When Virat Kohli steps out for the toss in the first Test against Sri Lanka in Galle on August 12, Indian cricket history will turn over a new leaf. At that precise moment, MS Dhoni’s Test reign will be consigned to the past. It will be about the present and the future.
There will be those who argue that this page has already been turned, but they are wrong. It was an unknown thought in Adelaide, for no one could peek into the future and see what Dhoni would do on THAT fifth day at the MCG. And in Sydney, that page was merely lifted to turn it over afresh. It can also be argued that this new chapter in Indian Test cricket history began when Kohli took full charge in the one-off Test in Bangladesh.
But does that challenge even compare to the one waiting in the three-Test series in Sri Lanka? Bangladesh’s performance at home recently and Lanka’s loss to Pakistan do not support this argument. This is where the narrative takes center-stage. A one-off match at the end of a long season is just another tick-mark. A full-blown series at the start of a long season, with South Africa lurking on the horizon, is a different beast altogether.
In a one-off Test, strategy and planning isn’t long-term. You don’t even need a full squad, as seen by the lack of a replacement for KL Rahul when he was taken ill. For the Lanka tour, even a back-up wicketkeeper has been decided (although his name has not yet been revealed) and he is on standby, ready to fly in at a moment’s notice. It is a different preparation, a different standpoint, from both selectors’ and players’ points of view. Naturally, history should look at it differently.
Additionally, there is another difference that is already beginning to come through. And no, it is not to do with the five-bowler theory, which people conveniently forget Dhoni had been using for a long time. It is about how the selected squad, with every passing selectors’ meeting, is starting to get a make over. It is in keeping with how Kohli wants to take this team forward.
Take, for example, the Bangladesh Test squad. When Rahul took ill, there was no replacement sent forth, because Shikhar Dhawan was already there. If, by any chance, another replacement would have been needed at the eleventh hour, there was always Cheteshwar Pujara, but the team management had decided to continue with Rohit Sharma at number three.
Then, there is the number six spot. The management is wasting no time looking for an apt replacement for Dhoni, and backing Wriddhiman Saha for as long as they can. It took Indian cricket many years to find a world-class keeper-batsman, and while Saha is one for the short term, and that too not in all formats yet, the new search ought to begin proper and now. Even so, backing a player who is already entrenched in the Indian dressing room is in keeping with management’s long-standing policy.
Another small difference of opinion begins to appear when you look at the pace department. Dhoni wanted decent pace from his bowlers, but favoured bowlers who had line and length. Over the years, he had seen the wayward likes of Ashish Nehra and S Sreesanth get spanked, whilst Zaheer Khan’s discipline was amply rewarded. Kohli, meanwhile, wants to unleash the likes of Umesh Yadav and Varun Aaron on the opposition.
Last, but not the least, there is the small matter of Harbhajan Singh’s return to the Test fold ahead of the Bangladesh tour, and chief selector Sandeep Patil explicitly stating that Ravindra Jadeja had been dropped. In fact, follow this spinner-lead a little longer and you start seeing the change in mindset from Dhoni to Kohli in more depth.
As a wicket-keeper-captain, the former wanted more control (also keeping in line with his more discipline from fast bowlers theory) when he knew that twenty wickets weren’t easy to come by. Over time, the likes of Harbhajan Singh and Amit Mishra had been tried and tested, and he found that Jadeja exerted that control; even more than R Ashwin in overseas conditions, at times.
In this new role as skipper, Kohli wants to explore all the options while looking at ways to take twenty wickets. For that, he is willing to bench Ashwin and Jadeja, while playing Karn Sharma, and bring Harbhajan and then Mishra into the fold in successive Test series. Again, he just wants to take twenty wickets, period. He will try all tricks available in the book, old or new.
In time, maybe he will learn that Dhoni was right to look for control and discipline, even caution. Or alternately, maybe he will be proven right himself, with renewed enthusiasm from the two returning spinners helping him in the matter.
Either way, it is Kohli’s prerogative to find out, and on his own terms. It is his team now, after all.