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Do India Play Better Without Kohli?

Updated: May 17

When Sachin Tendulkar retired from cricket at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai in 2013, India was inconsolable. They had lost their chief, their god.

A nation so engulfed by its national game couldn’t go without a cricketing deity for too long and soon enough from the ashes of Tendulkar’s retirement rose Virat Kohli.

Sure, MS Dhoni received a certain level of clamour in Sachin’s aftermath, but it was Kohli who truly took the mantle.

Under Kohli’s influence, India became the first Asian side to win a Test series in Australia, look set to take a Test series win in England and have been in possession of the Test mace more often than they’ve not had it since he took charge. Early on in his career, prior to his captaincy, he also won the World Cup in 2011 alongside Tendulkar and Dhoni. This silverware accompanies his astonishing personal record of seventy international centuries and his various stays at the top of both the Test and ODI batsman rankings.

Despite this however, every great career relies so much more on international glory than personal achievement. The win in Australia will undoubtedly be Kohli’s international legacy, unless something really significant occurs in the rest of his career. Even Tendulkar didn’t achieve that…

Despite being a better ODI batsman and having achieved arguably better Test victories than Tendulkar, especially if we compare captaincies, the Little Master’s shadow will always loom large on Virat.

Of course time will tell and perhaps one day Delhi’s golden child will rise beyond even Sachin’s status, but that seems unlikely…

So what does Kohli have to do to surpass Tendulkar’s status in India?

Some reasons behind Sachin’s untouchability lie in his incredible longevity - the guy played at the top level of international cricket for nearly twenty five years, spanning the 1980s all the way up to the 2010s. In all of these decades he was one of the best in the world.

This is something that will remain unique to Tendulkar.

Kohli and Tendulkar match similarly in terms of batting achievement - no one can doubt either’s ability.

Something that does truly separate the two masters though is influence.

Both men are incredibly influential; both in terms of sporting achievement and nationwide (even international) opinion.

While Sachin was always seen to be humble in his god-like status - Kohli fully embraces it. This is no bad thing though.

Both can exist simultaneously and both be the correct way to handle fame and influence. Think about the great West Indian side where Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards existed but managed their ability and fame very differently.

One question does stick out though - how does Kohli’s celebrity affect the team’s he captains?

His cult of personality is arguably one of his greatest assets. To turn up and bowl to King Kohli is a thrill as much as it is a fear.

(Photo credit: Abu Dhabi Cricket)

But when does this cult of personality interfere with the success of the team?

India, across all three formats, have, and have had the best team of the last ten years.

Whilst other teams have risen and fallen - India have always been there or thereabouts.

In Tendulkar’s career span, no Test series was a gimme and every side had immense batsmen and ferocious bowlers. These days (such is the decline of the quality of Test cricket) some series are dead certs in India’s favour.

So why is it, despite this dominance, that India have been unable to cash in?

There has been the aforementioned Australian series win, but surely there should be series wins elsewhere round the world? India, like any great Test nation, make their home a fortress but away from home results haven’t been as clean cut. Kohli’s India have (as of the article’s publication) not yet beaten an inconsistent England or ever defeated a severely weakened South Africa.

Traditional minnows New Zealand are testament to these difficulties.

A nation of tiny proportions in comparison to India, the Kiwis bested the Indians in a one-off Test to the inaugural World Test Championship in Southampton. In fact, India have failed to win in New Zealand since 2008/9.

Let’s be clear, I’m not blaming Virat Kohli for the lack of complete dominance, that would be ridiculous to lay the blame solely at his feet.

But it does beg the question why, with the talent that India have, especially considering their once in a generation bowling line up, do they not have more victories and silverware?

This time last year, Kohli’s place was unquestionable. Both as a captain and a player, Virat reigned supreme. It is still unthinkable to drop the man - he’d walk into any side in the world - but is his captaincy beginning to show its cracks?

When India turned up to Australia last winter, no one expected a repeat of the 2018/19 series. Particularly after a loss in the first Test and the announcement before the beginning of the series that India’s best player and talisman, Kohli, would leave the touring party after the first Test. Owing to strict covid quarantining - India’s captain would not take part in the rest of the tour.

The rest is history.

Ajinkya Rahane led the Indians from a 1-0 deficit to a 2-1 win, marking back-to-back Test series wins in Australia. All without the man, everyone assumed, who could possibly lead them to another win Down Under.

History was against the Indians, but if there were any lingering doubts that the lack of Smith and Warner in the last Border-Gavaskar Trophy in Australia had hindered the hosts, the series result confirmed it. India are a better Test side than Australia.

The only Test Kohli played that series was the first Test where India were embarrassingly bowled out for 36 in their second innings.

Interestingly - when it came to the rest of the series - it was noted how often Indian players were seen to be smiling and enjoying their cricket after the first Test. Perhaps a slight suggestion into the way that the mindset shifted once Virat had flown home.

This togetherness of the Indian side felt like a call-back to the Indian sides of old. While Tendulkar was the most lauded of all the famous Indian batsmen, he lined up in a strong order of Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Virender Sehwag. The ultimate strength of the Indian team was a sum of its parts; on the rare occasions that Tendulkar failed, someone else would pick up the slack.

Under his captaincy, despite the talented line up around him: Rahane, Pujara, Rahul and Sharma - Kohli is always the centre of attention.

Another, now fairly well documented, case of Kohli’s potential negative influence is the supposed rift between himself and Ravi Ashwin.

While the case could be made for either Ravi Jadeja or Ashwin to be selected, Ashwin is considered to be the better all-round player.

If you have over 400 wickets to your name, you’d be rightfully upset if you ended up ferrying water to and from the middle for 25 days during the tour.

Even if the Kohli/Ashwin rift is just rumour, the fact that the off spinner hasn’t been in the captains plans does spark chat. Kholi’s cult of personality and his own dominant status within Indian cricket does make you wonder whether this is not a form based decision…

This is not a jealous moan at an easy target from a beleaguered England fan slowly watching his side slide from promising positions in the longer format to an agonising series conclusion. It is an investigation into a personality.

I know Kohli is good, the world knows Kohli’s good, but most importantly, Kohli knows that Kohli’s good.

Sometimes it feels that this status - however true it might be - is having a negative impact on the Indian team and limiting its potential to dominate in every form of the game.

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