In Indian cricket, captaincy changing hands used to be an arbitrary and big event. There used to be insider accounts of dissatisfaction and disappointment that competing cliques would leak to the press, which would soon be followed by the replacement of the captain. There were times when the captains were chopped and changed almost on a whim, so much so, that Mohammad Azharuddin once led a side with four former captains playing under him.
It is to the credit of BCCI and the people at the helm of affairs that, despite all the notoriety the organisation has garnered in the last few years, the transfer of power as the leader of the national side from Mahendra Singh Dhoni to Virat Kohli has occurred in a such a smooth and uneventful manner.
From the time Kohli led the Under-19 side to World Cup victory in Malaysia in 2008, he was looked on as the future India captain. For all the brashness and vigour he brought with him on to the cricket field, Kohli’s early years in India’s senior side were far from convincing. It wasn’t till after the tour of 2011-12 to Australia that he was staking claim to be amongst the first names put down on the team sheet in all formats.
Dhoni and Kohli could not be any more different in their personalities and their pathways to captaincy. Dhoni was the accidental captain, given the opportunity to lead an Indian side when none of the senior members were interested in traveling to South Africa for the inaugural World T20. Despite that, he brought a sense of calm and statesman-like demeanor to the job. Some mistook it for aloofness while others attributed it to his wisdom, and Dhoni never really let anyone in to decipher the truth.
When things on the field didn’t exactly go according to his plan, there was barely any response from Dhoni, who treated victories and defeats as if Rudyard Kipling’s sage words about those two impostors constantly rang in his mind. And Kohli has never been shy about demonstratively displaying his thoughts with fist pumps and screams that you can run a TV channel of, the “Kohli Cam”.
When Anil Kumble relieved himself of the mantle due to injury and age in 2008, Dhoni, who had by then established himself unquestionably as the leader of India’s limited overs sides, took over mid-series as the captain in all formats. Whereas Kohli was made the full time captain of the Test side first, as Dhoni retired from Tests mid-series in Australia, and now is assuming captaincy across all formats.
An interesting intersection of Dhoni and Kohli’s captaincies occurred in 2013 during the tri-series that followed India’s successful Champions Trophy campaign in England. After their opening match in the tournament that India lost, Dhoni was sidelined with a hamstring injury and Kohli was the acting captain. The press interactions with the two captains were starkly different. Both men were given to providing long, and sometimes rambling, responses to questions at press conferences, but the transcripts would later indicate that Dhoni had perfected his way of saying a whole lot without actually saying anything. On the other hand, Kohli would go in to considerable detail as he was trying to explain to the listener how he processed the game of cricket.
While Dhoni, when asked about his move to use Ishant Sharma in the Champions Trophy final, responded with, “That’s my secret”; Kohli, when asked about a particular run chase, provided the finer details of managing the chase, identifying the opposition bowlers to target, handling the pressure, and counting down the runs and balls remaining and so forth.
n a recent interview on BCCI.tv after being made the captain of the ODI and T20I sides, Kohli said, “I’ve learnt a lot from [Dhoni] in terms of leadership and conducting myself… He will always be the guy who guided me, who gave me opportunities, who gave me ample time and space to grow as a cricketer, who saved me from getting dropped many a time.”
He admitted that he had been preparing himself for the role and had learnt the tools of the trade from Dhoni. “It’s something I’ve been preparing for in my own head, and MS [Dhoni] has been talking to me as well about strategies, how to approach situations etc., because he also understood how important it is to guide me.”
Kohli, with his remarkable ability to break a limited overs game down, is uncannily like Dhoni but he, in his career so far as Test captain, has also shown Dhoni’s tendency to chase the ball. In fact, Nasser Hussain made that remark on air several times during the recent England series. Kohli tended to place a fielder at a position through which a catchable ball just passed, and in doing so, was reacting to the situation, instead of planning dismissals.
The one aspect in which, when it comes to Test cricket at least, Kohli has shown early intentions of breaking from the Dhoni mould, is his willingness to push for a win, even if at times it backfires on him. After the heartbreaking loss at Adelaide in 2014, Kohli admitted that he would be a captain that would risk a defeat for a win. Dhoni on the other hand was a ‘defense first’ captain who wanted to avoid a loss at all costs, even if it prevented a victory.
To Kohli’s credit, he has also been more open to utilising Ravichandran Ashwin at six, which would allow India to play an extra bowler. So far, that strategy has worked for him well in conditions more suited to India and it remains to be seen how daring he is when India travel abroad in 2017-18. He also has the added benefit of two quick bowlers, Umesh Yadav and Mohammad Shami, entering their prime, and a reliable veteran in Ishant. A capable, experienced and reliable seam attack backed by the best spinner in the world would certainly provide for Kohli’s attacking tendencies to flourish even in South Africa, New Zealand, England and Australia.
As much as Kohli has received his tutelage from Dhoni, there are signs that he would outgrow it and set his own path. He would have served Indian cricket really well if he too, like Dhoni, guides a youngster that would one day take the reins from him and push Indian cricket beyond his own desires and ambitions, and carries forth the smooth and uneventful transition of captaincy.