Top batsman, but Kohli the captain struggles to inspire
CENTURION, South Africa (AP) — Almost every time something hasn’t gone India’s way in South Africa, Virat Kohli has erupted in frustration.
Whether it’s throwing his arms in the air and shrieking at a misfield or a missed catch by one of his teammates. Or tossing his bat to the ground when a batting partner gets out. Or directing his disgruntlement at an umpire, an argument that cost the India captain a disciplinary charge and a fine in this week’s second test. Dissatisfied, Kohli took his complaints to a higher authority, remonstrating animatedly in the match referee’s office, too.
Such antics have become so regular during the series in South Africa that the local TV broadcaster has focused cameras on him at every opportunity, willing the opposition’s best player and leader to get upset over something in close-up.
And then on Wednesday, when top-ranked India’s defeat in the second test and the series was confirmed, there was a collection of sharp exchanges between Kohli and reporters, both Indian and South African.
A couple of them threatened to break out into full-blown arguments.
At one point, Kohli, clearly annoyed, started to bicker with a journalist over India’s continued failures to perform in big series outside of India. He responded to another question over India’s lineup by challenging his interrogator to name the best team if it was so easy.
“So you tell me the best 11 and we’ll play that,” Kohli snapped.
Eventually, he regained some composure to say: “I’m here to answer your questions, not to fight with you.”
As a player, Kohli is magnificent, as his 21 test centuries and batting average of 53.51 suggest, and as his 153 in India’s first innings of the second test at Centurion emphasized.
But as a captain, Kohli’s unforgiving style — the same style with which he approaches batting — hasn’t been so successful in South Africa.
It may seem impulsive to question the captaincy credentials of a man who led his team to nine straight series wins and the top of the test rankings before this loss in South Africa. But Kohli’s team has now lost convincingly on its first real challenge outside the sub-continent.
South Africa is a tough test for anyone but, away from home and in unfamiliar conditions, Indian players historically struggle more than most to adapt and their captain may need to be a little more subtle, a little more patient. India has big series in England and Australia over the next year, when its away form, and not its predictable home dominance, will be the story.
In the first two tests in South Africa, every Kohli growl or glare directed at an underperforming teammate only appeared to inspire more mistakes, and more insecurity. While India is the No. 1 team in the world, it’s not the most settled, and maybe not the happiest.
Kohli hasn’t criticized any individual players in public. And his responses to questions, some of which would test the patience of many, have been for the most part diplomatic. He’s praised South Africa and acknowledged his team had to work harder.
Yet, behind the scenes there’s indications of a ruthless chopping and changing of personnel that could affect morale long-term: Nearly every one of the players in the India squad in South Africa, with the exception of Kohli, has been dropped at some point during his three-year reign.
A decade ago, when captain of India’s under-19 team, Kohli reportedly referred to himself as “a brat” and “arrogant.” Fine. He was a teenager. But nearly 30, a petulant streak still shows, encapsulated this week by the way Kohli flung the ball into the ground after his argument with umpire Michael Gough.
Kohli’s profile, possibly the biggest in the sport, may now be looming too large over the India team.
“We feel as an opposition that India is very reliant on Virat for runs,” South Africa captain Faf du Plessis said.
A team reliant on Kohli the batsman for runs is one thing. But beholden to Kohli for everything?