Kohli, the man who makes things happen

Virat Kohli acts and doesn’t wait to react.-AP

Sport in general is moving towards a culture which despises defensive attributes. Cricket is no different. In a nut-shell, the India-Sri Lanka series will be a clash between two teams struggling to negotiate their space in the broader cricketing universe. But there is a thin line between bravado and foolhardiness, defensiveness and pragmatism. Only the best can draw the line, writes N. Sudarshan.

Transitions in sport are always dicey affairs. No athlete’s or team’s career is a smooth curve from the beginning to the end. As much as an athlete or a team, when asked how his or her or the team’s development has shaped up over the years, tends to describe it in terms of specific moments of glory, the stories that lie between those moments and how those phases are managed is vital.

An athlete or a team can look jaded, get trapped in troughs or sink into the abyss. The transition upward from each of these situations is perhaps the biggest of challenges. In recent years, the Indian cricket team has had plenty of exposure to such scenarios. The World Cup win in 2011 was followed by whitewashes in England and Australia. In the days after the Champions Trophy win in 2013, India has lost four of the five Test series it has played.

However, in the present era that we are in, teams are forever in transition. Careers are short, longevity is at a premium. As a result, teams seem to be in a rebuild mode all the time. Before the end seems nigh a new process is kick-started. Definitive markers are tough to come by. Every format bleeds into the other. Every series bleeds into the other.

Yet, when India takes on Sri Lanka in a three-Test series those very markers of transition which are otherwise tough to spot, stand up stark. It will be Virat Kohli’s first full-fledged series as India’s Test captain, signalling the end of the M. S. Dhoni era. For Sri Lanka, the period after the second Test will be its first brush with the post-Kumar Sangakkara era.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni might have quit Test cricket, but it is his team that Kohli has inherited.-GETTY IMAGES

In the Handbook of Sport Psychology, Gershon Tenenbaum and Robert C. Eklund write, “A developmental approach provides links between the past career experiences, the present situation, and the athlete’s perceived future. Athletes in transition are typically concerned with their current situations or ‘today’s issues,’ and want magic advice on how to solve the issues as soon as possible.

“They often refer to their past transition experiences as resources to cope with the current situation, but they seldom coordinate their coping with anticipation of forthcoming situations or ‘tomorrow issues.’ The developmental principle in consulting means, among other things, helping athletes to be more proactive or ‘to make decisions from the future,’ that is, selecting ways to cope with the current situation, which at the same time may help to prepare for forthcoming demands.”

This roughly explains India’s current predicament. Such was the single-minded focus on replacing the four big batsmen — Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and V. V. S. Laxman — that an equally, if not more, important area of bowling stood neglected. Who after Anil Kumble and who after Zaheer Khan were important questions.

The answers are now to be sought in two 30-year-olds in Harbhajan Singh and Amit Mishra and one Ishant Sharma who, going into his 63rd Test, is still the spearhead in the making.

A Sri Lankan pace bowler other than Lasith Malinga taking wickets is news. So Dhammika Prasad's 14 wickets at 27.07 against Pakistan, which also happened to be the highest among Sri Lankan bowlers in the three-Test series, is news. He bowls at a decent pace and is said to be capable of "finding sharp movement from just short of a length." Virat Kohli's recent dismissals while fending outside the off stump will give him hope.-

The Dhoni era ending in a whimper was precisely due to the above reason, though not entirely his fault. Kohli wants to change this. He likes to act. Not just react. Unlike Dhoni he doesn’t want to sit back and be bound by his team’s limitations. Kohli wants to trust his fast bowlers as he did even on a docile wicket in Bangladesh. He wants his spinners to take wickets and not just contain.

But the team that Kohli inherits would be predominantly Dhoni’s. And the split captaincy that will be in place till the next Twenty20 World Cup in 2016 will be a hindrance for a wholesale change in approach. One might point to the great Australian team of the early 2000s which was captained by Ricky Ponting in limited overs cricket and Steve Waugh in Tests. But the teams were bound by the indomitable spirit of Australian aggression and not by the individual persona of the skippers.

For Sri Lanka, the transition will be mid-series. The first two Tests will help one see the last vestiges of the golden era of Sangakkara. The hope for the Lankans will be for the final Test not to leave a bitter aftertaste.

In the final Test against Pakistan, in which Sri Lanka was without Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, the young side, attacked from the outset. But later on, in crunch situations, it faltered. Would the calming presence of Sangakkara and Jayawardene have helped them keep their heads?

“You’ll have to wait and see,” said Jayawardene in an interview to Wisden India. “We tried to change the culture in the team over the last 10 years and we have managed well. It also depends on the next generation and if they want to stay the path or follow a new direction.

“But I think once he (Sangakkara) leaves, our signature in the side will cease to exist and I don’t think many will take our approach forward. Younger guys have a very different view and different ways of going about things and they should be allowed to pursue their own path. It will be interesting to see how things pan out. We had a great run for over 15 years and no one can stay forever.”

Sport in general is moving towards a culture which despises defensive attributes. Cricket is no different. In a nut-shell, the series will be a clash between two teams struggling to negotiate their space in the broader cricketing universe. But there is a thin line between bravado and foolhardiness, defensiveness and pragmatism. Only the best can draw the line.