As Ravi Shastri rattled out analogies, Virat Kohli sat beside him, covering his face to hide the laughter. It painted a picture of contrasts, of two individuals perceived to have ideological compatibility. But what the Indian coach was during the press conference, his skipper wasn’t. The former was loud and pompous, acerbic and snappy, while Kohli was measured and mellow with his words, gracious and cheerful in his disposition.
You could argue it’s the knock-on effect of winning a series as historic as this, winning captains are mostly generous, but since landing in Sydney, the characteristic fieriness of his has considerably dissipated. He’s calm and equanimous, a far-cry from the fuming man who asked a journalist to pick his eleven while defending his team selection in Centurion last year. He still staunchly defends his choices—as the four-prong pace strategy in Perth—and strategies but not as blindly or rabidly as it had been at the start of last year.
Before the Sydney match, he spoke of the nostalgia when returning to Sydney, for an eternity it had seemed that Kohli’s emotions alternated between rage and resent. As on that morning, he brushed on destiny and god again—“If you are striving in the right direction with good intent, god’s going to reward you”—referring to the 12-month spell that prefaced the series.
In these 12 months, he has shed his asphyxiating idealism too. In Kohli’s incipient days, he was a forthright idealist, a man so convinced of his beliefs that he wanted his ideals to shape the team and world. It’s a seductive image—the idea of a captain as a swashbuckler, a singular talent wrapped in the force of his personality, wanting to mould the team in his cast, wanting to thrust his philosophy on his team.
For a transitioning team, then a team lost in transition, it acquired deeper meanings. Like batting aggressively like him, spending hours in the gym like him, tattooing their torso like him and listening to Punjabi music like him. He’s didn’t impose those on them, but the thread was that to be liked by the captain you have to be like the captain.
For long, Kohli seemed trapped in this image of an autocrat. But then a skipper is part instinct, part acquired wisdom and part circumstance. It was all instinct when he began, he was just 25 and all bling and brio, smacked of the typical West Delhi strut, fuelled by a siege mentality that works perfectly for him. But with age comes practical wisdom, and Kohli is someone who has always picked things on the go. The biggest sign was his admission of mistakes. “Yes we have made a lot of mistakes in certain areas. We have to make sure it does’t repeat,” he said.
One of them might have been dropping Cheteshwar Pujara in England based on his county form, or the lack of it, and six months later he racks up 521 runs to fashion a series win in Australia. Even before the England series, he was succinctly dismissive of his scoring rate, often hyping up those batsmen who could change the complexion of a match in a session. Like Shikhar Dhawan. Six months later, encountering difficult surfaces, Kohli himself embraced Pujara’s grind-and-graft approach in scoring a hundred in Perth. It was as much as a tribute to Pujara as a symbol of his changing perceptions of captaincy. He’s less linear in his perceptions now, understands the virtues of having diverse ideas and philosophies floating in the dressing room. Moreover, he also realised that attacking cricket doesn’t always help you win the race.
A more revelatory facet of his leadership is that he no longer overdoes stuff, whether it’s bantering or field-setting. A man of extremes, he used to be either be ultra-defensive or hyper-attacking. Such a leader of man makes for a good fiction, but not on a cricket field. In this series, he bantered, especially with his counterpart Tim Paine, but didn’t break into a scuffle. He heard the crowd boo at him, and apart from a couple of instances, he played along with him, clapping and smiling. At MCG, responding to the Bay 13’s jeering, he struck a welcome pose. Even the send-off weren’t too elaborate or bitter. There was no lack of sportsmanship either, as he consoled Nathan Lyon after the defeat in Adelaide and Pat Cummins after MCG.
It was a tour Kohli metamorphosed into a statesman. Captains aren’t meant to be statesmen, but if a captain is statesmanlike, he wins the respects of the world. That was the difference between Clive Lloyd and Ricky Ponting. Kohli, when he began, was more Ponting but is trudging closer to Lloyd. Like Lloyd, his cheeriness is also part circumstances. Never has an Indian skipper blessed with a battery of match-winning bowlers, both spinners and pacers, who he can cherry-pick according to the situation. He accepts it’s a happenstance. “You know I don’t go scouting for bowlers,” he’s said before the Perth Test.
But he does nurture them, so much so that he’s a bowlers’ captain, giving them the liberty to set fields, the pleas for an extra over is heeded and he never looks frazzled when dealing with them.
He is their master, yet not imposing or intimidating. He suggests ideas and plans but doesn’t thrusts those on them. He gives them space yet watches them closely to detect whether someone is getting knackered. “They take ownership of their skills and you can see the way they bowl, they set their own fields. They are dictating terms now and this is the most amazing thing you can ask for from your bowlers, especially fast bowlers. When they are happy and firing you always feel like you can win anywhere in the world and you can beat any side in the world anywhere,” he said.
Man driven by passion
Much of him hasn’t changed though—-to keep the balance—maybe he should never change. You can see his touch in almost every last thing the team do. Their coach Shastri, seems almost decorative. During their morning huddles he stands mute while Kohli issues the orders for the day. He is still a man driven by passion, and not a skipper governed by bookish theories. He’s still the most powerful man in this team. He still cribs about losing tosses. He said on Tuesday: “If you look at the matches we have won the toss, we had been far ahead of the other team.”
Breaking that pattern would be his next big challenge.
There were times in his career when captaincy had seemed a burden to him, especially in England where he was moody, petulant and even antagonising. Often, he conceded a sense of emotional fragility that the one more series defeat and he would be wracked. But captaincy, it seems, sits lightly on his shoulders. It will come to weigh heavy one day but that moment is a long way away yet. It would not be that surprising if he went on to break Indians records in captaincy, just as he has in batting. And whatever success follows, it will all flow from that one in Australia.