It’s not unfair, it’s not gang war: it’s Kohli-ness versus greatness

Kohliness is a high emotion. It is a state of being. It embraces strangers into social media lives and drives friends from the real one. It is dangerous. It is beautiful. It is hate. It is love. It also drives otherwise rational human beings into emotional overdrive.

An experienced journalist who should really know better refers to Kohli’s well-orchestrated on-field exchange of words designed to rattle the opposition, as a gang war. Another brilliant scribe who I have great respect for, suggests Bumrah’s barrage of bouncers at Jimmy Anderson was “unnecessary and unfair”. And then goes on to suggest that “he [Bumrah] may have been advised by his captain”.

Indeed he may have. But those bouncers were neither unnecessary nor unfair. Anderson has played nearly 165 Test matches. He has abused and intimidated more batsmen in his time than have played Test cricket for India. He can give back what he gets. But Bumrah’s spell was so impactful that it even rattled the experienced Anderson and distracted his mind from its Zen focus when he came out to bowl.

The Bumrah-Anderson episode and its result was amygdala hijack at its classical best. The term, coined by Daniel Goleman, refers to a condition that occurs when our response is far more radical than the actual situation warrants, because we let our emotions take over our logical brain. Bumrah’s actions, aided by his captain’s visible and audible aggression, contributed in no small measure to Joe Root, and England, losing the plot.

Root took Anderson off and brought on Mark Wood to give Bumrah a taste of his own medicine. Physical fear, however, is something this Indian team have long put behind them. Bumrah and Mohammad Shami used the lack of intent to bat their team to a position of unassailable strength. All that was left was for them to join Mohammad Siraj and Ishant with the ball in driving the physical nails into the mental coffin that was the English batting.

The Lord’s victory, one of the most incredible turnarounds in Test cricket, should have been celebrated. Instead, some Indian journalists and a section of the fans have “played the man instead of the ball” so to speak, wasting precious newsprint and time on deriding the captain and his leadership style. The attacks have been sadly personal, directed by perceptions and preconceived notions of what is acceptable behaviour on a cricket field.

What all this angst about Kohliness (or Kohlism as it has also been described) has done is taken focus away from what India have achieved with Virat Kohli as the Test captain. And that is the only story we should be focusing on.

A call for greatness

Five years ago I penned a column in Australia’s The Roar, that some perceived as misplaced bravado. I wrote: “I know from experience that it’s never too early to make a good call. Those good early calls are what legends are made of. They are what separate the men from the boys. They are what reputations are built on.”

What I was suggesting to my readers was that Virat Kohli would go on to become India’s greatest captain. At that stage Kohli had been captain for less than two years and 17 Test matches.

The signs had all been there. Just before the Adelaide Test in 2014, MS Dhoni announced his retirement from Test cricket with immediate effect. Under his watch, India had dived off the ranking cliff and the freefall would only stop a few months later when the richest cricket team on the planet found itself seventh among eight Test playing nations.

Perfectly in keeping with the difference in form between the two teams at the time, Australia scored 517 and proceeded to take a lead of 363 runs before declaring. The battered and bruised Test captain that Dhoni was at the time, he would have in all likelihood played for a draw, and the team tamely buckled under the pressure, as they had numerous times since 2011.

Discretion, as the world would find out soon enough, is far from being the better part of valour in the Kohli lexicon. He went for the win.

Not content with the century he had knocked up in the first innings, Kohli led the way with 141 in the second, in partnership with Murali Vijay, who contributed a patient 99. Then, with 64 runs to get and 15 overs to get them in, Wriddhiman Saha was dismissed.

Kohli knew that the Indian tail has a spotted history as far as wagging is concerned. In sight of his first win as captain against the world’s best team and afraid of running out of partners, he made the same error of judgement that Sachin Tendulkar had done against Pakistan at Chennai in 1999. In trying to get the runs quickly and on his own, he perished. India lost the Test and the series.

What no one realised at the time was that the first seeds of Kohliness had just been sown, the blueprint for how Kohli’s team would play the game laid out, and the stakes of defiance firmly planted.

Back to 2016. When I made that call on his captaincy, Kohli’s India had not yet played England in England, Australia in Australia or South Africa in South Africa. It was hardly a surprise that my assertion we were looking at the possibility of captaincy greatness, was met with a mixture of derision and mirth.

Indian media and fans have long had a fixation with what are labelled the SENA (South Africa, England, New Zealand, Australia) countries. No Indian side is considered a good one until those shores have been conquered. Fair point, if one is winning against sub-par sides at home. But the wins that Kohli had piled up by 2016 were not. England, New Zealand and South Africa had been among the teams that had returned to their shores with tails between their legs.

By 2016, Kohli had already won more Tests as captain than Tiger Pataudi, Sunil Gavaskar and Rahul Dravid, with far fewer Tests at the helm than any of them. He was now only behind Dhoni and Sourav Ganguly.

It wasn’t just his captaincy that was making an impact. He was by now also the first cricketer in Test history to have scored centuries in his first three innings as captain. He had also become the first Indian Test captain to score not just one, but two double centuries on his watch.

And still the naysayers held sway.

Permanently stuck at the cusp of greatness

By 2018 they had been forced to change their narrative. Virat Kohli was by now what American sports scribes would call the winningest captain in the history of Test cricket. His team had had the second longest stay at the top of the Test cricket rankings – 43-months – since Rickey Ponting’s Australia.

So the critics moved their focus to his attitude. Kohlism was invoked. Virat Kohli was a foul-mouthed, aggressive brat and a bully who made everyone do what he wanted. He was a successful captain but mainly because home pitches were doctored on his insistence. The fall from such artificial heights was inevitable, and the balance of power in the universe was about to be restored.

Then Kohli went and changed the storyline. He led India to their first series win in Australia in 70 years. Two years later, the team he had built brick by brick, ably led by his deputy Ajinkya Rahane after Kohli returned home for the birth of their first child (lack of commitment and abandoning his team were the inevitable refrains), beat Australia for the second successive time. The win was sealed with six of the first team players injured, at Fortress Gabba, the one ground on which most Aussies banks would underwrite a home win without feeling the need to charge fees.

Kohli’s boys then decimated England at home. Inevitably, the crushing victory was derided as undeserving of praise since the pitches were spinner-friendly.

The reality that India’s long tradition of spinners on home pitches had failed to dominate the opposition enough to win series after series cuts no ice with the critics. They ignore the point that it takes more than friendly pitches and talented individuals to build a winning culture. The fact that this is a bunch of youngsters who play as a team that enjoys performing together and not a collection of competing individuals, is only of marginal interest. And that it takes a special leader to build a high performing team that is the epitome of fitness and remains hungry and motivated to keep winning and continuously improving, is an alien concept to the non-believers.

So it was hardly a surprise that when India lost the one-off final of the World Test Championship to the current saints of Test cricket, New Zealand, under weather and pitch conditions the Kiwis would have paid to play in, the knives came out again.

Once again, context was at a premium.

One match, and sometimes even an isolated moment makes the difference between a champion and a runner-up. No one knows that better than Kane Williamson. It was his turn at redemption at Southampton. Kohli will get his at some point at an ICC tournament, the latest bugbear of Indian fans.

In the meantime, one would think that perhaps Virat Kohli’s 59% win ratio as a Test captain, third in the history of cricket only behind Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting, would count for something. Or perhaps the fact that having led his country 63 times, more than any other captain in Indian cricket, and won 37 Tests, 10 more than his predecessor Dhoni, would cut him some slack. Or perhaps even the mere detail that he has led India to victory in a stunning 16 of the 20 series of which he has been in charge would be some recompense for his sins.

But despite Lord’s and a series victory that seems inevitable as Root and Kohli go out to toss at Headingley, quite unbelievably, the latter’s position in Indian cricket history is still being debated in parts of the media and among a sizeable section of fans. And sadly, no matter what he does, that will not change.

Every miraculous victory, like the one at Lord’s, needs to be savoured. Some day when Virat Kohli has laid down his bat and become an elder statesman of cricket, his countrymen will look back and realise what he has meant for the sport in India and around the world. The epiphany will strike them that Kohliness and Greatness are two sides of the same coin.

Sadly, it will be too late to celebrate the present by then.