Opinion: Virat Kohli Played To Win - With Him, There Were No Lulls

"The end of an era". No genre of writing has as much cliché in its lexical diet as sports journalism, and few clichés are more worn than this one. Yet, even in India, where eras are proclaimed dead all the time, the period in question is rarely the reign of a Test cricket captain.

In Australia and West Indies, Test cricket's historic powers, the great captains traditionally 'rode off into the sunset' at a time and place of their choosing. Armstrong, Bradman, Worrell, Lloyd, Richards, Border, Taylor, Waugh - none left in defeat, all retired as captain. Australia and West Indies have shaped the ideal of a Test captain as charismatic and omnipotent, a personality who defines his team.

The Indian experience has been very different.

India's first Test captain, CK Nayudu, was a disciplinarian. His style of leadership worked for his Ranji team, Holkar, but went down less well with his teammates on India's tour of England in 1932. By the end of the tour, his star fast bowler, Mohammad Nissar, was bowling badly on purpose in protest against Nayudu's criticism of his fielding. On the ship home, the middle-order bat SHM Colah threatened to throw Nayudu overboard. When India next toured, in 1936, Nayudu had returned to the ranks.

In many unfortunate ways, Nayudu, who led India in only four Tests, established the template. He was both the greatest Indian cricketer of his time and the most charismatic, but as Test captain, he was a failure. As with Nayudu, so too with 70 years of successors.

Indians as a rule do not retire as captain. They are either sacked or jump before they are pushed; either way, they don't relinquish the captaincy in happy circumstances. They usually continue playing under their successor(s). They have only fitfully enjoyed the loyalty of their players and the backing of the administrators. Bedi, Gavaskar, Kapil, Azhar, Tendulkar, Dravid - all fit the template. Like Nayudu, these are 'legends of the game' - each was at the time of his appointment, the team's leading batsman or bowler. They were sacked as captain or gave up a job they did not relish, and in Test cricket, they live on in collective memory as players, not leaders.

There are many reasons for this. Captaincy legends are built on team success, and until the early 2000s, India was Test cricket's perennial under-achiever. Our 1983 World Cup win, for instance, came in the midst of a run of thirty-one Tests without a win (for comparison, that is longer than Jasprit Bumrah's entire Test career). In earlier decades, the Indian dressing room was factionally divided, typically on regional lines. Before Independence it was widely believed that the captain had to be a prince, because players would not follow the lead of a social equal.

The upshot was that in India, eras were defined by star players, not captains. Our cricket culture valourized personal statistical milestones - young careers were held up to allow Kapil to break Hadlee's record or Tendulkar to score his 100th hundred.

Only two Indian men have defined a Test era as captains. Tiger Pataudi and Virat Kohli.

Many fans, particularly those old enough to remember Pataudi the captain, may bristle at the comparison. It is not just a matter of the obvious aesthetic differences between the nawab who exemplified what Sujit Mukherjee called "the romance of Indian cricket" and the self-made West Delhi boy whose approach to the game has often seemed more Australian than Indian. Tiger Pataudi's story is and will remain beyond compare in the history of world cricket, not just India's. Nine months after losing the use of his right eye in a car accident, he walked out in Barbados, the youngest of all Test captains. For the next eight years he defined, and redefined, Indian cricket. With two good eyes, he could have been, who knows, an Indian Bradman.

Let us accept that there will never be another like Tiger. As a Test captain, Virat Kohli came remarkably close.

Look past the obvious differences and you'll find a rather more significant set of parallels. Pataudi won our first series abroad - Kohli transformed winning abroad from aberration into expectation. Pataudi was the first Indian to successfully prioritize fielding; like Kohli, he led by example in this regard. Pataudi invented the all-spin attack, Kohli trusted and nurtured fast bowlers like no Indian before him. The end of their captaincy may have had more to do with a two-year decline in batting form (Pataudi's average fell from nearly 43 to under 37, Kohli's from 55 to 50) than team performance. Both happen to have married Bollywood stars.

But, to my mind, the two defining similarities are these. One, they played to win. Pataudi rescued us from the negativity that had stifled Indian cricket in the 1950s (including ten consecutive drawn India-Pakistan matches that may be the worst Tests ever played). He instructed curators to produce result wickets and encouraged risk-taking batsmen like Kunderan, Engineer and Durrani. His willingness to lose in the pursuit of victory rather than settle for a draw helped cost him his job in 1970.

Kohli too had no fear of losing if it meant he could attempt a win - he showed this in his first Test as captain, in Adelaide in 2014. And while his predecessor, MS Dhoni, appeared almost fatalistic about India's failures to win abroad, Kohli drove his fast bowlers to improve their fitness, leading directly to two series wins in Australia, and five Test wins in England and South Africa. In the Kohli era, India won at least two Tests in 15 different series - something that happened three times in the whole of the 1980s.

Two, at their peak they embodied Indian Test cricket through charismatic, unquestioned leadership. No other Indian Test captain can make a similar claim. They were both revered and loved by their teammates. They changed how Indians saw their Test team, and how other countries saw India.

I am too young to have seen Pataudi, except in grainy Films Division footage made grainier via YouTube. I was lucky enough to watch a lot of Kohli. The fact that cameras came back to him after every ball in the field was not a cynical marketing ploy. In the flesh, you couldn't take your eyes off Kohli. He never stood still, he lived as if every ball held the promise of turning a match. Test cricket stands out from all others sports for its lifelike or novel-like pacing, the fact that it has lulls as well as periods of hair-raising intensity. With Kohli, there were no lulls.

On the field, India did not immediately miss Tiger Pataudi. Vijay Merchant's sacking of our greatest-ever captain was rewarded by our greatest year in Test cricket, 1971. There is no reason why this team, too, should not prosper under another leader, especially if Kohli returns to something like his best batting form.

Captain-defined eras should be rare, even for winning teams. Unlike in T20, the value of captaincy is over-rated in Tests. Tests are usually determined by the ability of the players in the given conditions, not tactics. As cricketing clichés go, "A captain is only as good as his team" is one of the better ones.

Fifty years later, it is Pataudi, not his statistically-superior successor, Ajit Wadekar, who is remembered. If Test cricket lives another fifty years, it is not going to forget the captaincy of Virat Kohli.

(Keshava Guha is a writer of literary and political journalism, and the author of 'Accidental Magic'.)

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