Picking an end-of-year team is a renowned December cliché, and most of them are ill conceived. Take the ICC selection for example – it flouted the basic concept of picking an annual team since the defined time frame didn’t follow the calendar year, instead going ahead with seasons (2015-16 in this case.)
Perhaps they knew its demerits when they jotted down the ‘Test team of 2016’, and Virat Kohli’s name was missing therein. As if to compensate for this grave but forced error, they named him captain of the ‘ODI team of 2016’. Even Cricket Australia’s ‘ODI team of the year’ has Kohli listed as skipper, defying any iota of logic that remained, for he hadn’t yet led India in the shorter formats.
All of that changed last week when MS Dhoni stepped down. As such, this isn’t about odd, eye-grabbing, fantasy team-selections stirring up social media debates. It is about Kohli, about his exploits in 2016 that saw him rise to the height of batting supremacy, of his team’s winning streak that mirrors his infectious desire to win, and how he has become the one cricketer you simply cannot ignore at present.
“He is a very emotional character out on the field. I guess for us as a team it’s trying to get him out of the strong emotional state, and try and make him, I guess, a little bit angry and ruffle his feathers and things like that. I think if you can get him in that state then the Indian team can possibly be a little bit vulnerable,” Australia’s captain Steve Smith.
At first look, it was an odd thing to say. But for an Australian captain, whilst engaged in a winning contest against Pakistan on home soil, it was par for course to take a sneak peek at a future opponent. Yet, Smith could have asked Mitchell Johnson about Kohli’s reaction when angry. Or, off late, Ben Stokes is the best person to answer that. Even James Anderson.
“I don’t have respect for someone who comes at me like that,” said Kohli of his verbal duel with Johnson at the MCG in 2014. “What was said on the field should stay on the field,” he said, about his engagement with Stokes in Mohali (November.) “I laughed when told about his comments. I didn’t know what to say to it,” he said in Mumbai (December), on Anderson’s remark about his form and conditions.
From that Australian tour to this recent series against England, Kohli has come full circle. It is reflective of the mental space he is in as a batsman, fully aware of his abilities, yet not content with what he has achieved. It is not to say that he wasn’t respectful of the surroundings earlier in his career. Instead, it is to highlight that Kohli is more amenable to the opposition today.
The secret to this personal growth is the energy he produces, almost a limitless passion for the game. “He is all over the game, he is shouting, he is pointing, he is changing things around, and he just looks very frustrated at times, arguing with umpires even. If I were an opposition batsman, he would really wind me up,” observed BBC commentator Jonathan Agnew.
Yes, there is a magnetic aura radiating from Kohli, which makes him the irresistible force he is today. He feeds this energy to the crowd. Be it Mumbai, where the boisterous crowd stood up to greet him for every run he scored, every run he saved in the field, or simply every time he turned to face them. Or in Kolkata, where he unleashed Mohammed Shami against New Zealand at his home ground, and asked the gathered crowd to intimidate the opposition.
They respond to him, unlike previously seen, unlike they have done to any Indian cricketer before him. So much so, the slightest attempt to draw a comparison is futile here. And it just isn’t the crowd alone, but his teammates too, who feed off this energy. For this dynamism is unprecedented, and the existential core of the cricketer he is. It is almost an inexplicable phenomenon.
“I have always been my true self on the field. I don’t know how to explain it. I am not able to relate to the question in truth,” Kohli said, in Chennai, when asked about the secret to his persona. “But does it help me on the field (in everyone’s glare and under weight of expectations)? Probably yes!”
You can fill in reams of newsprint talking about how this batting line-up has matured. Or, how the bowling attack has grown in experience, both as individual elements and as a unit. Or, even how this is arguably the fittest Indian squad and the best fielding side across formats. Even so, Kohli’s energy is the link-up between all these components, an aspect missing for some time especially in the longer format.
It is not to say that Kohli is already a better captain than Dhoni, no. The demands of international cricket can take a toll over more than a decade of leadership, and like any other cricket captain, Dhoni went through his share of crests and troughs. Not many complained about his silent style of captaincy when he took the Test team to No 1 in the ICC rankings for the first time in Indian history.
Couple it with leading in the limited-overs’ format too, and winning everything in sight, Dhoni had to reinvent himself time and again. Perhaps it explained why he seemed retreated into a shell, shrouded in mystery even, by the time he eventually relinquished this leadership role completely. It might not seem so, but it still was an extension of Dhoni’s detached demeanour.
This is the underlying difference in their captaincy styles that, despite the high intensity of the thankless job ahead of him, Kohli might never withdraw into a zone where his energy is quelled. That is simply not who he is, and the simplest example of this is his involvement in every single aspect of the game, whether on-field or off it.
Kohli revels in this responsibility, almost an extension of his self, when chasing down a total – slowing down the game in his head, dissecting it and attaining the target. All of it then bursts out in a spectacular rainbow of emotions, one that made Indian Test team so enthralling to watch in the last year or so.
This changeover – from Test skipper to captain across formats – does make for some joyful anticipation then, as Kohli gets ready to step into Dhoni’s humongous shoes in the limited-overs’ arena.