Watching Virat Kohli play two exquisite square drives against Australia in March 2016, I tweeted: “There goes my boyhood hero G. R. Viswanath from my all time India XI.” Those boundaries formed part of a match-winning innings of 82 in a T20 World Cup quarter-final, and they confirmed for me Kohli’s cricketing greatness.
I had first been struck by how good he was when watching, at the ground, a hundred he scored in a Test in Bangalore in 2012. Against a fine New Zealand attack, Sachin Tendulkar looked utterly ordinary, whereas the man who, the previous year, had carried Tendulkar on his shoulders in tribute was totally in command. Two years later, I saw on the telly every run of his dazzling 141 in Adelaide, when, in his first Test as captain, Kohli almost carried India to a remarkable win.
The admiration had steadily accumulated. So, as he struck the miserly James Faulkner and Nathan Coulter-Nile for those two defining boundaries in that T20 match in 2016, the sentimental attachments of childhood were decisively vanquished by sporting prowess. Virender Sehwag and Sunil Gavaskar would open the batting in my fantasy XI; Rahul Dravid and Tendulkar would come next; and Kohli alone could be No. 5.
That was two years ago. Now, after the staggering series of innings he has played since – not least that magnificent 153 in India’s most recent Test – I would go even further. In all formats and in all situations, Kohli might already be India’s greatest ever batsman.
Their orthodoxy and classicism, which served Dravid and Gavaskar so well in the Test arena, constrained them in limited-overs cricket. Sehwag had a spectacular Test record, but his one-day career was, by his own exalted standards, rather ordinary. Tendulkar was superb, often supreme, in the first innings of a Test, but he was not entirely to be relied upon in the fourth innings, or even when batting second in the 50-overs game. Besides, being captain made Tendulkar nervous and insecure in his strokeplay. On the other hand, captaincy only reinforces Kohli’s innate confidence, and of course, he is absolutely brilliant while chasing.
“No one in the entire history of the game in India has quite had Kohli’s combination of cricketing greatness, personal charisma, and this extraordinary drive and ambition to win for himself and his team”
I have met Kohli only once, and am unlikely to ever meet him again. But from our single conversation, and from what I have seen of him otherwise, I would say that of all of India’s great sportsmen past and present, he is the most charismatic. He is a man of a manifest intelligence (not merely cricketing) and of absolute self-assurance. Gavaskar and Dravid were as articulate as Kohli in speech, but without his charisma. Kapil and Dhoni had equally strong personalities but lacked Kohli’s command of words.
I was witness to the reach and range of Kohli’s dominating self in my four months in the BCCI’s Committee of Administrators. The board’s officials worshipped him even more than the Indian cabinet worships Narendra Modi. They deferred to him absolutely, even in matters like the Future Tours Programme or the management of the National Cricket Academy, which were not within the Indian captain’s ken.
In any field in India – whether it be politics or business or academia or sport – when strength of character is combined with solidity of achievement, it leads to an individual’s dominance over the institution. And the fact is that, on and off the field, Kohli is truly impressive. No one in the entire history of the game in our country has quite had his combination of cricketing greatness, personal charisma, and this extraordinary drive and ambition to win for himself and his team. The only person who came close, even remotely close, is (or was) Anil Kumble.
Kumble was, by some distance, the greatest bowler produced by India. He was a superb thinker on the game. Moreover, he was well educated, well read, and had an interest in society and politics. And he was not lacking in an awareness of his own importance, although he carried his self-belief in a Kannadiga rather than Punjabi fashion.
It may be that Kumble alone is in the Kohli league as a cricketer and character. That perhaps is why they clashed and perhaps why Kumble had to go.
But why was he replaced by someone so strikingly inferior, in character and cricketing achievement, to the team’s captain? A person with no coaching experience besides? Only because, like the BCCI, the chairman of the Supreme Court-appointed Committee of Administrators surrendered his liberties and his independence when confronted by the force of Kohli’s personality. As did the so-called Cricket Selection Committee. Ravi Shastri was chosen over Tom Moody (and other contenders) because Vinod Rai, Tendulkar, Sourav Gangulyand VVS Laxman were intimidated by the Indian captain into subordinating the institution to the individual. The unwisdom of that decision was masked when India played at home, against weak opposition, but it can no longer be concealed.
Had the BCCI thought more about cricket than commerce, we would not have had to go into this series against South Africa without a single practice match. Had the selectors been wiser or braver, India might not have been 2-0 down now.
Some Kohli bhakts will complain at the timing of this article, written after the Indian captain played such a stupendous innings himself. But this precisely is the time to remind ourselves of how we must not allow individual greatness to shade into institutional hubris. Kohli did all he could to keep India in the game, but the power of an individual in a team game can go only so far. Had Ajinkya Rahane played both Tests, had Bhuvneshwar Kumar played this Test, had India gone two weeks earlier to South Africa instead of playing gully cricket at home with the Sri Lankans, the result might have been quite different.
The BCCI and their cheerleaders brag about India being the centre of world cricket. This may be true in monetary terms, but decidedly not in sporting terms. From my own stint in the BCCI, I reached this melancholy conclusion: that were the game better administered in India, the Indian team would never lose a series. There are ten times as many cricket-crazy Indians as there are football-mad Brazilians. The BCCI has huge cash reserves. With this demographic and financial base, India should always and perennially have been the top team in all formats of the game. If India still lost matches and series, if India still hadn’t, in 70 years of trying, won a Test series in Australia (a country with about as many people as Greater Mumbai), then surely the fault lay with how the game was mismanaged in the country.
To the corruption and cronyism that has so long bedevilled Indian cricket has recently been added a third ailment: the superstar syndrome. Kohli is a great player, a great leader, but in the absence of institutional checks and balances, his team will never achieve the greatness he and his fans desire.
When, in the 1970s, India won their first Test series in the West Indies and in England, Vijay Merchant was chairman of selectors. When much later, India began winning series regularly at home, the likes of Gundappa Viswanath and Dilip Vengsarkar were chairmen of selectors. Their cricketing achievements were as substantial as that of the existing players. They had the sense to consult the captain on team selection, but also had the stature to assert their own preferences over his when required. On the other hand, the present set of selectors have all played a handful of Tests apiece. The coach, Shastri, played more, but he was never a true great, and his deference to the captain is in any case obvious.
In Indian cricket today, the selectors, coaching staff and administrators are all pygmies before Kohli. That must change. The selectors must be cricketers of real achievement (as they once were). If not great cricketers themselves, they must at least have the desire and authority to stand up to the captain. Likewise, the coach must have the wisdom and courage to, when necessary, assert his authority over Kohli’s (as when Kumble picked Kuldeep Yadav, a move that decided a Test and series in India’s favour). And the administrators must schedule the calendar to maximise India’s chances of doing well overseas, rather than with an eye to their egos and purses. (The decision not to have an extended tour of South Africa was partly influenced by the BCCI’s animosity towards Cricket South Africa.)
Only when India consistently win Tests and series in South Africa, and only when they do likewise in Australia, can they properly consider themselves world champions in cricket. They have the team, and the leader, to do it. However, the captain’s authority and arrogance, so vital and important to his personal success, must be moderated and managed if it is to translate into institutional greatness.
Kohli is still only 29. He will surely lead India in South Africa again and he has more than one tour of Australia ahead of him. Two years ago he secured a firm place in my all-time India XI. My wish, hope and desire is for Kohli to end his career with him also being the captain of my XI.
Ramachandra Guha, a noted historian who has authored several cricket books, served on the Committee of Administrators for the BCCI, appointed by the Indian Supreme Court, before he resigned, protesting, among other things, inaction against conflicts of interest and a “superstar culture gone berserk”. This is an edited version of an article that was first published in the Kolkata Telegraph.