Why, Virat Kohli, why?

Authored by
Sun, 16/01/2022
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'Retire when people ask why and not when' is a quote attributed to Vijay Merchant, who, in turn, had once attributed it to Patsy Hendren. Virat Kohli's resignation as the Indian Test captain made the tinnitus in my head go on a loop, screaming many WHYS.

Kohli has led the Test side for seven of the 26 years I have been following Indian cricket. That is almost 27 percent, sizeable enough to become addicted to the Kohli-ness. 

As he resigns, a part of me fears for my love of watching an Indian team competing in Test cricket. A part from the subconscious mind now screams: WHY?

He did not have to resign. South Africa was not the end of the world. Perhaps external factors played a role. Perhaps not. But the decision leaves me barren. 

Without exaggerating, even the conscious me feels a sense of void. The red ball, the whites, the fast men peppered with Kohli-ness, readying for another spectacle, unwitnessed by Indian fans of any other era is gone.

Kohli-ness is a philosophy built on the foundations of ambition, willingness, resilience and determination. 

Will the cricket consumer in me remain the same?

The last time I felt like this was in end-2013, when Tendulkar retired. But then, I had prepared myself for since 2008, when Sourav Ganguly and Anil Kumble during the same series. But when the moment arrived, a part of us wanted to delay the inevitable. 

Tendulkar was a once-in-a-generation phenomenon. And India’s wait wasn’t longer with Kohli’s quick emergence. I shall come to that.

This sport pays my bills. But the stepping stone for a cricket writer or an analyst is fandom, and it was no different for me. Often the reasons varied.

For some athletes, the PR does the job. The media had hyped Tendulkar before his debut, and rightly so. Rohit Sharma and Prithvi Shaw’s talents were no secret even before they took first guard. For some, you find the relatable elements. That was how I began loving Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and Kane Williamson. 

And then, there were the enigmas – M.S. Dhoni, Virender Sehwag, Rishabh Pant, Shoaib Akhtar and Jasprit Bumrah. Then some magicians would make my jaws drop and hypnotise me – Brian Lara, A.B. de Villiers, Shane Warne and Wasim Akram. And some would win you with their consistency, like Glenn McGrath, Shaun Pollock and Steven Smith.

Kohli was very different. He forced me to fall for him and in stages. And before I realised it, it was infectious. 

Okay, the Under-19 World Cup. So what? I thought he needed to be less of a brat. Talented? There was no dearth of talent in Indian cricket. Rohit, Manoj Tiwary, Shikhar Dhawan, Ajinkya Rahane were banging the selection doors. 

But by the time 2010 ended, you are looking at someone who averages 46 in ODIs, making every opportunity count and winning matches at will. 

Before any further realisation dawns upon, the boy has already won a World Cup, made the wittiest comment on Tendulkar’s legacy, and surpassed Mohammad Azharuddin’s tally of ODI hundreds.

I met Kohli in late 2011 before he left for his first Australia tour. In our limited interactions, he impressed me with focus, confidence and clarity. An acquaintance who was covering India’s tour in Australia told me that it was apparent that there were two camps in the squad – Sehwag's and Dhoni’s – but Kohli seemed unperturbed and kept putting the extra mile.

All of it did translate. That hundred in Adelaide. The spectacle at Hobart. Before the hangover of Australia ended, he routed Pakistan in Dhaka with that majestic 183. Kohli had won me over by then.

Even the young India was changing at large, embodying the Kohli-ness, being bold and expressive. 

I liked Kohli, but I also liked Rahane and Pujara. Celebrating Kohli was still a gradual process. But the fandom would soon fall upon when he first led India in a Test. 

His struggles in England were a recent memory. He did work with Tendulkar, but Mitchell Johnson was still expected to decimate the Indian batting order as he had done in the Ashes a year ago.

Adelaide 2014/15 was an emotionally charged one as it was played a few days after the demise of Phillip Hughes.

From Dhoni’s overtly defensive methods to Kohli's wholeheartedly going for an overseas Test win was refreshing and inspiring. The twin tons, coupled with apparent ambition, set the foundation for the more extraordinary things to come. Even Dhoni did observe the intensity, which prompted him to retire from Tests.

The captaincy cloak abruptly fell upon Kohli. But he was ready. For a kid carrying the trauma of his father’s demise but refusing to discontinue his overnight Ranji innings, this challenge did not daunt him enough.

Over the passing calendars, Kohli’s stature rose in international cricket. The Kohli-ness became infectious to anyone who loved Indian cricket or cared for the sport in general. 

Viv Richards would find his younger self himself in Kohli. Steve Waugh would want son Austin to make Kohli his role model. Foreign broadcasters would promote their home series against India, focusing on Kohli.

From a marketer’s delight to the poster boy of the sport to inspiration to millions, Kohli went on to rule the decade. His unparalleled commitment to anything he set his sight on kept enthralling me and fans worldwide. 

King Kohli: The Giant

How big was Kohli? 

Big enough to dictate preferences with brands or force brands to develop product lines named after him. Big enough for a broadcaster to have an animated series on him. Big enough to force the sport’s most powerful body to revise pay structures. Big enough to trigger a debate on prioritising family over portrayal of nationalism. Big enough for opponents to try and win his respect by impressing him. Big enough to keep pumping life into Test cricket, a format struggling to stay afloat in the era of T20s and the Hundred. 

And, of course, a giant enough to score and win at will.

Kohli was such a giant that when he decided on the play-to-win mantra with fast bowlers at the fore, the Kohli-ness became the board’s philosophy that went on to be embedded at every level in Indian cricket.

It worked wonders and benefitted Indian cricket.

Now into its tenth calendar decade in international cricket, India have fielded several strong Test sides, but only Kohli’s side can claim to bear the tag of ‘great’. 

Kohli became India’s full-time captain in January 2015. Since then, India’s overseas win-loss ratio has read 1.2 over 40 Tests. No team comes remotely close. At home, the ratio during is a mighty 13; New Zealand follow, but their 5.25, while incredible, is not even half of India's. But that has been the difference between Kohli’s India and others. 

No wonder that out of the seven years that Kohli led in Tests, India remained the top-ranked Test side for a cumulative of four years. When he took over from Dhoni, India were reeling at the seventh spot.

Kohli was still the giant when the calendar turned September in 2021. The willow might not have been the obedient genie of the past, but he was still the Atlas, lifting Indian cricket with the 120 percent effort. He had just led India to a Test win at the Oval after fifty years. 

When the Manchester Test was called off after an Indian staff member tested positive for coronavirus, sections of the English cricket fraternity pointed fingers at Kohli for his whims and the BCCI for flexing muscles, prioritising IPL and cancelling the Test. Kohli’s desires were viewed as powerful enough to even get a Test postponed by a year.

Four months on, he is a Superman confined in a cell with four walls of kryptonite. Sadly, the Kents who raised him seem to be the jailors here.

Timeline of events

  • Early September 2021: Reports quoting sources suggested that Kohli would be removed/asked to step down from India’s limited-overs captaincy.
  • BCCI bigwigs soon deny the reports.
  • 16 September 2021: Kohli announces he will quit T20I captaincy after the 2021 T20 World Cup. He clarifies that he is ready to continue leading the ODI and Test teams. 
  • 19 September 2021: During the start of 2021 IPL’s second leg in the UAE, Kohli announced that he would quit Royal Challengers Bangalore’s captaincy after the ongoing edition. 
  • October 2021: Kohli becomes the first Indian captain to lose a World Cup match against Pakistan. A week later, India lost to New Zealand, virtually shutting their doors to advance into the next round. 
  • November 2021: One of the tournament favourites, India fail to proceed beyond the group stage of the T20 World Cup. 
  • 8 December 2021: Through a tweet, BCCI announces Rohit Sharma’s appointment as India’s ODI captain. He was earlier appointed as the T20I captain and won a series against New Zealand. Rohit also replaced Rahane as India’s Test vice-captain. The decision, rather the manner of announcement, leads to outrage. 
  • 9 December 2021: BCCI President Sourav Ganguly clarifies that he had personally asked Kohli to not quit T20I captaincy, but Kohli had made up his mind. He said that the selectors later felt that India needed one white-ball captain and replaced Kohli with Rohit. 
  • 13 December 2021: Rohit gets ruled out of the South Africa Tests due to a leg injury.
  • 14 December 2021: Reports emerge that Kohli would opt out of South Africa ODIs, adding further fuel to the Kohli-Rohit rivalry saga. Sections of media report that the two men do not want to play under each other.
  • 15 December 2021: Kohli refutes Ganguly’s claims before the Indian team’s departure to South Africa. No one from BCCI had tried to convince him from giving up T20I captaincy. His decision had been well received. Kohli let the BCCI know that he would like to continue leading the Test and ODI teams unless the BCCI office-bearers or the selectors wanted otherwise. 
    Kohli also rubbishes the reports claiming his unavailability for South Africa ODIs, denies rumours of a rift with Rohit, and welcomes him as the white-ball captain. 
  • 16 December 2021: Ganguly refuses to counter Kohli’s claims ('I have no comments to make, the BCCI will deal with it appropriately'). 
  • Mid-December 2021: Several eminent journalists note that Kohli’s Test captaincy will be under scrutiny if India failed to beat a rebuilding South African side in their backyard. 
  • 31 December 2021: With Rohit ruled out of the South Africa ODIs, Indian selectors name K.L. Rahul as the captain with Kohli as a player in the side. 

    In the press conference, selection committee chairman Chetan Sharma supports Ganguly’s version. He clarifies that the BCCI and the selection committee had indeed requested Kohli to not step down as Indian captain and asked him to think about the decision after the World Cup. Kohli had not been told then that he would lose his ODI captaincy.
  • 13 January 2022: Using the stump microphone, Kohli and some of his teammates accuse the South African broadcasters of partiality. The Indian team’s response does not go well with most from the cricketing fraternity, drawing criticism from most quarters. 
  • 14 January 2022: India lose the Test series in South Africa, undoubtedly their best chance to conquer their final frontier. Kohli is criticised for his consistent support to the failing duo of Pujara and Rahane. 
  • 15 January 2022: Kohli resigns as India’s Test captain, bringing an end to his leadership tenure in international cricket. With 40 Test wins from 68 matches, he ends as one of cricket’s most successful leaders. 
    Thanking former head coach Ravi Shastri and his former captain Dhoni, the cryptic part of his statement leaves many questions unanswered as he mentions: 'I have believed in giving my 120 percent in everything I do, and if I can’t do that, I know it’s not the right thing to do. I have absolute clarity in my heart and I cannot be dishonest to my team.'


What next?

Kohli lost form. He did not score an international hundred in 2020 or 2021. He quit T20I captaincy, lost Shastri by his side, the ODI leadership was taken away, became the centre of controversies, and resigned as the Test captain.

Perhaps quitting T20Is is next. Perhaps after the next World Cup. From the powerful poster boy to a player in the XI, that is what will Kohli’s journey be from hereon as he enters his last phase as an Indian cricketer. 

Was he pushed to the corner by the BCCI? Did not winning in South Africa hurt his pride? Did the controversy over broadcast play a role? Or did he just feel that it was time to focus solely on the willow to make it talk again?

Not sure if we will know the exact reason. I remain hurt. The mind still screams: WHY?

The passion for Test cricket, the intensity, the energy levels… will India in Tests be as enjoyable? But then, he has not retired, and runs remain his biggest asset. Though challenges have brought the best out of him, there is no reason he cannot continue to be the leader of the batting pack.

At 36, Tendulkar reinvented the world-beating batter in himself and dominated 2010. Lara was almost 35 when he reclaimed his world record with a 400. Kohli is just 33 and would like to make up for the two arid years.

Meanwhile, Rohit is nearing 35, and is not the fittest cricketer in the side. Can he take the load of leadership in all three formats? Is Rahul a certainty in the Test line-up? With Ravindra Jadeja around, R. Ashwin surely is not a certainty in overseas Tests. Does Rishabh Pant inspire enough confidence? Can Shreyas Iyer be a Graeme Smith-like appointment? 

More importantly, does coach Dravid go for a reset, adopting a fresh approach with a new captain? Or will it be the extension of the Kohli-ness philosophy?

Dhoni had a Kohli ready when he decided to quit Tests. For all his greatness, Kohli has left Indian cricket in a quandary with little or no transitory time.

Let’s take a cut-off of 25 Test matches. Only Steve Waugh (71.9%) and Ricky Ponting (62.3%) have a better success rate than Kohli (58.8%) in Test cricket. 

Remember, no other Indian captain has won two Test matches in South Africa. Wasim Jaffer put things into perspective: 'When Virat took over as Test captain, India winning a Test overseas was an achievement, now if India lose an overseas Test series it’s an upset. And that’s how far he has taken Indian cricket forward, and that will be his legacy.'

Kohli, the captain, will surely be missed.