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Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Virat Kohli leading by example, even in absence

Virat Kohli may leave after the first match, but his imprint on the India vs Australia Test series will be indelible as the team plays in his image.

Written by Sandip G | Updated: December 17, 2020 8:19:21 am
India vs Australia: Survival of the fittestVirat Kohli with teammates Jasprit Bumrah and Cheteshwar Pujara. (File)

It’s easy to understand why Australians see Virat Kohli as one of their own, a kindred spirit of sports. He is, in many ways, forged in the Australians ideals of fire and fearlessness, with the willingness to take the game on. As opposed to the archetype of the soft-spoken, Indian batting virtuosos. Greg Chappell has seen both worlds, and therefore, his likening Kohli to an “Australian sort of hero” is not an ambiguous or hyperbolic comparison.

Kohli’s response to this comparison reeked even more of the “Australianism” Chappell senses in Kohli. He neither denied nor deflected it, neither dismissed nor acknowledged it, but in an emphatic manner, postulated his philosophy, as a player and skipper. “I am the representation of new India,” he stressed. With each retelling, the sentence assumes gravity in tone and texture, but Kohli told this almost casually as if he’s not weighed down by the weight of his own words. As if he’s not seized by self-importance.

Then he briefly explains the ideals he has infused into the team — into the fifth year of his captaincy tenure, it’s safe to assume that this is a team that embodies Kohli, as much Kohli embodies the team. The team as an extension of its leader’s identity, a bunch of individuals with distinct personalities unified by its captain’s characteristics. “In my mind, it’s not (about) being compared to the Australian mindset as such. It’s how we have started to stand up as the Indian cricket team and my personality has been like this from Day One. The new India takes up challenges and is filled with optimism and positivity. We make sure that we are ready for any challenges that come our way,” he says.

Not just optimism and positivity, but courage and conviction too. Kohli’s New India is not without flaws, but its biggest gift is that it doesn’t believe it’s flawed. They are not invulnerable or invincible, but do their best to portray such an impression. Kohli’s men are not kings, but they walk as if they are. They are not clutched by self-doubts or inhibited by failures. There is an unapologetic sense of fearlessness, that is more an Australian than Indian sporting virtue.

There are several instances of this — right from Kohli’s first Test as stand-in skipper, wherein he handed out the Test cap to a little-known leg-spinner and made an impossible chase seem possible. It was not a calculated gamble, but a firm decision. It’s the same streak of positivity that reflects in his preference for Prithvi Shaw over Shubman Gill for the Adelaide Test. Shaw’s post-lockdown struggles might inspire negligible confidence, but in picking him, Kohli is blaring his doctrine. For Shaw poses more attacking threat than any of the other top-order batsmen. If he clanks into his gears, he can devastate attacks and furnish an irresistible tempo.

His batting entails enormous risk, but Shaw, like a young Kohli, would rather play a stroke and get out rather than not play a stroke at all. So, the decision to pick Shaw was a direct endorsement of his leadership style. A more defensive-minded leader could have chosen the experienced KL Rahul or the more stable Gill. “I think it is very exciting to see his (Shaw’s) progress,” he said, before throwing up the example of Mayank Agarwal.

“Mayank batted brilliantly without any baggage the last time he came here. That is what you expect from the young guys, just go out there – they have no baggage from the past – and express themselves and put the team in a strong position and play the brand of fearless cricket along with being calculated and reading situations,” he explained.

These words are a summary of Kohli’s batting and captaincy concepts. Even the decision to pick Umesh Yadav and Ravichandran Ashwin revealed his intrinsic streak of aggression. Jadeja would have been a more pragmatic proposition, more so with his much-improved batting utility, but Ashwin is not only a bigger wicket-taking threat but also loves bowling in Adelaide, where the surface tends to benefit spinners as the game progresses. Ashwin himself had offered a lovely insight into Kohli’s captaincy: “Kohli is someone who will go for a victory come what may. There is no negative bone in him.”

READ | India vs Australia 1st Test: Prithvi Shaw, Wriddhiman Saha to play in Adelaide

Likewise, Yadav could be a scattergun, but when the pink ball starts swinging in the twilight, he could be a potent threat. Yadav, of course, is no Ishant Sharma. He couldn’t be expected to put in the Sharma double-shift of stock and strike bowler, but has the gifts of aggression and robustness. Sharma will be definitely missed, but Kohli’s New India’s will adapt and adjust, would move on without being cowed down by setbacks. After Adelaide, India would definitely miss Kohli. But there lurks little sense of impending doom or a foreboding of something evil. Kohli’s departure would not plunge a team into panic or mourning. They believe they can cope, come devil or deluge.

The team shares an ambitious streak like Kohli. They are no longer content with turning up and putting on a strong show. A well-fought draw or a glorious defeat is not their yardstick of success. Few Indian teams have had such a single-minded obsession to win as Kohli’s New India. To tweak an old Mike Brearley quote about Ian Botham: the sky is not Kohli’s limit, it’s his target.

Being a good leader is also about harnessing leadership qualities from his colleagues. A leader, most of all, doesn’t create self-indispensability. So Kohli is certain that his deputy could adequately compensate for his absence. “Jinks (Ajinkya Rahane) has done a tremendous job in the two practice games, the tour games that have happened, and he seems to be very composed and he knows the strengths of our team and how we need to go about things,” he says.

As importantly, Rahane has imbued the fundamental qualities of Kohli’s leadership, even if his style of captaincy would be different. “We already know the template that we play with and how we want to go about things, so we are absolutely on the same page and I am sure he will do a tremendous job in my absence as well,” Kohli observes. There is no ego or insecurity, just kicking on with the game urgency and trust.

Such an eventuality – the captain and the team’s finest batsman leaving in the middle of a series of such significance – would have been unimaginable in the past. Kohli will be missed but the team would not make a tragedy out of it. The machine would not fall in a heap without his leadership, Like the Australian teams of the past, wherein captaincy transitions were largely smooth.

So even if Kohli departs, he would not be absent. His ideals will shine under the blazing Australian sun. It’s a series wherein Kohli’s ideals would be put to test more than Kohli himself. There could be more setbacks and adversities. They might ride over it, or they might drown. But they would not flinch. They would not shirk away. That is Kohli’s New India. It’s a bolder, braver and often, exciting world.

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