Under Kohli, India played every match looking to win, even if risky

The eternal legacies Kohli leaves behind are an uncompromising commitment to fitness and a strengthening of the pace arsenal that has allowed India to be a tremendously competitive force away from home.

Virat Kohli’s unexpected decision to call time on his Test captaincy reign has brought the curtain down on inarguably the most colourful and successful tenure of any skipper in Indian cricket.

Earmarked for that role from the time he led India Under-19 to the World Cup title in Kuala Lumpur in 2008, Kohli’s transition as first Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s deputy and later his successor was as organic as it was seamless. There couldn’t have been a greater contrast between the two men. Dhoni was calm, composed, inscrutable, his face giving nothing away even in the gravest of crises; Kohli was excitable, in your face, emotional, wore his heart on his sleeve and thought little of engaging the opposition in verbals, even if it didn’t endear him to all comers.

His methods were unorthodox, steeped in his conviction and gut feel. He didn’t always go by the book, imbibing a streak of Imran Khan to his leadership style and emboldened by having the support for the longest of time from an officialdom that seemed in awe of his personality. Between the Board of Control for Cricket in India and the Committee of Administrators who ran the sport during a period of transition, Kohli was the lord and master of all he surveyed, empowered and encouraged to make the calls he believed were in the best interests of Indian cricket.

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The circle of life has caught up with the 33-year-old in the last few months, following a change in administrative leadership in the BCCI and with his unflinching guiding hand, former head coach Ravi Shastri, no longer around to insulate him from the outside world. His own diminishing returns with the bat haven’t helped; as the runs dried up, the aura around Kohli began to fade somewhat, the dim coating spreading alarmingly across the board once his team failed to progress beyond the Super 12s of the T20 World Cup in the UAE in October-November.

Just four months ago, Kohli was India’s unchallenged leader across all three formats. Now, he is a king without a kingdom largely by choice, though the transfer of power in the ODI format could and should have been handled with greater sensitivity and empathy by the BCCI.

How will history judge Kohli, the Test skipper? As an overwhelming success, of course, going purely by numbers. Kohli won more matches than any other Indian captain (40 out of 68), and among all non-Australians to have led their sides in at least 20 Tests, no one has a higher success percentage than his 58.82. Those alone are enough to secure his place in the pantheon, but with Kohli, it has seldom been about numbers.

One of his greatest assets is his immense self-belief and the burning desire to follow his instincts, never mind if the rest of the world didn’t always see merit in his methods. When he took over from Dhoni on a full-time basis in January 2015, India were languishing at No. 7 in the ICC Test rankings. Even at that stage, in his only previous stint as stand-in captain, Kohli went with his gut and preferred rookie leggie Karn Sharma to the proven R Ashwin for the Adelaide Test in 2014. The move backfired spectacularly; Karn hardly made an impression in his only Test while Australian offie Nathan Lyon picked up 12 wickets, but even in that game, another of Kohli’s uniqueness compared to his predecessors shone through.

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Conservative out of necessity and compulsion, several of India’s former captains had blanched at Kohli’s audacity to keep chasing victory even though the risk of defeat was genuine. In the end, India’s quest for 347 in 90 overs at the Adelaide Oval fell short despite the stand-in skipper making his second ton of the game, but a strong statement had been made to the rest of the side – under Kohli, India would approach every match looking for victory even if it meant courting the occasional defeat.

It took him a little bit of time and a chastening defeat in Galle in 2015 to get his mates to buy into his thinking. The tentativeness and lack of attention to detail that spun India to their doom in a Test they dominated for three-fourths of the way firmed up Kohli’s resolve that there was no place for timidity and circumspection in his reign. Players were encouraged to be adventurous and positive, to take ownership and responsibility.

At times, Kohli and Shastri seemed to overdo the horses-for-courses policy which triggered waves of insecurity within the camp, but the ends seemed to justify the means as the team became a more significant entity than self.

But the eternal legacies Kohli leaves behind are an uncompromising commitment to fitness and a strengthening of the pace arsenal that has allowed India to be a tremendously competitive force away from home.

Kohli’s physical transformation from a chubby young man to a chiselled athlete, bolstered by lifestyle and dietary changes, was to prove to be a seminal development in Indian cricket. Feeding off his experiences of enhanced fitness levels, Kohli demanded the same of his teammates, bar none. The emphasis on fitness brought handsome dividends as players were able to remain fresher for longer and therefore make smart decisions even towards the end of long, tiring days. If India’s rejuvenated pace attack is still capable of cranking up speeds of 140 kmph on the final hour of a searingly hot day, that can be attributed to the insistence on fitness. As a bonus, awareness of and investment in fitness filtered down to domestic and age-group cricket, a legacy Kohli can be immensely proud of.

Also read: India’s ageing middle order blown away by SA’s top-class pace attack

The other significant focus-shift Kohli and Shastri embraced was approaching every Test as a home game, thus taking pitch and conditions and the toss out of the equation. They realised that for India to challenge Australia, England, South Africa and New Zealand in their backyard, they could not rely on spin or one or two pacers. There had to be a sustained frontal attack from a battery of pacers, which is how the current unit was shaped by Bharat Arun, the former bowling coach. If India are a feared side overseas, it’s not hard to see why.

Kohli has plenty to offer Indian cricket in his new avatar as a batsman alone. Unshackled by the cares of captaincy, he can focus on his own batting which has slipped somewhat. Knowing him, the first steps towards that end have already been taken.

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