Unless Virat Kohli corrects a major anomaly in his international career, both as batsman and captain, he will leave behind a flawed legacy, irrespective of his illustrious numbers.
The Oxford dictionary describes greatness as “the quality of being extremely good in ability or quality and therefore admired by many people”. Current Team India captain and run machine Virat Kohli fits this description to the T.
Judging a cricketer by the above definition though will only give us a superficial view of greatness. It must be modified to fit in “the quality of being extremely good in ability or quality ‘on the big occasion’…”
Now, does Virat Kohli fit the bill? The answer, if one may say so, is self-explanatory.
The World Test Championship (WTC) Final against New Zealand in Southampton was Virat Kohli’s latest test of greatness as player and captain. Again, there was plenty of hype and build-up, and talk of forgetting about what happened before. But when the same scenario is enacted all over again, one is bound to reference the past.
2017 Champions Trophy Final
Chasing 339 for victory, Virat Kohli walks in with Rohit Sharma having been dismissed in the first over without scoring. In the third over, he gets an excellent delivery from Mohammad Amir, which he edges behind, but the catch is dropped. Virat Kohli had a great opportunity to ride his luck. What does he do next ball? He looks to flick one to the on side and gets a leading edge to gift his wicket to point.
2019 World Cup semi-final
India, among the favorites to win the 2019 World Cup, need 240 to make the final. Virat Kohli again walks in with Rohit having been dismissed early, this time in the second over. An over later, Virat Kohli is also back in the hut, trapped lbw by Trent Boult while playing across the line.
In both matches, India crumbled to defeat. Let’s also add the 2015 World Cup semi-final when he was not captain but was already the side’s star batsman. India were chasing 329 against Australia in Sydney but Virat Kohli was back in the hut for 1 off 13, miscuing a pull from Mitchell Johnson straight up in the air.
It is pertinent to note here that all three of Virat Kohli’s failures came with India chasing, something which the Indian captain loves to do otherwise. To put things into perspective, apart from Fakhar Zaman’s hundred, the experienced Pakistan duo of Azhar Ali and Mohammad Hafeez scored crucial half-centuries in the 2017 Champions Trophy final.
Steve Smith, with whom Virat Kohli is often compared, smashed a match-winning hundred in the 2015 World Cup semis clash while Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor scored 67 and 74 respectively in the 2019 World Cup semis. In contrast Virat Kohli’s numbers make for an abysmal reading - 1 (2015 WC semis), 5 (2017 CT final), 1 (2019 WC semis). You can now add the WTC final numbers to the list as well.
Looking back on history, most great players have risen to the occasion on the big day. Vivian Richards, Aravinda de Silva, Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist have all cracked hundreds in World Cup finals while MS Dhoni fell just short of three figures in 2011.
Returning to the definition of greatness, a great batsman not only scores a lot of runs but does so under pressure and on the grandest scale of all. The bigger the occasion, the better the performance - that’s what greatness is all about.
Putting Virat Kohli’s 'most successful captain' tag to test
If we look at pure numbers, Virat Kohli is the most successful Indian captain in the traditional format of the game by some distance. He has led India to 36 Test wins in 61 matches and has lost only 15. MS Dhoni is second best on the list 27 wins and 18 losses from 60 matches.
Again, the numbers don’t paint the actual story. Of Virat Kohli’s 15 losses as captain, 12 have come away from home and one at a neutral venue (WTC final). His most impressive achievement as leader has been beating Australia in Australia in 2018-19. But that was an Aussie outfit who were without the suspended David Warner and Steve Smith, while Marnus Labuschagne had not yet announced himself.
When India defeated a strong Australian team earlier this year, Ajinkya Rahane was at the helm of affairs. Virat Kohli was back in India on paternity leave after the Adelaide disaster. Under the current captain, India have lost Test series’ in England, South Africa and New Zealand. So, like his predecessor Dhoni, Virat Kohli’s captaincy numbers too have been inflated by home wins.
Words are all I have?
Before leaving for the WTC final, Virat Kohli said at a press conference that India would go into the match believing they can beat New Zealand in spite of the latter having the obvious advantage, as they had already played two Tests in England.
However, just a few days before the match, Virat Kohli changed his tune and said that, the WTC summit clash is just another game, and “One game over five days is not going to reflect anything.”
What was the point for preparing hard for two years when the culmination “wasn’t going to reflect anything.”
Contrast this with Kapil Dev, who asked his team to give it all they had in defence of a small total in the 1983 World Cup final, or Imran Khan urging his side to fight back like wounded tigers in 1992.
This was not the first time that Virat Kohli’s word play had come into focus. After the loss to the Kiwis in the 2019 World Cup semi-final, the Indian captain famously commented: “45 minutes of bad cricket puts you out of the tournament. Difficult to take it.”
Were there any lessons learnt though? Another bad hour of batting on the last day of the WTC final cost them the championship. Asking for a best-of-three final is a good suggestion going forward but it cannot be a valid excuse for defeat, especially when India had their chances in Southampton.
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Virat Kohli may end his career with all the major records in the book. But his half-good alter ego, who turns up instead of the real Virat Kohli in big matches, will keep being asked uncomfortable questions. At 32, time is running out for Virat Kohli to authenticate the stamp of greatness that has been bestowed upon him prematurely.