Neither Kohli nor coach Shastri believe they are answerable to anyone but themselves. But they should at least ask themselves the tough questions.
Virat Kohli averages 64.84 when he is leading India in Test cricket. He has scored 15 gorgeous centuries in that reign, each a masterpiece in its own way. As captain, his average is more than 10 points higher than his overall numbers. Yet, even as he has gotten better and better as a batsman-captain, his teammates have slowly, steadily but surely regressed.
M. Vijay was the bedrock of India’s Test batting less than two years ago. He left the ball better than most openers in the world, had patience that matched his ‘Monk’ nickname, and knew his game well enough to shift gears and make it count once he had done the initial hard work. Now, the same Vijay is tentative, edgy, and has all the presence at the crease of a millionaire at a supermarket check-out counter who has had his credit card declined.
Cheteshwar Pujara never had the tightest technique, something that was exploited when he travelled, but he made up for this with a stubborn determination not to give his wicket away. Pujara scored ugly runs, sometimes painfully slowly, but he kept the wolves at bay long enough for the swashbucklers who followed to feast when their turn came. This year, Pujara has spent every free moment he’s had in England, playing domestic cricket in an attempt to understand the conditions, and yet, never once threatened to get into something approaching good form.
Ajinkya Rahane was that rarest of rare Indian batsmen, a far more accomplished player of quick bowling than slow. Against spin he was often hard-handed, almost Australian in his approach, but he had heart against raw pace, fast hands against seam, and an ability to play late against swing. Now, the same Rahane, who was India’s knight in shining armour as recently as the tour of South Africa, does not appear to know whether he is coming or going.
In four completed innings on this tour of England — something the team and its management touted as their best chance to win a series on those shores — no batsman other than Kohli has crossed 33.
Just to make matters worse, Kohli has exactly five days to recover from a sore back, an injury that first made an appearance in South Africa and left the captain grimacing after every second-innings stroke and forced him to hobble off when he fended a short ball from Stuart Broad.
Shikhar Dhawan flashes, and flashes hard, to quote the coach from his more familiar role as commentator, and that brings boundaries in India and edges overseas. Dinesh Karthik makes a strong case for himself whenever he is out of the team, but once he gets in he has not been able to make the opportunities count.
Making the worst of a bad situation
India had the worst of the batting conditions at Lord’s — there are no two ways about that — but in two completed innings, they lasted 82.2 overs, a little less than one day’s play. England declared with three wickets in hand and they had batted 88.1 overs. India’s batting line-up was up against far better bowling than their English counterparts, but in scoring 107 and 130, the full deck of eleven did less than Chris Woakes, batting at No.7, who was yet to be dismissed on 137. Surely this can’t be put down to a variation in conditions, even as fickle as the weather is in an English summer.
After the first Test, in which Kohli batted like a dream while the other Indian batsmen endured their personal nightmares, the captain said his team needed to take a long, hard look at themselves in the mirror. They might have seen yo-yo test-certified six packs, manicured beards and fierce tattoos, but they could find neither enough runs nor wickets.
After the second Test, Kohli was gracious enough to admit that the combination he picked might have been “a bit off” — a fair point considering Kuldeep Yadav bowled nine wicketless overs as seam and swing dominated. But Kohli would have known that Kuldeep had not played a Ranji Trophy match since December 2016. Taking wickets when batsmen are constantly attacking you in white-ball cricket is one thing, being able to draw the mistake when they are wearing white clothes is a different skill altogether.
If this point has been made over and over again, it is only because it bears repeating: In 37 Tests as captain, Kohli has not played the same 11 in two consecutive Tests even once. Even allowing for injuries, form and horses for courses, this is a remarkable statistic and one that has come to define Kohli the captain.
Is it possible that this constant chopping and changing has had an effect in unsettling the batsmen? Is it probable that this lack of certainty has planted the seeds of insecurity in a batting line-up that once had the potential to be the best in the world? Is it likely that this revolving door policy has left batsmen so unsure of themselves that it reflects in their decision-making at the crease?
These are questions that go unanswered, despite being asked repeatedly, because Kohli and Ravi Shastri don’t believe they are answerable to anyone but themselves. These are questions that are brushed aside as the pathetic meddling of journalists and fans who do not understand what it takes to play at the highest level and, for some reason, want to see the team they support fail. These are questions that remain unaddressed even as the batting coach, Sanjay Bangar, has been in the job four years and yet not one batsman has enhanced his reputation.
The players may think they have nothing to do but bat on regardless, but as the losses stack up, they will find that that there is less joy to be taken from the game and the world is a much lonelier place when you are not a winner. If they want to spare themselves that fate, they should ask themselves the tough questions, even if they don’t want to give anyone outside their bubble the answers.
Anand Vasu is a freelance journalist. He tweets @anandvasu