India’s tour of South Africa has a familiar script. For the first time in Virat Kohli’s full tenure as Indian Test captain, Team India has lost a series. Not coincidentally, this is the first time India has traveled to a country other than Sri Lanka and West Indies.
Down 2-0 in the three-match ‘Freedom’ Series in South Africa, many will argue that this was in fact the team’s best chance to win overseas. It was. However, as good as Kohli has been as a batsman, his leadership and decisions have raised many questions during the first two Test matches. His aggression has come undone in a couple of ugly press conferences – where points were being raised about his choices.
On the eve of the third and final Test at the Wanderers in Johannesburg, here are the three obvious mistakes that led to the number-one ranked Test team in the world to crash and burn in a country they have never won a series in. The wait – and weight of history – continues.
THE RAVI SHASTRI SYNDROME
Kohli might have done well to tolerate the disciplinarian ways of Anil Kumble, if he really wanted to win abroad so badly. Kumble’s blueprint was in fact designed to win away from home, and the success at home convinced Kohli that he didn’t need an equally strong personality in the dressing room for this team to conquer tours. Naturally, the BCCI equipped him with his favorite ‘yes man’ and fan, Ravi Shastri, who believed that his job wasn’t to coach the team but to just guide them as a manager. That probably explains why India forgot how to do the basics right in the first two test matches – dropping catches, misfielding, running badly and refusing to leave the ball. It was a sham to see a top international team make schoolboy errors day after day – something that would have never happened if Kumble had cracked the whip on Kohli’s privilege. The team would have been forced to arrive two weeks before the tour, instead of Shastri admitting in hindsight that they didn’t get enough preparation time. As a result, India has now won just 1 of their last 18 tests outside Asia since 2014 – a record worse than Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
MY DEAR SRI LANKA
Perhaps the biggest mistake of Kohli’s tenure so far has been his stubbornness to choose his overseas Test specialists based on their performances against a mediocre Sri Lankan side in home conditions. India has played Sri Lanka twice – in full tours – in the last one year, and many batsmen have boosted their averages against the hapless islanders. Kohli’s decision to choose players ‘on form’ contradicts his own risk of choosing Test newbie Jasprit Bumrah as the spearhead of a bowling attack whose flaws are being overlooked because of the terrible batting so far. Rohit Sharma was chosen on basis of his Lanka performances, and Ajinkya Rahane was dropped for the same reason. Shikhar Dhawan played the first Test because of the same reason, too. There is no consistency in strategy – and one suspects that Lanka has done more harm to India than most other teams without ever winning anything. The delusions of grandeur seem to have convinced Kohli that his team can do anything – including reach South Africa less than a week before the Test series, skip the practice games, skip optional practice sessions and then expect to win against the best bowling attack in world cricket. In actuality, Kohli should have gone in with a ‘stable’ Test side – with an extra batsman, minus the spin of R. Ashwin or part-time inconsistencies of Hardik Pandya.
A LACK OF EMPATHY
Kohli is so good a batsman that he fails to understand the limitations of those around him. He expects everyone to play at his intensity and level, which probably results in added pressure on the young team to perform in alien conditions. He has been unwilling to admit that there were any managerial errors – instead blaming everyone for an under-par performance in the middle. He has combated the media gracelessly, usually entering a press room defensively and with a ‘You-don’t-play-cricket-I-do’ attitude. Perhaps down the line, if this team does win something in England and Australia, we might be able to look at this South Africa tour as a sharp learning curve. But there seems to be no desire to learn just yet – and the tourists have yet to display their passion to be more than just tourists ‘looking to get experience’. The batting collapses have been more a result of unstable team selection than individual ability. When Parthiv Patel comes in at 6 to face Philander and Rabada, we have a problem. The long tail isn’t ideal, and Pandya’s style will never come off more than once in a blue moon. Kohli has chosen both Pandya and Rohit as “test changers,” forgetting that nobody can change a test in a session abroad against four quicks running in hour after hour.