Virat Kohli’s decision-making in the Kanpur Test against New Zealand has shown what Indian Test cricket has been sorely missing. We look back at how things were once colorful in the white-uniformed format, and how the Indian skipper has turned the clock back with his leadership.
It was an Indian summer, but the sun shone over the subcontinent as if spring had come early when Australia came visiting in 2001. But it was dark days for Indian cricket after it had slipped into a decade of mediocrity before Sourav Ganguly took over the reins. All the doubts were smashed to bits on March 15, 2001 when the country witnessed an epic turnaround at the Eden Gardens. From inevitable defeat, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid gave every Indian fan enough to stand up and applaud. But Ganguly’s decision to declare and set Australia a target of 384 surprised many. Few expected the team to win and now when a draw was possible, why declare the innings? It was a good surface to bat on, and the mighty Aussies who were on a 17-Test winning streak were capable of doing anything. But India did not show any nerves as they ran through the star-studded Aussie batting line-up.
It defined India’s approach in Tests for the next decade, mostly under the captaincy of Sourav Ganguly. Under his leadership, the Indians shed their bad tourist image as they took England and Australia on their own turf, winning Tests, levelling series. Surely, their attacking intent was not always met with success like losing the series 1-2 to Australia at home in 2004. But the team was adventurous, imaginative and most importantly, entertaining. Bold decisions remained a part of our game plan even after Ganguly was stripped of his captaincy. It was the same approach that yielded India their first Test series win in England under Rahul Dravid as they refused to surrender their 1-0 lead throughout the series. Despite losing the third Test of the 2008 series in controversial fashion, the Indians replied with a resounding victory in Perth under Anil Kumble’s captaincy which exemplified the way Indians played Test cricket. But the captaincy changed hands to MS Dhoni, and soon, the word “Controlled-Aggression” started being used frequently.
While the sun shone bright, India walked off with innings victories and dominated entire series. But when they lost, they lost badly and what was more agonizing was to see the team go down without a fight. 2011 of all, was a year to forget for every Indian fan as England toyed with India humiliating them with a 4-0 series result.
Then came the Australian summer of 2011, and the Aussies handed India another 4-0 whitewash. It clearly smacked of a lost hunger, the urge to kill off the match before things headed towards a dull draw. This was perfectly depicted during the third Test of West Indies tour in 2011, when India were set a target of 180 to chase down in 47 overs on what seemed liked a decent wicket. India were already 94/3 just before tea, and with 15 overs remaining, Dhoni agreed for a draw rather than going for the win.
The conservative tactics continued even though India’s results overseas improved in the next four years, and Dhoni still holds the lowest win percentage (20%) for an Indian Test captain abroad. His field positioning when opponents were on back foot was questionable as it was aimed at containing the run flow rather than picking up wickets. It was criticized by many, but Dhoni stuck to his philosophy concentrating too much on the process rather than the result. It was evident that he would be succeeded by Virat Kohli who was named Vice-Captain of the team in 2012. When it happened in 2015 during the Australian tour, there was a stark contrast between both of their styles. After taking up the captaincy, Kohli’s tactics showed that the man wanted to force results rather than wait for things to unfold. He showed it in his second Test as captain as his counter-attacking knock of 141 against Australia brought India close to chasing a target of 364.
He also led India to their first Test series win outside in his first series as the captain beating Sri Lanka 2-1 in 2015. His captaincy at home was what was expected for an Indian captain - India trounced South Africa 3-0. It was an indication of things to come as India came back after losing the first Test to win the series against the Lankans. In Anil Kumble, the Delhi-born batsman has found a coach and a tactician who shares his aggression, and it has shown during the recently concluded series in West Indies.
Kohli's decision to declare the innings on the final day of the third Test after India’s lead extended beyond 300 clearly shows that his captaincy is always more about the result. Kohli made a statement about the approach this Indian side will have in the years to come by declaring the second innings in the third Test against West Indies. At 217/7, India could have gone on to set the target above 400 runs, but Kohli kept looking at the number of overs left in the day's play which shows how well he trusts his bowlers. Mohammed Shami and Bhuvaneshwar Kumar obliged and ran through the West Indies batting line-up handing India their second Test series victory on West Indian soil. The skipper's plans in the Test also served as a fitting reply to the statements made by the critics after the second Test draw in the series and brought back memories of Ganguly’s captaincy.
It was also seen throughout the first Test at Kanpur in the ongoing series against New Zealand. In the first innings, once Tom Latham was dismissed for an LBW off Ashwin, Kohli immediately brought in the second slip for Ravindra Jadeja and a forward short-leg for the off spin of Ashwin. He further cornered the batsman by introducing a leg slip in Ashwin's bowling and due to this, the batsmen had no other way than to play with a straight bat. This spelt a nightmare for the Kiwi batsmen on a viciously turning track as they struggled to adjust their footwork-- even a technically sound batsman like Kane Williamson was unable to focus under the pressure put on him as Ashwin's unexpected delivery rattled the stumps. And just under two sessions, New Zealand's batting was dismissed for 262.
This approach of playing risky cricket, though not always successful, will ensure we win more than we lose. More importantly, Test cricket’s likely No. 1 team needs to be its greatest ambassador - aggressive cricket that reminds you of the Invincible Aussies of the last decade. In fact, the baton has not passed over from that team and remains unclaimed. This Indian team has all the qualities needed to take over that mantle - an aggressive captain, a capable pace battery, world-class spinners, and an all-rounder.
The victory in West Indies could be the start of another era when Indians are feared abroad and the resounding first Test win against New Zealand could send out a statement for the teams that are about to visit India next. It’s a change in the mental make-up that was necessary, and Kumble’s arrival appears to have catalyzed the spark that Kohli already possessed. Better times for Test cricket await us.