Two Captains on the Down
Takedown with no clear winner
The state of the empire is in disarray. England predictably fell catastrophically at the Ashes hurdle - leaving Joe Root the last man standing though not perhaps for much longer. Meanwhile India have been felled not only by South Africa’s unexpected dogged comeback but by the shenanigans within their own fiefdom that saw Virat Kohli relinquish the Test captaincy. So, where does that leave these great ambassadors of the game and Test cricket’s future teams?
At a time when England completed their surrender of their second consecutive Ashes down under, Kohli announced he was relinquishing the Test captaincy. Uncharacteristically passionate about cricket tradition in this day and age, Root and Kohli have been tireless ambassadors championing the cause of the five-day game. While time and tide do dictate that cricket captains will come and go, there’s something wrong with how the picture is being framed on the wall of cricket’s history.
On the field, the two captains and indeed players could not be more dissimilar. Joe Root and Virat Kohli are like chalk and cheese. One believes in hanging back and waiting, playing the patient game. The other has only known one way: all out aggression.
Yet both are illustrious, prolific batsmen who embraced the role of captaincy with open arms, even if they weren’t the popular choice to begin with. Now as both players stare at their professional twilight years - with sunset still a fair bit away - they stand on the cusp of revising their definition of what it means to play for their country when the name ‘leader’ is no longer associated with them, not in a healthy way anyway.
Given the brouhaha over the change in ODI captaincy and the communication disagreement relayed between the BCCI chief, Sourav Ganguly and a snubbed Kohli, it seemed only a matter of time before things came to a head in Indian cricket. With matters on the table during Kohli’s bizarre solo press conference, the South Africa tour might have already been lost as far as Kohli was concerned. After all, when it comes to cricket, the idea that the captain is the head is a misnomer as proven by the boards, particularly the BCCI time and time again.
Root meanwhile is holding out for a stay order on his own captaincy, and on England’s fractured Test cricket ambitions.
On one hand, though it was nothing short of a miracle in the pandemic age that a 5 Test series could be completed, the result a 4-0 drubbing barely spared England the ignominy of a whitewash and has left Test cricket in a lamentable state given its historic significance.
As the first fast bowler to be appointed captain of the Test team, Pat Cummins could have asked for a better start to his stint, even as Australia have struggled with leadership issues post the sandpaper scandal of 2018 - aided by England’s brittle batting bar Root and a controversial rest and rotation policy. That Australia seemed in turmoil just three weeks to the Ashes with an old scandal involving Tim Paine now recedes to the past.
By the time England arrived with wherewithal in the form of Mark Wood and Stuart Broad, Joe Root’s fated Ashes ship had already sunk despite his own impressive batting performance. It did England’s reputation no good over the past year when the men have barely mustered a solitary Test win in a dozen games.
Meanwhile, South Africa’s unexpected turnaround in what was expected to be the series that would go India’s way, breaching territory unconquered for 30 years, has meant Test cricket still has a beating heart outside of the big three teams. Without the resources of Anrich Nortje and then losing Quinton de Kock to paternal duties and to the modern malady of Test cricket retirement, Dean Elgar knew he had his work cut out.
But the tour has proved costly for India not only because they missed a golden opportunity but because it will likely go down in history purely because of the circumstances in which Kohli felt he had no choice but to step down.
There was always going to be a fallout for going up against the big bold brass. The position he held as Test captain was untenable after what had transpired in the past few months between himself and Ganguly, BCCI chief and former captain. Without his preferred coach by his side, Ravi Shastri, Kohli was fighting a solitary battle to consolidate his place as the top man in Indian cricket.
It is a far cry from Kohli’s initiation. Kohli immediately embraced the captaincy, albeit in an interim role on the tour down under in 2014, in Adelaide. Kohli has never believed in holding back, on the field or off it. So it must seem rather anti-climactic now to think back on the cheers that went up when Kohli played two sterling innings in both innings of that Adelaide Test which India nearly pulled off, although it meant they had to throw a draw out the window and accept the possibility of defeat in pursuit of trying to change India’s history. The writing was on the wall and Mahendra Singh Dhoni was history.
What cannot be taken away from Kohli is the fact that he is now India’s most successful captain, with 40 Test wins and an average of 58 which is far ahead of even Dhoni and Ganguly when it comes to Tests.
Now Kohli’s last antic as captain on the cricket field will be the infamous stump microphone incident that became the team’s venting confession box. While some have called the captain’s disgruntlement over the decision allowing Elgar to stay at the crease on the third day of the third and final Test a sign of typical aggression, others term the incident a case in point of players becoming too big for their breeches, to the point of demonstrating unbecoming behaviour on the field.
If anything, the petty wrangling on the part of the BCCI head honcho and the captain for his feeling slighted by the most bizarre of bland statements announcing the change of guard shows that cricket is anything but a gentleman’s game. After all, there was not much to cover up or deny as the saga dug out skeletons where Ganguly was not happy with Ravi Shastri’s candidature for coach and was not present during the latter’s interview in what has largely been scripted thereafter as an obvious snub, clearly favouring Anil Kumble who eventually had to leave after one year of disharmony with Kohli as the then Indian skipper.
If, in light of the Ashes debacle, Root is being accused of being an uninspiring, timid captain, and unchallenged only because there is no clear successor to take his place and lead, Kohli stands accused of leaving the team in the lurch for a personal slight when there is no clear successor here either. And if IPL trends dominate, it is likely that the next captain in England and in India might not have the Test credentials to stake a claim in the team as both player and leader, but be thrust to the role based on popularity and visibility which the IPL is generous to accord on anyone who chooses to embrace the job and the limelight.
England have the dubious experience of South Africa’s record to take down the captain of the opposition by series’ end. While South Africa would like to believe that they had something to do with Kohli’s announcement by playing out of their skins, the truth of the matter is that there has been a significant shift in Indian cricket’s hallowed corridors of power, unsubtle and unrefined, since India’s tour of England.
What must worry India is that even with the split captaincy announcement, neither Rohit Sharma nor Virat Kohli played under each other. KL Rahul, a frontrunner for the post, didn’t do himself a lot of good on the most scandalous couch on Indian television, and more recently when he produced an inane, impulsive reaction following Kohli’s remarks against the broadcasters when he too deliberately reached for the stump mic in the third Test only to confuse one and all by saying, “The whole country is against the eleven guys.”
If some like Daryll Cullinan have called out Kohli for getting away with this kind of impetuous behaviour for years, it does not send a great message that the next potential shoulders on which the Indian men will rest is a player who equates popularity with licence to be brash. Someone must draw the line somewhere, and it is clear that from the battle of pettiness the BCCI is not equipped to enforce the law, only to assert power in its own interest.
When Ganguly claimed that he had spoken to Kohli not to step down from the Twenty20 captaincy, it was not about largesse but about the practicality of timing, it being only a month then to the Twenty20 World Cup. Doubts about Kohli’s tenure were the worst kept secret of 2021, more so after Shastri’s departure and if one were to account for how the England tour ended. The BCCI even sent a nudge in that direction by leaving the gate open and bringing on Dhoni as team mentor, contradicting their version that Kohli was impulsive in the moment.
It was interesting that Ganguly used the opportunity to laud Kohli and also to state explicitly that it was Kohli’s personal decision. Where was the need to do that unless it had hit too close to home for Ganguly’s comfort as well?
Without his characteristic prolific runs behind him and the results a debacle given India’s recent away series wins, even if the tide had turned for him personally and for the team, Kohli’s days as captain were numbered even after split captaincy and Rohit Sharma’s name were deliberately floated within the cricket fraternity.
Stopgap captains abound, although their age argues that they are not ideal long term prospects. But the novices are still too wet behind the ears to take on the mantle of captaincy.
Joe Root, like Virat Kohli, continues to hold out hope and ambition. Even as he has become the cynosure of all eyes, as the most obvious scapegoat for England’s scathing indictment for their lack of Test cricket preparedness, bartering it for a more franchisee-based approach for a fast buck, adopting the Hundred over a strong county championship, and putting all their eggs in the white-ball basket after the 2015 Men’s World Cup.
Despite two tours down under that have been nothing short of shambolic, and being the only captain to have led his team through such history, Root, while pointing at the England and Wales Cricket Board to put more weight into reviving England’s Test goals through the domestic cricket structure, stated his own ambitions, not fazed by the result in Hobart or the horrendous collapse that rushed it within three days, saying:
“I’d love the opportunity to take this team forward and to turn things around. I’d love the opportunity to try and turn things around and for us to start finding the performances that you’d expect from an England Test team, which we’ve been lacking of late.”
Not many captains would be this brave to take the humiliation for much longer and that too at the cost of their personal prolific records which Root has continued to etch even as the team was going down. Will the ECB show patience and passion?
As final word, Dean Elgar had a pointed comment to make on where India might have lost the match in Cape Town:
“It was maybe a team under a bit of pressure and things weren’t going their way, which they aren’t quite used to of late. It (the non-dismissal decision and the stump microphone incident) played nicely into our hands that for a period of time, they forgot about the game and they were channelling a bit more of the emotional side of what Test cricket has to offer.”
Dare one say, India, or should one say, the BCCI lost the plot when the seeds were sown post Ravi Shastri for Virat Kohli’s ouster as captain and the takedown of one of the most powerful players on the field with no clear winner or straightforward leader in mind.