India in Australia 2014-15 December 31, 2014

Kohli must learn to choose the worthy battles

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Dravid: Virat Kohli should not take every win or loss personally

Virat Kohli is no longer the successor or stand-in captain. Kohli, who began the fractious, high-energy series in Australia as a stopgap Test leader will now captain the Indian team in the series' final Test at the SCG.

India trail 0-2, with Kohli his side's leading batsman and fire-starter - in every way. It is between these extremes that captain Kohli must find himself - to start with, for a single Test.

Beyond the Sydney Test, the Indian team remains MS Dhoni's, for the ODI tri-series in Australia and the World Cup. After that, who knows, but a Test captain will only be formally needed six months later, when India travel to Bangladesh.

Unlike in Adelaide, the cloak of India's Test captaincy will now rest heavier on Kohli. In that first Test of this series, he was on a longish leash, allowed his quirks and kinks. His 'onward and upward, men!' cavalry charge towards an outrageous target was inspired and exhilarating.

India's light brigade of batsmen were beaten as much by their adrenalin as inexperience, and Kohli's composure and utter lack of regret over his cavalier approach became an individual style statement and counterpoint to Dhoni's detached persona. In the field though, Kohli - like Dhoni in the past - had struggled to contain Australia's marauding batsmen and - unlike Dhoni - was unable to stay out of stoushes. With the bat, however, Kohli grew formidable as a competitor on that final day in Adelaide.

In the Brisbane and Melbourne Tests, with Dhoni back in charge, Kohli returned to his hyper-energised, whippersnapper mode. While batting like a dream, he also walked on what appeared to be the thin edge of his temper. After an incandescent partnership with Ajinkya Rahane had dominated Australia on day three in Melbourne, an already prickly series was ratcheted several notches higher. Or lower, depending on how you looked at it. Kohli with the bat had been forceful and emphatic, but Kohli at the press conference was a firecracker in a henhouse.

At the end of India's best day of the tour, Kohli spelt out what he thought of the Australian team, what had happened on the field, and then, horror of horrors, he used the word "respect" - or rather lack of - when speaking about his opponents. The R-word is what startled the Australians. At his press conference shortly after Kohli's, Ryan Harris double-checked whether that was the word used, and Matthew Hayden offered detailed explanations on Indian television about the importance of the word in Australia's cricket "culture".

Kohli's approach and language that evening were in many ways superfluous to what had preceded it. His partnership with Rahane was batting of domination and beauty. If the respect stuff was Kohli's own method of mental disintegration, all it did was to have Australian cricketers raise eyebrows in outrage. As a tactic - like the short balls at the Australian batsmen - it failed, because it did not translate into wickets or runs that India needed. All it did was lead to another round of childish bickering on and off the field. David Warner talked about that perennially fluid "line" that his team does not "cross," and Brad Haddin, age 37, told Kohli, "It's all about you," during a mix-up while running with M Vijay on the final day.

Virat Kohli has been the focal point for most of the confrontational moments on this tour of Australia © Cricket Australia/Getty Images

Not all, but much of India's time on this tour of Australia has been about Kohli, but in a Newtonian sense - that law about action and reaction particularly. It is not surprising. Kohli comes from west Delhi, a prosperous but far from soft segment of an already hard city, where cut and thrust is a daily routine, where offence is easily taken, scores swiftly settled, and a step back or a deep breath are signs of weakness. To be fair, that is all of Delhi.

Kohli burst into prominence in India as captain of the Under-19 team, hurling Hindi abuse on national television as his team beat South Africa in the 2008 World Cup final. He had been riled by some chuntering from the South Africans during the innings break and the release of victory brought about that outburst.

Kohli is not that teenager now; he hasn't been for a while. His biggest strength as cricketer and batsman has been an ability to adapt and extend his game, and in many ways, himself. The U-19 captain gave way to a high-jinking junior in his early IPL years who, by age 26, has metamorphosed into the first name in the Indian team in all forms of the game, and arguably the best young batsman in the world. The rookie who turned up on his first tour of Australia in 2011-12 and flung himself into a contest with the crowds, giving them the finger, is now tempered.

Not entirely, though. Today, Kohli can rarely be found cursing and swearing on television, but what has not gone away is his willingness to pick a fight, and it is here that Kohli the Test captain must reinvent himself a little more. Starting with respect for all opponents, both stronger and less strong. No backward steps, fine, but no Delhi-style road-rage traffic skirmishes either. It will require a turnaround in "mindset" - to borrow from India team director Ravi Shastri's fierce television soliloquy- from Melbourne to Sydney, but Kohli's always been called a quick learner.

Behind his tattoos and perpetual state of smoulder, lies an ambitious, driven but also introspective young man who seeks direction for improvement and excellence in his cricket. It is at this time, as he steps into the Test captaincy, that he will also need an adult in his dressing room - someone who can give him a few lessons on recognising the difference between cricket's on-field irrelevances, cultural or otherwise, and the battles worth fighting. Between constant emotional burn and clinical, game-day aggression, or a state of longer-term equilibrium in between.

Going into Sydney, Virat Kohli, Test captain of India, would do well to heed advice given by the team adult to his good friend Yuvraj Singh. Yuvraj was once told by Sachin Tendulkar, "Cricket josh se nahi, hosh se kheli jaati hai." (Cricket is not played with mere passion but complete awareness.)

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo

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