The first ball Virat Kohli faced as captain of India was from Mitch Johnson at the Adelaide Oval, and it hit him in the head. That was less than two weeks after the death of Phil Hughes, and it sent an alarmed shiver down every spine, not least Johnson’s.
We would learn something about Kohli then. Upright again, he made a divine hundred, and another in the second innings, to counterbalance David Warner’s twin tons for , and almost singlehandedly saved the Test match for his team. En passant, Kohli and Warner had words to set beside their deeds. Kohli made two more centuries in that series. He did what few Indians do in ; he made himself at home.
This was the full Kohli: batsman, captain, firebrand. He was a locum leader then, but within months would be fully anointed. He had vast boots to fill. MS Dhoni, a laconic character, had set new standards for Indian leadership. But his way could never be Kohli’s. He would be talisman, he would be Tolkien’s destructive ring, but he would never be merely coin-tosser. Looks alone would cast him in that role. Dhoni led as a general leads, but Kohli would always be the first man into the fray.
For two years, it has worked. In 21 Tests as full-time captain, Kohli had lost only one. His runs and India’s wins came apace, a 63 average for him, eight wins for his team in this one season alone. They were No.1 in the world. This prototypical n team would be mere bagatelle.
But in Pune, as in Adelaide, something made Kohli’s head rattle. It wasn’t apparent. It certainly wasn’t the now cherubic Warner. It probably wasn’t even material. It might have been the look of the pitch. India had just thrashed England by out-bowling them on reasonably good surfaces, so why would Pune serve up a lottery like this, which might and did come down to the toss of the coin? It might have been that toss, which gave a head start.
It simply might have been weariness; this was India’s 10th Test of their summer, and still there were three to come. At any given time, he has a billion people on his case.
At any rate, of the Kohli who never misses a moment, a cue, an insult or a half-volley, there was no sign. In the field, he let Mitch Starc get away with murder on day one, burned DRSs as if on a pyre at Varanasi, and as chances went begging grew sore and grumpy. It was a mood that spread. Batting, he was even more out of character. In the first innings, he was too keen to assert his presence. In the second, as if to make amends for the first, he was too meek. What did the English, smarting at home, make of this surrender?
This, perhaps, was what Kohli had feared, that when all the tickets go into a raffle, Johnny O’Keefe is as likely to take wickets as Steve, and Steve as likely as R Ashwin or Ravindra Jadeja. That is not to belittle O’Keefe’s performance, because he still had to put the ball in the right place. Coolly, he did.
At any rate, Kohli’s end also was India’s; you could sense it. This is what can happen in a team shaped around a big personality: he can also leave a big hole. would have sensed this. Since time immemorial, target-the-captain has been tactic 1 (a). No Mitch Johnson hammer blow made Kohli’s ears ring this time, but an incessant series of little taps from all angles. There are many ways to crack a nut.
How Kohli reacts to this now becomes one of the fulcrums of the series. His post-match humour, discerned from afar, was black, but that was only to be expected. He still is Virat Kohli, in India, its captain and inspiration, and if there was any complacency beforehand, there will be none now. At very least, do not expect him again to lash at a ball two feet wide of the stumps, nor leave one on them. Kohli has already shown once that it is one thing to knock him down, another to keep him there.