Losing is one thing, going down to an ignominious defeat is quite another. One can even stomach the one-wicket defeat at the hands of the West Indies but the heavy loss against Sri Lanka in the ongoing tri series in the Caribbean is one difficult to digest.
Is the absence of just one player making such a major difference to India’s fortunes? Just over a week ago Dhoni and his boys were proudly holding aloft the Champions Trophy in England. They had won all five matches, all against Test opponents and there was already talk about the squad comprising the personnel that would be good enough to retain the World Cup in 2015.
How then did this sudden turnaround for the worst come about? The side is the same, the conditions if anything more familiar than those faced in England, the two opponents are way down the ICC rankings list even as India is firmly perched on the top and constitute the same opposition which the Indians overran during the victorious Champions Trophy campaign.
So then can this be attributed to the absence of Dhoni in his inspirational triple role as batsman, wicketkeeper and captain? His role was restricted to batting in the Indian innings against West Indies during which he suffered the hamstring injury that ruled him out of the tri-series.
To be candid, it could be a blessing in disguise in the long run for Dhoni who turns 32 in a few days time has taken upon himself too much during his 8-1/2 year international career and of course particularly since he became captain in all three formats. And while he recuperates the Indian team will have to soldier along without him.
Under the circumstances even more than how the Indian team will fare in the tri-series, I suppose the focus now will be on how Virat Kohli performs as captain and whether the additional cares will affect his batting.
For some time now Kohli has been projected as a future Indian captain even as Dhoni’s successor. This has come about partly due to him being the leading light of the 'GenNext' of Indian batting and partly because of his instinctively aggressive approach. In this day and age showing aggression overtly would appear to be an advantage and Kohli seems to symbolize it.
But there is a thin line between aggression and unacceptable behavior, and in my view Kohli has frequently crossed this line. Uttering obscenities and throwing tantrums all too frequently is no way for a future Indian captain to conduct himself and if anything he can learn from Dhoni’s cool demeanor and equanimity.
Now that he has been saddled with the captaincy after Dhoni has been ruled out of the competition, Kohli has the opportunity to pass the test. At 24 he has everything going for him. His batting is an ideal blend of aggression and caution.
Now if only he could bring some of that balanced approach into his captaincy, he would not only have won many of his detractors to his side besides making him the clear favourite to succeed Dhoni as captain. Of course he should also see to it that captaincy does not affect his batting but to be candid I don’t see this happening for at the crease he is the sublime blend of the artist and the technician.
However going through the events as they have unfolded in the two games he has led against the West Indies and Sri Lanka, one cannot have a favourable impression about Kohli as leader. In the first match his belated introduction of Ravichandran Ashwin was rather inexplicable given the West Indies’ vulnerability against top class Indian spin bowling.
When the team is defending a modest total it is best to give your leading attacking spin bowler an early bowl. Also indefensible was his over reliance on Ishant Sharma who was proving to be very expensive. Against Sri Lanka, Kohli let things just drift particularly towards the end.
When things are not going well for the players it is the captain’s duty to lift their spirits and keep them going. One has frequently seen Dhoni do this but Kohli seemed aloof and it was not just because of poor fielding and slipshod bowling that 180 runs were scored in the last 16 overs.
The result was an unwanted record – the first time in over 3300 ODIs that a first innings had been completed with the loss of only one wicket. It is when things are not going well for the team that a captain has to the rise to the occasion with some innovative touches and here Kohli was found wanting.
But of course it would be unfair to put the entire blame on Kohli who at the moment is only a stop-gap leader. Whether he is good enough to grow on the job, learn from his mistakes and become a worthy successor to Dhoni is for the future to decide. At the moment the Indians have been brought down to earth with a sickening thud after their magnificent exploits in England.
Particularly abysmal has been the fielding which touched such great heights in the Champions Trophy. With Sri Lanka having obtained the bonus point against India, they will have to perform out of their skins if they want to qualify for the final. Kohli has rightly spoken of a reality check and the hurt the boys have felt. That’s a good way to start making a comeback.