It was a year when Indian fans had every reason to fall in love with Test cricket again, and much of the credit should go to Virat Kohli for his tactical acumen, as captain or as a batsman who continued to be on auto pilot.
As the Test team hit the high notes — they regained the No 1 ranking and dominated all three series during 2016 — it was how Kohli steered the side to the top and ensured a culture of performance that stood out.
The man who took charge with aggression the mantra on the 2014-15 Australia tour was assured enough to take the foot off the pedal and survey his tactical moves before finding fresh ideas to corner the opposition.
Kohli had another brilliant year as batsman across all three formats, but the second half of 2016 was also in focus over how he recalibrated his dominating style for the team’s cause while not depriving fans of any of his classy shots, which keeps him on course to become ICC’s No 1 ranked batsman in all formats.
IN ELITE COMPANY
He scored three double-centuries in 2016 to join an elite club which includes Don Bradman and Ricky Ponting, the quality of runs that flowed from his bat enhanced his standing as cricket’s biggest global ambassador.
Along with it, he pushed his teammates to strive for excellence.
The final Test against England in Chennai marked two years since Kohli first led in Tests, and as he set off on a deserved year-end break, one was left wondering whether he would have had any serious rivals if the ICC also had a Test Captain of the Year trophy.
India’s captain Virat Kohli reacting after win the England test series at MAC Stadium in Chennai. (PTI)
In the Adelaide Test at 2014 end, his stunning counter-attack almost got India home. In Chennai, on a hot day and a flat MA Chidambaram Stadium deck, it would have been understandable to shut shop and agree to a draw as England skipper Alastair Cook and fellow opener Keaton Jennings pushed their century partnership into the penultimate session of the game.
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But India’s bowlers, led by Ravindra Jadeja, crushed England. “It is all about figuring out if the wicket is playing nicely, what are the areas the bowlers can hit. It takes a bit of time, I guess, sometimes. You don’t just rush into decisions…,” Kohli explained after wrapping up the series 4-0.
He first used R Ashwin, and when chances didn’t lead to wickets, brought on Jadeja for his quicker pace and accuracy, which proved perfect for the conditions. Kohli’s in-your-face approach, much like the great Australia sides of the 1990s and early 2000s, may still surface. But mastering the waiting game in Chennai and bowling pace and spin in tandem proved a brilliant ploy in the end.
CAPTAIN AS BATSMAN
Kohli didn’t let captaincy hurt his batting, but importantly inculcated the spirit of team work, whether it was Ashwin keeping one end tight in Chennai for Jadeja to do the job, or the other way in the earlier Tests. Players have started to think of personal milestones as a byproduct, which will take India a long way.
For sheer controlled aggression, he had an ally in Ashwin, who has found new levels since re-emerging as a match-winner at the start of 2015 when Kohli took over.
The world No 1 is the leading Test bowler of 2016 with 72 wickets, and owes it to how Kohli has used him, which in turn has helped India extend their unbeaten run to a record 18 Tests, with 14 victories.
Karun Nair poses with man of the match trophy after win the test series at MAC Stadium in Chennai. (PTI)
Kohli’s task has been somewhat eased due to an elaborate set-up. Former skipper Anil Kumble has been the calming influence in the dressing room, and was an important factor in Cheteshwar Pujara regaining his best. Rahul Dravid, as the junior coach, has mentored those emerging from the ranks.
This has fitted perfectly with Kohli’s approach that the Test team will no longer be a place for newcomers to discover whether they belong and only finished products can come in. Young opener KL Rahul, rookie spinner Jayant Yadav, also the third link in India’s robust lower order batting line-up, as well as Chennai triple-centurion Karun Nair have acknowledged Dravid’s contribution.
Kohli has been compared with Sourav Ganguly for his ability to motivate players. Facing Australia in early 2017 is expected to help cap the long international season.
That will set the tone for overseas tours starting later next year, and provide India the big opportunity to show they can be the successors of the great West Indies and Australia teams.