Horses for courses. You’ve heard the phrase countless times from commentary boxes and coaches. Never change a winning combination. There’s another cricket cliché that is tossed around more than the average Greek salad. That the two phrases happily co-exist is down to the infinite variations cricket throws up, especially in the longest format of the game.
For most captains, the trick is balancing these two adages, but one man has thrown convention out the window, taking the horses-for-courses approach to its logical extreme conclusion. Virat Kohli has never been a slave to tradition, but the manner in which he has made team selection one of the cornerstones of his captaincy is something few could have predicted.
While he is just about beginning his stint as leader of the Indian team, he has already done the job 17 times in Tests, a number large enough to draw some conclusions from. Stunningly, Kohli has never played an unchanged XI in two consecutive Tests at any point. There have been instances when injury has forced his hand, but even when he had the full complement to choose from, Kohli has veered towards tinkering, especially with the bowlers, based on what he thinks the pitch might do.
When it comes off, and to Kohli’s credit it has more often than not, it looks spectacular. In New Delhi, against South Africa last year, on a pitch that looked like it would take turn from the first ball, Kohli brought Umesh Yadav into the XI with an eye on reverse swing playing a part. He was rewarded with probably the most consistent spell Umesh has bowled in his career and figures of 21-16-9-3.
More recently, in the West Indies, Kohli temporarily gave up his love for pace, bringing Bhuvneshwar Kumar into the mix in St Lucia. Once again, the result was spectacular. A Test that looked destined to meander into a draw came alive through one session of sustained swing bowling, Bhuvneshwar ending with 23.4-10-33-5 in an India win.
Instinct plays a key role in making these calls, as does reading a pitch accurately. If Kohli has to trust his gut when leaving out a player who has done the job, he is fortunate to have Anil Kumble in the dressing-room to bounce ideas off. Reading pitches is something not every cricketer is blessed with, but Kumble is a master at this. The key to Kohli’s choices has been having the foresight to determine what sort of bowler will be needed in the second innings of a Test when taking wickets can be hardest. On turning tracks, or pitches that deteriorate in a linear manner, you expect the spinners to do the job deep into the game, but not every pitch behaves that way. There are times when the surface eases out and becomes better for batting, and it is in such circumstances where having the right bowling combination makes the difference.
While tailoring the bowling unit to do the job in specific conditions is a fairly universal practice, the batsmen are usually left alone, expected to perform and score runs irrespective of the weather or wicket. In this too, Kohli has shown unusual flexibility. Dropping M Vijay in the West Indies was a bold move, harsh on the player, but it paved the way for KL Rahul going from being a stand-in, reserve option to a frontline opening batsman. Plumping for Rohit Sharma in a batting line-up that was comfortably doing the job was a bolt from the blue, and initially appeared to backfire, but scores of 82 and 51 not out proved to be important contributions in getting India across the line.
Just shy of his 28th birthday, Kohli’s best years as a batsman and captain are almost certainly ahead of him. Already, he has gone from being a hyper-aggressive member of the team, and batsman only, to a mature leader who can carry his troops with him. As his understanding of the abilities of those he can call on gets better, Kohli will only improve as captain. As he gets more experience under the belt, Kohli will be able to choose the moments when to go with his instinct and when to be more conservative.
Kohli the batsman is already close to the finished article, and if early signs are anything to go by, Kohli is learning fast what it takes to be a leader.