In the final overs of the ODI in Mohali, India missed a leader. With Virat Kohli fielding on the fence and MS Dhoni not in the side, the team looked directionless. It’s fine for Kohli, the fastest and fittest fielder in the side, to man the boundary when Dhoni is around, for the latter would tinker the field, conceive plans for the spinners and, more importantly, sustain the intensity with his impeccable composure. It’s a trait that Kohli himself acknowledged in Australia when he said: “When Mahi bhai is there, there is always serenity in the middle, a clarity to our plans.”
But when he’s not around and things are not going his way, there seems to creep in a wave of contagious twitchiness. For, Kohli, at times, is reactive, his thinking linear and pedantic, whereas Dhoni is more spontaneous and on the ball in this format. In that vein, Kohli’s ODI captaincy is comparable to Dhoni’s leadership in Tests in the last stretch of his career. Cagey or in cricketing plainspeak: “waiting for things to happen”.
What else would explain Kohli’s decision to take off Jasprit Bumrah the over after he had got rid of Usman Khawaja. It was Bumrah’s sixth over, and though Glenn Maxwell struck him for a couple of boundaries, another wicket would have stalled the tourists. Instead, they put on a quickfire 25-run partnership. He could have also summoned Bumrah instantly and go for the kill after Maxwell departed. But instead, Kohli persisted with the spinners and then Bhuvneshwar Kumar. By the time Bumrah returned for his third spell, Australia had the momentum and Ashton Turner was finding some serious form.
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Strange was Kohli’s handling of Burmah, and stranger was his use of Kedar Jadhav and Vijay Shankar. The latter was introduced as early as the 10th over, while the part-time off-spinner was brought in the 15th. Together, they combined six overs.
The skipper’s rush to get rid of the fifth bowler’s quota is comprehensible, but not when Australia were briskly rebuilding. Khawaja and Peter Handscomb milked the two without fuss and laid the platform for the late onslaught. Both were changed in successive overs, but there again, Kohli let the game drift away. More agonisingly, Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, both looking a tad jaded without Dhoni’s guidance behind the stumps, bowled 12 wicketless overs, bleeding 72 runs. It was the time Kohli needed to pull out something out of the box. He didn’t.
Equally unfathomable was some of his field placements. When Khawaja exited, it could have been wiser if he had attacked the new batsman. Rather, the field-setting was defensive. True that Australia were looking to attack, it was a necessity, but India had the cushion to attack. They didn’t, and the contest frittered away from them even before they realised it had.
Just as Kohli missed Dhoni the thinker, he rued the absence of Dhoni the wicketkeeper. Rishabh Pant, for all his batting explosiveness, generously illustrated that his glove-work is still brazen. He spilled a costly leg-side stumping of Turner on 38, just before the tall Aussie went berserk. A less expensive miss was Peter Handscomb’s on 109. Not just these misses, he looked leaden-footed several times in the match, and struggled to read Yadav’s variations.
Those are traits that make Dhoni indispensable. So even if Dhoni the batsman can be liability, India can’t afford to look beyond him. That also means Kohli has to devise means to utilise Dhoni’s diminished batting utility. For he is neither the carefree marauder of the past nor the scheming finisher of a match. He’s more an old-fashioned accumulator these days, and can occasionally cost matches, especially high-scoring ones. As for the final game of the series in Delhi on Wednesday, it would help India if Kohli deputises the boundary-riding duties to one of his colleagues.