Give Virat Kohli time, folks

As is the norm, Indian captain Virat Kohli was blasted after India's humiliating defeat at Galle.

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Have some faith in Virat Kohli and his team © AFP
Have some faith in Virat Kohli and his team © AFP

It is all dust and buried. India have squandered a 192-run lead in the first Test at Galle. Sri Lanka were 5 for 3, then 95 for 5 before Dinesh Chandimal played the innings of his life. Despite all that, a target of 176 was not supposed to be big, given the quality of batsmen in the side. Instead, the Indians crumbled against Rangana Herath, the finest contemporary spinner, while young Tharindu Kaushal proved to be the perfect foil. The Indian line-up, perhaps out of inexperience against a spinner of this quality more than anything else, fell significantly short of 176. And as is the norm, Indian captain Virat Kohli was blasted.

Going into the Test, Kohli’s strategy was clear: he wanted to go with five bowlers. Rather than question the basics, let us now get into why Kohli opted for five bowlers. The two most successful teams in the past 50 years — West Indies from 1976 to 1994 and Australia during the first decade of the millennium — both used four-bowler strategies. Neither side had a world-class all-rounder; instead of playing the extra bowler, they opted for the extra batsman.

Why did they do this? The reason is simple: they had, in their line-ups, bowlers who can run through sides single-handedly. West Indies had a fast bowling line-up strong enough to keep Wayne Daniel, Sylvester Clarke, and Franklyn Stephenson out of the national side. Similarly, Australia had the likes of Jason Gillespie and Brett Lee to back Glenn McGrath; and when Shane Warne was out of action, they gave a break to Stuart MacGill, a 200-wicket bowler. All five are 200-wicket bowlers, with McGrath and Warne featuring in the top four on the all-time list. 

But what if the best bowlers were not available? McGrath’s wife’s illness made him stay home during Australia’s tour of West Indies, 2003. Warne was serving a drug ban. Steve Waugh remembered Brian Lara’s exploits from 1999. To back Gillespie, Lee, and MacGill, he picked both Andy Bichel and Brad Hogg for the first two Tests. Even after McGrath returned, he persisted with his strategy.

Why did Waugh do this? The thought was simple. He knew that the West Indies attack, spearheaded by Mervyn Dillon had a high probability of being thwarted by his five batsmen and Adam Gilchrist. On the other hand, Lara, supported by Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Ramnaresh Sarwan, not to speak of Daren Ganga and Chris Gayle, were a formidable proposition. The ploy worked. Australia went up 3-0 before West Indies won the dead rubber Test, albeit in a historic chase.

Why did Kohli opt for five bowlers? Remember, he has seen it all. He has seen India rue the presence of the extra bowler on multiple occasions in India’s four overseas tours. He has seen New Wanderers (chasing 450, South Africa reached 197 for 4 before Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers added 205), Basin Reserve (trailing by 246, New Zealand were 94 for 5 before Brendon McCullum and BJ Watling put up 352), The Gabba (Australia were 247 for 6 before they reached 505), and MCG (Australia were 216 for 5 en route to 530). 

Something was clearly not working. A change was on the cards. And Kohli, being the aggressive captain he is, went for it. Had Kohli had a proved overseas match-winner in the side, he may have thought otherwise; instead, he had Ravichandran Ashwin, finally finding his groove overseas; Harbhajan Singh, well past his prime; and Amit Mishra, picked almost as an afterthought after Yasir Shah’s exploits.

To go with them he had Ishant Sharma, who has seldom run through a side (Lord’s 2014 was an exception) and his customary new-ball partner, all of whom have shown promise but none have won Tests. None, I may repeat, none, is a proven match-winner overseas.

In other words, there was no Anil Kumble or Javagal Srinath or Zaheer Khan or an in-form Harbhajan. There was even no Venkatesh Prasad or S Sreesanth, two men who have run through sides overseas despite the inexplicable lack of respect they got from the whimsical, glamour-loving Indian fans.

Virat simply thought it would help if five of them were thrown into the mix. It was five men versus four. He had the option of falling back on the defensive six-four option, but, as was evident at Adelaide Oval, he is an aggressive, no-holds-barred leader. He went for the kill, wanted to win, put a lot at stake, and came back empty-handed.

How did India’s bowlers do? Barring the first two wickets, three of India’s five bowlers did not have an impact. Whose fault was it if they faltered? Whose fault was it that Sri Lanka were let off the hook from 5 for 3 and 95 for 5? Whose fault was it that Aaron conceded 107 from 18 overs? Or that Harbhajan and Ishant, between them, went for 150 from 30?

Other options have been discussed. Karn Sharma has been tried and discarded, albeit after a solitary Test. Akshar Patel bowls too flat, they say; while that means he would probably not get wickets, but will not go for over five runs an over. Ravindra Jadeja has, well, outlasted this tenure. 

Most significantly, there is the small matter of Pragyan Ojha, who did a good job in both ‘Tests’ against Australia A (10 wickets at 27.20); the rest of the bowlers claimed 14 between them (Mishra played in the first ‘Test’, and claimed five).

The problem does not lie with the five-bowler approach; it has more to do with who the bowlers are. Unfortunately, India does not have a spinner to match the Ashwin-Mishra-Ojha trio; Harbhajan has been drafted in for his T20 performance, but Kohli had probably banked on his experience as well.

As for the fast bowlers, Ishant, despite everything, is probably the best chance. Aaron averages 55 with an economy rate of 4.91; Umesh Yadav is better, 38 and 4.36; Bhuvneshwar Kumar is not much better (35), but at least he goes at 3.18; and Mohammed Shami is injured.

Bhuvneshwar seems to be the best choice of the lot. He is also, by far, the best batsman and fielder. Let us have a look at the irony of the situation now: while choosing a Test bowler, we are actually looking at economy rates, not bowling averages.

That is one of the two big problems Kohli has to contend with. The other, of course, is batting — the side Kohli has chosen to weaken by picking the extra bowler.

No, Rohit Sharma did not perform. Yes, his selection was perhaps a mistake. Rohit averages 22 overseas. His last three innings have amounted to 19. In the Test prior to that, he had scored 53 and 39 at SCG. India had hung on grimly for a draw, something they could not do here. Was that because India had six batsmen at SCG? No, for Suresh Raina, India’s sixth batsman, had scored a four-ball pair.

Has Rohit justified his place in the side? No. He has done nothing of note (discounting the SCG cameos). He would almost certainly not have made it to the Indian middle-order in 2010. In fact, he never made it till 2013.

But who are the realistic alternatives? Cheteshwar Pujara is the name that keeps coming up. Pujara averages 29 overseas, which, though better than Rohit’s numbers, is not outstanding either.

Since the South Africa tour (his last hurrah), Pujara has crossed the fifty-mark twice, from 10 Tests. During this period Pujara’s numbers read 483 runs at 24 — not significantly better than Rohit’s. From the same three series, Rohit had 6 Tests, with 329 at 30 with two fifties. Both have below-par numbers, sufficiently below par: but Rohit has been the worse of the two.

There are, of course, other options. Several fringe players were tried in the ‘Tests’ against Australia A. KL Rahul was the only batsman to go past 55, but Rahul did play at Galle, scoring 7 and 5.

The future looks somewhat bleak, but things can turn around. It is not because of the five-bowler strategy or backing Rohit or Harbhajan; the situation may improve by replacing them with Pujara and Ojha. Maybe Kohli will do the same. But — realistically speaking — will it make a difference?

The problem does not lie in Kohli’s strategising. He was left with a team in transit. He wants to try out a method. He may or may not succeed, but as captain, he at least deserves a chance to try out what he feels is the way ahead.

If only fans and critics were patient and give him a go at it in peace…

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)

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