For all the words spoken, Kohli needs to buckle down and produce results in the long run, because an Indian captain’s job is a thankless one. Three seasons down the line, when the overseas cycle begins again, his legacy will be judged on the number of wins produced and no one will remember the manner how he led the side.

Just ask Dhoni. Already, people need reminding what he achieved till that golden Mumbai night in April 2011.



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