We are in the age of Virat Kohli. It is an epoch that is full of bravado, pouting faces and childlike stroppiness. When Kohli takes the field he is like a bundle of electrified emotion. Every slight, real or imagined, is greeted with anger and derision. Kohli wants to win, he wants to dominate, it is personal. This is how the Indian cricket team will be led in Test matches.
MS Dhoni retired at the end of the Melbourne Test and handed over the captaincy to Kohli. He felt that he had no more to give in that format, but there may have been some conflicted feelings that are familiar to a parent handing over the car keys to an excitable teenage with a new driving licence.
Dhoni’s time in charge of the Test team has not been without incident, but he has been a calming influence rather than the whirling dervish that Kohli represents. He has been so placid at times that there has been accusations of him not caring, especially in Test cricket. That is missing the way that Dhoni plays the game. He behaves no differently in ODIs and T20s. He is just as phlegmatic in his approach with the white ball, the only difference is results.
From 2009 to 2011 Dhoni’s side were the top of the ICC Test rankings. In the same period he led his side to 11 undefeated series in a row, winning eight of them. While Dhoni had never won any plaudits for his tactical brilliance, he was winning matches and series in Test cricket.
The change came after the World Cup victory in 2011. An exhausted and jaded Indian side arrived in England on the back of so much cricket that there was little chance of them succeeding. From late 2010 onwards they played Australia and New Zealand at home, toured South Africa, won the World Cup, played in the IPL and toured the West Indies before arriving for a 4 month tour of England.
One of the consequences of that relentless cricket was that Zaheer Khan, for so long the backbone of the Indian bowling line up, couldn’t even make it through the first innings of the first Test. Zaheer was bowling brilliantly. He was in his 14th over and had conceded just 18 runs. He had bowled eight maidens and had picked up two wickets. England were 107 for two and struggling to get going. In undramatic fashion he pulled up after delivering a ball to Jonathan Trott.
He had pulled a hamstring, he didn’t bowl again in the series, in fact he didn’t ever really got much success at international level again. With his departure so went India’s chances in that series. In fact it saw them go 13 away Tests without a win. They won a Test in England in 2014, but they still lost the series. Since 2011 India have lost overseas to England (twice), Australia, (twice), New Zealand and South Africa.
Dhoni was nearly ousted in early 2012, and according to reports he was saved by BCCI chief N Srinivasan. As much as these overseas results have been woeful, and Dhoni’s tactics have been at times completely mystifying, ultimately a captain is only as good as his bowlers.
In India, home conditions have meant that Dhoni’s side were able to pick up enough wickets to win Tests. Although the loss to England at home would have been hard to stomach, they were still finding a way to create the chances needed for victory. The same could not be said for overseas tours where a lack of discipline and nous has seen bowlers flayed to all parts by the opposition.
There are many things that Dhoni did as captain that are worthy of criticism. His opaque public pronouncements were often unhelpful, his tactics were regularly difficult to understand, his recent record is pretty woeful. Despite these justifiable complaints they are tempered somewhat by the bowling resources he had available to him.
And this is the team that Kohli takes over. While his new approach will certainly see a different India in Test matches, it may well be a while before there is a change in results. Dhoni’s departure does nothing to rectify the problems with wicket taking. In this series in Australia, India never once took 20 wickets in a match. Until that happens on a regular basis away from home India will still struggle in this format.
Right now India are seventh in the ICC rankings, for a country with so many cricket mad citizens that should be a source of embarrassment for the board. Kohli will have to do his best to rectify that situation, but without finding some new bowlers or getting the ones he has to perform with consistency he will struggle to do so.