Virat Kohli vs MS Dhoni: A tale of two great captains after 60 Tests

MS Dhoni (left) and Virat Kohli (Photo: AFP)
MS Dhoni (left) and Virat Kohli (Photo: AFP)

When Virat Kohli tosses the coin at Southampton on June 18 in the ICC World Test Championship (WTC) final, he will become the most experienced Indian captain and the first Indian to lead the team in a neutral venue.

Both Kohli and MS Dhoni have led India in 60 Tests. When Dhoni retired from the longer format after the Boxing Day Test at Melbourne in 2014, he was India’s most successful Test skipper with 27 wins and a reign at the No.1 spot for a year and nine months.

Almost two years before his Test retirement, Dhoni had gone past Sourav Ganguly’s mark of 21 wins as captain. The record stayed for nearly eight more years. In less than five years of taking charge as Indian captain, Kohli surpassed Dhoni’s mark with a win over West Indies at Kingston in 2019.

Under Kohli, India have been the No.1 Test side for a cumulative period of almost four years.

Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni: Two similar yet contrasting journeys as Test skipper

Neither Dhoni nor Kohli were full-time Test skippers when they led the country in their respective first Tests.

Dhoni was six months into India’s limited-overs captaincy and had already made a name for himself as captain. He had led India to the 2007 T20 World Cup win and had won the CB Series in Australia as well. Picked as the most expensive buy in the inaugural Indian Premier League (IPL), he was also named captain of Chennai Super Kings (CSK).

In 2008, Dhoni was handed the captaincy for the final Test in Kanpur against Australia after regular skipper Anil Kumble sustained a groin injury during the Ahmedabad match. Trailing 0-1, India had to win their last match to avoid a home series defeat. On a treacherous surface at Green Park, India found heroes in Ganguly and their spin contingent as they pulled off a memorable victory.

In just over six months, Kumble retired from international cricket and Dhoni took over as Test captain. A year later, India marched to the No.1 spot in the ICC Test Rankings. He enjoyed a run of 11 undefeated Test series before facing a 0-4 whitewash in England in 2011.

MS Dhoni with the ICC Test mace (Photo: ICC)
MS Dhoni with the ICC Test mace (Photo: ICC)

Thereon, Dhoni’s journey went downhill, especially overseas. Since the tour of England in 2011, he lost 13 out of 18 overseas Tests, winning one, drawing four and losing all six of their overseas series. Meanwhile, India also lost a home series against England.

On a brighter note, in the 2012-13 season, Dhoni’s India reclaimed the Border-Gavaskar trophy by beating Australia 4-0 at home.

MS Dhoni’s Test captaincy

MS Dhoni
MS Dhoni's overseas numbers dipped post 2011.

Though a vital cog in the batting line-up in white-ball cricket, Dhoni hadn’t set the stage on fire as a batsman in Tests until the captaincy cloak fell upon him. Leadership made him a more responsible batsman in red-ball cricket. He ended up averaging over 40 as captain despite batting lower down the order.

He spent almost a fourth of his career batting at No.7 or below. In the 30 innings he batted in the top six, Dhoni amassed 1,377 runs averaging over 55.

MS Dhoni’s Test Career

MS Dhoni improved as a batsman and wicketkeeper ever since he became India
MS Dhoni improved as a batsman and wicketkeeper ever since he became India's full-time captain.

Dhoni was still recovering from an injury when Kohli was asked to lead India in the first Test against Australia during the 2014-15 tour.

A change in strategy was apparent as Kohli went for the attack by playing tearaway pacer Varun Aaron and leg-spinner Karn Sharma ahead of the more established Ravichandran Ashwin.

Kohli led India’s charge with twin hundreds. Chasing 364, India fell 48 runs short of their target. Despite the loss, Kohli’s approach and bravado won him many fans.

Dhoni returned for the subsequent two Tests and announced his retirement after the drawn Melbourne Test. Kohli’s full-time tenure began with the New Year’s Sydney Test in 2015.

Kohli then led India to a draw in a rain-affected Test in Bangladesh. Following this, he led India to nine consecutive series wins.

Kohli has lost series in South Africa, England and New Zealand, but his side contested better than their predecessors. In fact, India’s win in Johannesburg in 2018 came against all odds and is considered one of their finest away victories. Kohli also led India to a series victory over Australia (in Australia) in 2018-19.

Virat Kohli with the Border-Gavaskar Trophy after a series win in Australia.
Virat Kohli with the Border-Gavaskar Trophy after a series win in Australia.

Kohli’s India have been remarkable at home and are yet to lose a series. Even overseas, India has been the most successful traveler. Though Ajinkya Rahane’s India won in Australia in 2020-21 without Kohli, a lot of credit was given to the latter for building the side and instilling a fearless attitude in them.

India’s most successful skipper, Kohli, is now tied for fourth spot with Clive Lloyd (36 from 74 Tests) for most Test wins. He’s only behind Graeme Smith (53 from 109 Tests), Ricky Ponting (48 from 77 Tests) and Steve Waugh (41 from 57 Tests).

Kohli’s success percentage of 60 is the third best in cricket history (behind Australia’s Waugh and Ponting).

Virat Kohli’s Test captaincy

Virat Kohli
Virat Kohli's numbers are amongst the finest in the sport's history.

Kohli's captaincy burden did not affect his run scoring ability. His run tally of 5,392 as captain is the fourth-best in the sport’s history. As captain, Kohli averages higher than Ricky Ponting, Brian Lara, Garry Sobers and Sunil Gavaskar.

Virat Kohli’s Test Career

Virat Kohli is currently the fifth ranked Test batsman.
Virat Kohli is currently the fifth ranked Test batsman.

Virat Kohli’s barren ICC trophy cabinet

By the time Dhoni retired from Tests, he had led India to 93 wins from 166 ODIs, with a success rate of 59.62%. Kohli has an impressive 65 wins from 95 ODIs at a success rate touching 70%. However, to Dhoni’s credit, he won the ODI World Cup in 2011 and the Champions Trophy in 2013. Under Kohli, India lost the 2017 Champions Trophy final and exited the 2019 World Cup after losing in the semifinals.

Even in T20Is, Kohli’s success rate of 67% is better than Dhoni’s 60%, but the latter led India to the T20 World Cup triumph in 2007. Kohli is yet to lead India in a T20 World Cup.

The ICC WTC final against New Zealand might be Kohli’s chance to bag an ICC trophy. A win in the final will make India the first-ever Test champions. It will be Kohli's biggest chance to win the most prized silverware in the sport’s pinnacle format.

Edited by Diptanil Roy
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