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Virat Kohli and Alastair Cook: A tale of two captains

The Indian Express logoThe Indian Express 14-12-2016
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Ray Jennings whispered something in the ears of a squad member of Royal Challengers Bangalore and sent him on to the field. It was 2009 and we were at a small ground on the outskirts of Durban where Jennings had arranged a practice game for his IPL team. Virat Kohli was in the slips, wearing his cap backwards, when his shoulder was tapped. A short exchange later, Kohli screwed back the peak towards the front. Beyond the ropes, Jennings stood staring ahead, arms crossed around his chest.

“Surely, that’s harmless, just a kid being cool,” someone remarked. Jennings, the famously disciplinarian and passionate coach, turned around to say, “Well, there is a difference between cool and silly. The sun is beating down at his face, and the cap is there to protect you from that. These are small little things, annoying of course to young players but it’s the coach’s job to point it out, and help them mature quickly. This boy has the potential to be India’s captain one day and I would be an idiot if I don’t set the right examples at this age.” It might not be the exact phrasing but words were said to that effect.

Alastair Cook was an introvert, a choir boy whose singing and clarinet skills earned him a scholarship at the Bedford school where he would be often found in the Jungle room to watch cricket on the telly. The MCC team found itself one man short and roped in the 14-year old Cook, who hit the first of his 19 tons at school. He would wake up at 7 am for swimming sessions and runs, and impressed everyone with his hard work. In 2004, he was made the captain for England in the Youth World Cup in Bangladesh, and later ran into Graeme Swann at the national cricket academy in Loughborough.

“What makes him a good captain, is that he’s got the most stubborn streak of any man I have ever known. It’s the reason he doesn’t buckle under the pressure. He refused to ever admit that he’s wrong in an argument and that’s where the two of us spend most of our time. We have had huge ding-dongs,” Swann had once said.

Photos: 'Unique' world records held by Indian cricketers

'Unique' world records held by Indian cricketers

Kohli and Cook are contrasting characters but both seem to have been whispered about as future captains from a young age. Kohli has had a tendency to individuate himself and create a crowd of others. Cook, it seems, was the angelic choir boy who would slip into the background.

Perceptions and stereotypes place these two characters in different baskets, but it’s Cook — one with the “stubborn streak” — who was at the helm when Kevin Pietersen was ejected from the team.

Under Kohli, someone like Gautam Gambhir came back much to the surprise of a few who thought the two didn’t get along well at all. Some also wondered whether R Ashwin, a cricket tragic with captaincy ambitions, would flourish under Kohli, but the two are not only the leaders of the group but they also stick up for each other. Like the other day when Ashwin shadowed James Anderson all the way to the batting crease. And Kohli returned the favour by saying it was Ashwin who is responsible for 50-60% of India’s Test wins.

Cook and Kohli are now at the extreme ends of the captaincy spectrum. Cook is on the edge, Kohli is at the cusp of something special. Cook’s best seems to be behind him, Kohli is the future.

Two years ago, Shane Warne had lambasted Cook’s captaincy style: “Negative”, “boring”, “horrific” and “the worst captaincy I have ever seen”, are some of the stuff he hurled. More such adjectives are being branded around in India now. What was he thinking in Mumbai when he took off Adil Rashid, who had M Vijay miscuing and in a bit of a trouble? What was he thinking when he slow-boated in Rajkot instead of pushing on for some quick runs in pursuit of declaration? What was he thinking when he had Anderson bowl around 15 deliveries at Kohli until he reached his hundred in the last Test? What was he thinking when he said at the end of the first Test that he and his team were jaded?

In the end, though, it comes down to communication. One of the big problems Cook had was in getting his message across to his friends in the team. “I found dealing with my close friends the hardest bit, because I respect them and that’s why we are friends. I am not saying we (Swann and him) fell out but he’s a great bowler and had very strong opinions, so it was hard to change them,” Cook once said.



Kohli hasn’t had any problem in communicating his thoughts to the team. If anything, more than strategising on the field, it’s the straight talking with his team that has impressed so far. Jennings, though, has always believed in Kohli’s tactical thinking. “He has the passion, genuine interest in the game and its strategies, and a great desire to do well.” 

His first priority, though, has been in getting his message across. “I think communication is very important in anything,” Kohli said the other day. “So that was one of the priorities. At the same time, one thing that I really wanted the team to do was express themselves in Test matches and not think about personal performances. Because a lot of the times, you have an hour in the Test match where you can take the game away and you are still not willing to go for it because you are close to your milestone or things like that. These are the things that we have gotten out of our system completely.” Ashwin is a player who has benefited by Kohli’s clarity in communication. In an extremely revealing chat with Sky Sports at the end of the first Test, he talked about the differences in styles of MS Dhoni and Kohli.

“The difference between MS and Virat is the generation, Virat is one who wants to be at the front. He leads from the front. He says things to your face. You are not going back to the room thinking what he is thinking or what the team is thinking about oneself. He lets you know upfront and there is a lot of clarity.

“MS is someone who is not very vocal, not very expressive, very subdued. He keeps things to himself. The biggest positive was he would keep emotions in check. He would beat himself over losses, over emotional stress he had,” Ashwin said.

For a while now, even when Ravi Shastri was the team director in the early days of Kohli’s captaincy, the talk has revolved around how Kohli is a kind of captain who loves going for wins. He doesn’t believe in draws or frets about losing. It’s the attitude-stamp he has been trying to leave on this team from the start. It was reflexively seen as splitting away from the style of Dhoni, who would be more circumspect.

In Dhoni’s mind, it was about being wise, instead of choosing bravado. Like he did when he settled for a draw in Dominica in West Indies in 2011 when even some of the team-mates were in dark, and not entirely happy, about the decision. After the game, at the hotel lobby, a player was left shaking his head in utter surprise and disappointment that they didn’t try for a win before shutting shop. Dhoni didn’t seem to have lost sleep over it, though.

We need a larger sample size to determine Kohli’s approach but his players are already vocal about his positive intent. Cue Ashwin, again. “He doesn’t worry or drawing the game. The first thing he said when I joined him to bat (in the second innings of the first Test at Rajkot when India found themselves batting for a draw) that this is perhaps the good preparation for the series coming up. That’s the person he is.”

Kohli has shown that he is ready to listen to his spinners and trusts them enough set the fields. Not that he doesn’t have his say. The stump mike often catches his instructions — bowl fuller, bowl the bouncer, try the middle and leg line. He isn’t shy to show his emotions on the field as captain — it could even be flinging the ball on the ground like he did in Rajkot.

What remains to be seen, though, is how he handles failures. A couple of years ago, Venkatesh Prasad, a big supporter of Kohli the captain, had brought up the issue. “Indian captains generally don’t handle losses well. And that attitude sort of rubs off on to the team-mates. Not just to his but other’s failures. How he handles losses and failures would be the key. I can tell you, after having played under and watched several Indian captains, it’s a special trait that unfortunately not many Indian captains have had. Kohli would hopefully be different.”

It’s clear how Cook handles the criticism of his captaincy. Back in 2004, when everyone was gunning for his head, he retired to the farming life with his wife, emerged out of the seclusion and said, “Even when every Tom, Dick, and Harry was calling for my head, I still felt I could get better at being captain. That’s what kept me going. Not many people are ever called England captain, so why would you just throw it away unless you know you’ve given it everything?”

Two years down the line, nothing much seems to have changed. He says Joe Root is ready but would like to mull over it carefully in January with Andrew Strauss before making any decision. The former cricketers Michael Atherton and Nasser Hussain have already come out in his support —unless he has lost energy, passion and desire for captaincy, they feel, he shouldn’t resign.

On the other hand, Kohli has no such issues, no voices gunning for his head, his team gelling as a unit under him, and talking him up. Life has probably never looked better. Contrasting characters, contrasting skippers, contrasting times.

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