The biggest bone of contention to emerge from the Indian camp during the lost Test in Perth was not the misreading of the pitch and the resultant selections, be it not picking Ravindra Jadeja or Bhuvneshwar Kumar in place of Umesh Yadav. It is how captain Virat Kohli has little confidence in some of his teammates. Or, to be more precise, how quickly he loses confidence in some.
It used to be said about Sachin Tendulkar that he expected even his lesser-skilled teammates to be as good as him, and would get frustrated when they didn’t play according to his expectations. Kohli doesn’t seem to have the confidence that some of his teammates can extend themselves. It’s a viciously self-fulfilling prophecy: the more you think they can’t do it, they won’t be able to do it.
Take the case of Jadeja. Kohli couched his non-selection as praise for Nathan Lyon. “If you see, the rough didn’t have much assistance. It was just the pace on the ball that Lyon bowled that he got the wickets that he got.”
It’s startling considering that the rough did play a part in some of Lyon’s wickets, like in the way he dismissed Murali Vijay in the second innings. Even Kohli’s dismissal in the second essay was in part due to the fear of the rough — he thought the ball would spin more than it did because there was rough there and hence, played well inside the line only to see the ball clip the outer edge.
Be that as it may, let’s return to the more important theme in that quote. In fact, Kohli said that even if Ravichandran Ashwin was fit, he probably would not have played. “Yes (even in that event), we could have considered that (playing four quicks),” Kohli said.
That’s staggering, to say the least, especially when one considers the quote at the end of the game, after Kohli had seen the behaviour of the track. He quite rightly rates Lyon highly, but one wonders how Ashwin and Jadeja would feel about their captain’s assessment of them. If the two aren’t good enough to bowl overseas, why carry them in the first place? What of Jadeja, who in his previous overseas Test, picked up seven wickets and scored an unbeaten 86?
This lack of confidence in his players has been a recurring theme of Kohli’s captaincy. It has reflected in how he has shuffled Bhuvneshwar out of the team so often, citing the ‘horses for courses’ theory that has almost always backfired. It’s as if he has frozen Bhuvneshwar in the past, and not considered the stupendous improvement the bowler has made in his repertoire — increased pace, more guile with the old ball, ability to surprise batsmen with bounce, and the improved use of angles at the crease.
Kohli justified Bhuvneshwar’s omission with a lack of “four-day match practice” argument. Listen to the captain’s words: “Bhuvi hasn’t played a lot of four-day cricket recently, and Umesh took 10 wickets in his last Test (against the West Indies in Hyderabad), and was in good bowling rhythm. So that was the reason behind picking Umesh over Bhuvi.”
Fair enough. But it begs the question why Bhuvneshwar was picked for such a significant series in the first place? If the team management was sceptical of his fitness, he should have been best left to play Ranji Trophy. After all, depending on his performance, he could have then been redrafted in the squad, like Hardik Pandya.
In fact, the way the Indian team management has handled Bhuvneshwar is a case study in itself. After Bhuvneshwar recovered from a lower-back injury he aggravated in the ODI series in England, he played the Asia Cup. Then he was prescribed rest for the West Indies series, though he would feature in the limited-overs leg. But bizarrely, he was asked to abstain from Ranji Trophy. It’s equally baffling that the lack of four-day practice bothers a team management that prefers net sessions over warm-up matches. And Bhuvneshwar didn’t miss a single net session, even the optional ones, in Australia.
Another case is that of Ajinkya Rahane, who was kept out of a few overseas Tests (like in South Africa) in the past, and it would be a surprise if there is no causative connection with the way he bats these days. It’s a kind of all-out attack that gamblers might appreciate. It’s as if he has lost confidence in his defensive technique. Even with a third man in place, he has gone for upper cuts that have just about eluded the fielders. The onus is, of course, on him, after all he is the vice-captain, but one can’t help thinking what part the lack of trust reposed by the team management has played in his unravelling. While glaring deficiencies might have crept into his technique, it’s his afflicted mind that’s at the bottom of his travails.
During Kohli’s tenure, every player other than himself has been benched for reasons not solely concerning form. Cheteshwar Pujara in the West Indies because his batting was slow; Pujara again in the first Test in England this summer; Rahane in South Africa because Rohit Sharma was supposedly a better player of the bouncing ball; Ashwin because he’s not suited to overseas climes; Murali Vijay because of Shikhar Dhawan’s enterprising approach. Each of them had to grind their way back to regain their spot in the side. But not all talented players have such steely resolve. Kohli’s conviction that living on the edge gets the best out of players is, more often than not, flawed.
Now that Pandya is returning and the management is mulling a reshuffle, Hanuma Vihari, who put in a sturdy shift with bat and ball, could be a casualty in Melbourne. Both Jadeja and Bhuvneshwar could empathise with him. Hopefully, he wouldn’t be relegated to the wilderness like Karun Nair.
Sometimes, it seems Kohli doesn’t listen to his own self. “You have to keep backing them and telling them they belong and they are good enough to perform,” Kohli said about openers KL Rahul and Vijay. It stands in stark contrast to his own words about Jadeja and Ashwin, and in the way he has followed a revolving-door policy in the past.
Fortunately, the series is locked 1-1. India can still win this series, but for that to happen, Kohli will have to back his players.