A pattern is emerging in Virat Kohli, the captain. He doesn’t like rigidity. Tinker, change, adapt, don’t be stagnant, just do something. It was something he said in the context of his batting, but in a way it sums him up as a leader too. “If you are rigid, you are going to fall behind. You have to be flexible.” For the first time in the series, Kohli might be deviating from the norm. India are likely to go with the same team, he hinted.
With the series at a crucial stage, this is an apt time to understand his captaincy. Here are a few questions about his leadership style: Why does he chop and change so much? Why does he believe so much in horses for courses that he takes the risk of plausibly infusing self-doubt, if not insecurity, in his men?
The pointers are sprinkled in the way he bats. It’s because of that trait of flexibility and openness to adapt, this willingness to be a chameleon, this eagerness to do whatever is needed, this self-trust to make so many little adjustments, the mental shift to a rational adult, that he has been so successful around the world. Not many really good batsmen have extinguished their ego as much as he has done.
Kohli doesn’t micro-manage as much as say Tendulkar used to do as a captain, but his macro- management perhaps suffers from the thought that he has to always be flexible. Drop Bhuvneshwar Kumar, despite stupendous performances in the Test before, because he thinks a hard track might not suit him. Drop Ajinkya Rahane in South Africa because of perception that Rohit Sharma was in form. R. Ashwin was kept away for long puzzling periods at Lord’s because he thought conditions might not suit him. Most of his team changes — and injuries have certainly played their part, as he reminded on Wednesday — probably stem from this macro-management that revolves around flexibility. Here is the thing: Just as he trusts himself as a batsman to be flexible, he perhaps needs to extend the same expectation to his men. That they can also adapt and change. He is a young captain, and can evolve. Tactics on the field are debatable anyway — what looks a strange move can turn out to be inspirational if luck shadows you. But the underlying thought should come from a position of confidence and trust. A sense of stability that promotes mental ease.
A former Mumbai player tells a revealing story about how Tendulkar would come with a preset idea, say this bowler would take out a particular batsman, and would probably let the momentum slip in trying that idea out. “The idea was great, and invariably it might work out but the time it took, especially when the bowler fails Tendulkar in the execution, could let momentum slip away.” What worked in theory doesn’t always work out on the field. Not because Tendulkar’s idea was faulty but the bowlers couldn’t keep up with the micro-management. “Kuch paane key liye, kuch khona padta hai,” is the essence of Mumbai’s Khadoos philosophy. Be it Tendulkar or Gavaskar, they had that almost maniacal self-control that accompanied the Bombay school of batsmanship and thought in general. Kohli does it too, but he is a Delhi boy. Yeh dil maange more is their philosophy. They want everything and more. They somehow find a way. Kohli’s ecosystem stems from his city; he has the self-awareness, street-fighting gut, and ambition to do whatever is needed to be successful.
Of all the aspects that this series has spilled out, the orientalism of English cricket and the westernisation of India top the list. At the start of the series, England were looking to ageing stars to shoulder them; India were cutting down the stature of their stars by chopping and changing.
As we approach the climactic phase, England have turned even more east in their approach. On a pitch that’s reputed to have spongy bounce, they have replaced Ollie Pope with Moeen Ali, who hit a double hundred in a county game recently. It remains to be seen how this plays out. Moeen has been susceptible to bouncers in the past and moreover, Ishant Sharma has been terrific against left-handers in this series. Will his inclusion end up weakening the batting even more?
For the first time since the Titanic sunk, or so it seems, Kohli’s India are about to go with an unchanged team. For the first time, India look the more settled side of the two. It will come down to how their batsmen tackle the bounce but in Kohli, Rahane, KL Rahul, and Shikhar Dhawan, if he continues the way he batted in the last Test, they have men who can handle it.
As Kohli said, it will come down to the conditions. “Apart from the pitch, conditions are going to be a massive factor as well because it’s cold for the last couple of days and it’s going to remain like that, from what I understand. We will have to assess the situation every hour, I guess, because it can change very rapidly.” Can captain Kohli mix flexibility with stability?.