South Africa’s most successful Test captain Graeme Smith has raised doubts over Virat Kohli’s ability to get the best out of his players, and wondered aloud if Kohli is a long-term captaincy option for India. Smith also said Kohli needs a person in the support staff who can challenge his ideas and help him grow as a leader. Smith and former India captain Sunil Gavaskar were speaking to former Zimbabwe bowler Pommie Mbangwa at a breakfast event organised by South African television network SuperSport.
A recent column by Ramachandra Guha, historian and former member of the BCCI’s Committee of Administrators, has brought into open the power Kohli enjoys. Almost every BCCI functionary, Guha wrote, defers to Kohli, and the big fear is that Ravi Shastri is the India coach only because Kohli wanted an agreeable man to run the team alongside him. “When I look at Virat, I think he needs someone in the support staff who can constructively challenge him and help him grow,” Smith said. “He has all the capabilities tactically, he knows his own game, he sets the standard in the field for everyone else.
“I think if he had a really constructive person in his environment, who could talk to him, make him think, maybe even challenge him with some different ideas, in a constructive way, not an angry or aggressive way, but make him think, open his eyes to other possibilities, that would make him a really good leader.”
Gavaskar said Kohli was a good leader but he needed to bring himself down to the level of other players in the side and then take them up the level he wants them to be. Smith was more categorical in pointing out the disconnect between Kohli and the rest of the team.
“We all know he’s an outstanding player, his intensity really benefits his own personal game, he loves that confrontation, that intensity brings the best out of him,” Smith said. “Sometimes as a leader you’ve got to consider how you impact the others in the environment, that’s an area of his leadership that he needs to grow. You can see, he’s often at his players. He’s very aware, he’s focus on the game is on, sweeping or mid-on.
“[But] often his reaction to situations… I think that can sometimes impact on your team negatively. We all know how powerful Virat Kohli is in world cricket, in Indian cricket. For him, he’s built this aura and for him maybe to find a level where he can connect with all his players, to get to a level where can get the Indian team to be as successful as he is, that’s something that he, when I watch him, is grappling with.”
Kohli’s reactions to events in the Centurion Test could be seen as displeasure with his team-mates. Every time a wicket fell, even as he stood tall on an Indian kind of pitch, Kohli would react in frustration, smashing the bat into his pad, looking the other way or generally not looking impressed.
“I don’t know, when I look at him, if he is a long-term captaincy option for India,” Smith said. “At the end of this year, he’d have been away from home for a while, the pressure he’ll face, the scrutiny from the press – I know he only gets that in India – but if you’re away from home and you’re struggling for form as a team, I don’t know if I’d want to burden Virat Kohli with that… Or if India have a better leader in that environment.”
Gavaskar joked that they had a leader – vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane – but he wasn’t selected for the first two Tests, both of which India lost. “You might have some players who don’t have the same understanding of the game, or the same fierce desire, but sometimes you have to bring yourself down to a completely different level,” Gavaskar said. “Down, not up. Because that is the only way you are going to get the others who are down up to a level that you want to be. By making them understand that this is not the level where you’ll be doing well yourself, but rather where you are going to do well for the team to win.
“Captains evolve in their thought process not only when they are captaining. On off days too, they are always thinking in terms of how can they take the team forward. And sometimes in that process, with that thinking – ‘how do I take the team forward?’ – you lose sight of simple simple things because as an individual you don’t think it is not necessary for you – but it is necessary for some of the lesser guys… As soon as Virat realises that and starts to recognise that, he will become a better leader.”
Smith agreed that Kohli needed to take the whole team along with him. “You can be the best player in the world, and you love that intensity and you often don’t think what your team-mates are going through,” Smith said. “Sometimes you talk to AB de Villiers, he gets down and reverse sweeps, he makes it look so easy, and sometimes you need to remind AB that other guys don’t see it that way.
“As a leader you need to understand the whole environment, talk to the players to try to get the best out of the environment. He might grow as he learns to soften that a little bit. His performances speak for themselves, it’s about whether he can get the best out of those around him when they are under pressure.”
Kohli has captained India in 34 Tests and has fielded a different XI every time. In the process, apart from first-choice keeper Wriddhiman Saha and newcomers Hardik Pandya and Jasprit Bumrah, everybody has been dropped by Kohli at least once. That could be the kind of reactions Smith might have been talking about.