Virat Kohli is his own man, that has been emphatically established, and particularly so in recent times. Test captain since January 2015, limited-overs international skipper since January 2017. The mastermind behind India’s return to the top of the Test rankings, the architect of stirring One-Day International campaigns. The undisputed leader of a charged-up, young pack, the unparalleled batting spearhead who only has an average in the Champions Trophy because he was dismissed without scoring against Sri Lanka, his first duck in 43 innings in ICC tournaments across formats.
This is very clearly Virat Kohli’s team. But this isn’t also just Virat Kohli’s team.
Blessed to have the gnarled, battle-hardened yet remarkably steady guiding hand out in the middle of Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Kohli has made the most of his good fortune. Kohli might be the leader, but the young skipper is far from the finished product – if indeed there can be any such thing. And, particularly when things have threatened to go south, he has been quick to turn to his predecessor for guidance and for wisdom, which Dhoni has been swift and willing to share.
One of the cuter terms used to define the process of succession across fields is ‘seamless transition’. As management phraseology, it is possibly designed to trigger images of a happy family with no bones of contention as you move from one era to another. In reality, seamless transitions are almost always only on paper; the cracks and misgivings are generally papered over, the doubts and fears and suspicions always lurking just beneath the surface. Seamless transitions are almost the stuff of folklore and fairytale. And yet, here we are, Dhoni’s men having metamorphosed into Kohli’s boys (the reversal of the ageing process at play) without missing a step, without losing rhythm and sync, poise and purpose. Practically seamless, if not perfectly so.
“If it took Dhoni a while to come to terms with the reality that he wasn’t really calling the shots anymore, it was beautifully concealed. And if Kohli himself did have any lingering doubts over whether his authority might be undermined, those have been emphatically laid to rest, as well. The Indian team may not be the diabetes-inducing happy family that characterised Sooraj Barjatya’s Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!, but it is a group in harmony and togetherness on the park, as successful units generally tend to be.”
One of the points of great interest when Dhoni relinquished the national limited-overs captaincy at the start of the year was how the new dynamic would work. How would Dhoni react to no longer being the man in charge, even if it was his own decision? Would Kohli look over his shoulder, worrying if the country’s most successful skipper would embrace non-cooperation, no matter if there had been no evidence to support that theory for close to a decade? And how would the players themselves adjust to the changed scenario? Kohli only assumed command of the Test team after Dhoni made a clean break from the longest format. But in white-ball internationals, Kohli would now be leading out a team that included the towering presence of the helicopter man. How would this pan out?
Quite nicely, thank you, as it has turned out. If it took Dhoni a while to come to terms with the reality that he wasn’t really calling the shots anymore, it was beautifully concealed. And if Kohli himself did have any lingering doubts over whether his authority might be undermined, those have been emphatically laid to rest, as well. The Indian team may not be the diabetes-inducing happy family that characterised Sooraj Barjatya’s Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!, but it is a group in harmony and togetherness on the park, as successful units generally tend to be.
Kohli is the unquestioned general, but Dhoni is no mere foot soldier. Were he relegated to that status, the Jharkhandi with sensibility as his middle name would gladly embrace that too, because he isn’t the sort that has clamoured for attention or positions or labels. Dhoni is at his happiest going about his job quietly, but it is a privilege he hasn’t enjoyed for nearly a decade and a half now simply because of his statuesque presence behind and in front of the sticks. But with Kohli turning to him more and more for guidance, particularly during tricky periods, the captain in Dhoni still has a chance to express himself.
Steven Smith benefitted from his clairvoyance and perspicacity at Rising Pune Supergiant, who astonishingly sacked Dhoni as skipper before the start of IPL 10. Admittedly, IPL teams are basically privately owned franchises and the ego-driven team owners are answerable to no one, both in the monies they shell out to procure players and in whatever management/leadership calls they might take. But to not even inform Dhoni that his services as captain were no longer required smacked of a certain disrespect and arrogance that didn’t go down well at all with Dhoni’s immeasurable legion of fans.
Dhoni could have been pardoned for maintaining his own counsel, for keeping his thoughts and ideas to himself, to have retreated into a cocoon of anger and disgust, but he did none of those. Instead, whenever Smith was in his ear, Dhoni responded with calm clarity, falling back on his years as a stellar performer and making the most of having the permanent best seat in the ground by virtue of being the wicketkeeper. If Smith had come into IPL 10 as a doubter, he left the tournament almost in awe of what statesmanship Dhoni brought to the table.
Kohli would have been far less of a doubter, of course, if at all. He has been the talking point of the Champions Trophy so far even though Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma have made more runs, and even though Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar have led the bowling attack outstandingly. Such is the Kohli persona that it generally shades everyone else; that he is the captain, and therefore perforce more in your face than his teammates, merely adds to the aura and the larger-than-life image that Kohli might not have coveted, but that he is happy to embrace now in its totality.
“Kohli is the unquestioned general, but Dhoni is no mere foot soldier. Were he relegated to that status, the Jharkhandi with sensibility as his middle name would gladly embrace that too, because he isn’t the sort that has clamoured for attention or positions or labels. But with Kohli turning to him more and more for guidance, particularly during tricky periods, the captain in Dhoni still has a chance to express himself.”
If Dhoni has been nearly invisible, it is only in terms of numbers. He has batted only once in four games, making a punishing 63 in a losing cause; he has just four catches to his name, even if two of them have been exceptionally difficult but made to look remarkably similar by inarguably the greatest wicketkeeper standing up. His quicksilver run-out of AB de Villiers has been somewhat glossed over by some of the more glamorous names, but without appearing to do anything out of the ordinary, Dhoni hasn’t just kept himself relevant, he continues to be the first among equals.
The introduction of Kedar Jadhav during the semifinal against Bangladesh, Kohli was to reveal later, was in confabulation with Dhoni. Bangladesh were handily placed at 154 for 2 and looking at 300-plus when the part-time office was summoned, and he picked up 2 for 22 in six overs to break the game open. “When moves like this pay off…,” Kohli trailed away, before quickly adding, “I won’t take the whole credit. Obviously I asked MS as well, and we both decided that Kedar is a good option at the moment.”
In the past as well, Kohli has turned to Dhoni for tactical assistance, and not only in the matter of use of the DRS. “His input is obviously always very precise, very helpful at any stage of the game. Sometimes it is just about asking him what he thinks of the fields and taking assurance. Obviously, you don’t want to feel isolated out there. Yes, you’re making decisions, but the inputs from such experienced players are priceless at any stage of the day.”
When Dhoni took over as Indian captain, he had a wealth of experience to fall back on, especially in Test cricket – Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, Zaheer, Harbhajan. For Kohli, the trail pretty much ends with Dhoni. And, as Kohli will readily acknowledge, it isn’t a bad place for the trail to end at.