Virat Kohli has left the building. India’s most vocal captain, on and off the field, signed off from his Test leadership position via social media. A day earlier Kohli had addressed the media after India’s loss to South Africa in the Cape Town Test that gave the home team the series 2-1, but did not hint at stepping down. There was no intimation from the Board of Control for Cricket in India, not so much as a tweet or a media release. When he thought the time was right, Kohli called it.
In his time as Test captain Kohli led India in 68 Tests, winning 40 and losing only 17. Statistically, he is India’s most successful captain. Globally, too, he stands tall. Only South Africa’s Graeme Smith (53 wins), Australians Ricky Ponting (48) and Steve Waugh (41) have a better record as skipper.
Kohli has built a legacy that will probably live on long after him. This is of an Indian team that can and will win overseas, in any and all conditions. When he took over as captain, Kohli’s vision was of a side that could win in Australia and England. He achieved both by building a fast-bowling infrastructure that was previously absent in Indian cricket.
Kohli did not settle for one or two fast bowlers. He demanded he had a half-dozen at his disposal to choose from at any point, with any and all being able to win him matches. This school of thought needed the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru to work with the India A set up, advised by the Indian team’s coaching staff, to work together.
That this happened was a miracle of sorts, but it was a non-negotiable to Kohli. Once he had the resources, he deployed them. Even when it was not the most prudent move, at times when it might have cost India, Kohli played five specialist bowlers.
This allowed the bowlers in that group to grow individually and as a pack that hunted together. But it also meant that India’s batsmen were perpetually put on notice. The top order had to score or there would be hell to pay for.
What effect this had on Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane, whose careers seem in terminal decline, only time will tell. For now, Kohli the batsman comes to the fore.
Even children on the street in India know that it has been two years and 15 Tests since Kohli last scored a Test hundred. Kohli made 136 against Bangladesh in a pink-ball Test in Kolkata, but since then he has not been able to keep up the high standards he has set.
To add to the intrigue, Kohli announced in September last year that he would give up the captaincy of the Twenty20 International team, also via social media, to allow himself some much-needed mental space. When he did so, Kohli said that he looked forward to leading the Indian team in the 2023 50-over World Cup at home.
In December last year India’s selectors chose to unify the white-ball captaincy, which meant relieving Kohli of the 50-over leadership and handing it to Rohit Sharma. If he did not see the writing on the wall then, the most powerful man in Indian cricket, and by extension world cricket, seemed to have finally got the memo after India’s 2-1 loss to South Africa.
“It’s been seven years of hard work, toil and relentless perseverance every day to take the team in the right direction,” Kohli posted in his retirement statement. “I’ve done the job with absolute honesty and left nothing out there. Everything has to come to a halt at some stage and for me as Test captain of India, it’s now.”
“There have been many ups and also some downs along the journey, but never has there been a lack of effort or lack of belief,” he added. “I have always believed in giving my 120% in everything I do, and if I can’t do that, I know it’s not the right thing to do. I have absolutely clarity in my heart and I cannot be dishonest to my team.”
At 34, Sharma is not the obvious choice as the inheritor of Kohli’s legacy, but this is just as well as he is his own man. A batsman of excellence in his own right, Sharma now has the mantle he was probably best suited to years ago. He is an exceptional leader of men, as five Indian Premier League titles demonstrate, but even when he has been called upon to step in for India he has been creative and efficient.
What this means for Kohli is less clear. In all his career he has been the alpha, the top dog, the one running the team. It will be a challenge for him to adjust to life as a mere player, one batsman among many, even if special.
Once again in his cricketing life, Kohli will have to take instruction from someone else. How he deals with that will define his legacy, as much as his wins and losses as captain of the team.