How good is Virat Kohli as a tactical captain? Does he wait for things to happen? Or does he make things happen?
You will not be trolled in case you said Kohli is poor tactically, at least based on how India let Jos Buttler and Stuart Broad off the hook on the second morning at The Oval. In the company of Broad, and before him Adil Rashid, Buttler helped England pile up 105 runs in one session when the hosts had managed 198 in the entire first day. How did India allow England to escape?
Unfortunately for India, this morning was not an aberration. In the first Test at Edgbaston, England were on the brink at 87 for 7 in their second innings. England's lead was slim. But Sam Curran put together a belligerent rearguard in the company of the tail to set India a 194-run target, which Kohli's men eventually fell short of by 31 runs.
Kohli's biggest mistake on that occasion was removing his leading spinner, R Ashwin, from the attack as soon as Curran came in. Curran had driven Ashwin early on for a boundary to long-on. It was only the second over after lunch. Before the break Ashwin had bowled a tireless 13-over spell, taking three top-order wickets with the new ball. Ishant Sharma put England under the cosh picking up three wickets in an over either side of lunch.
It was a surprise then to see Kohli give England a break when they were tottering on 91 for 7. By the time Ashwin came back for his next spell, Curran was on 26 and Rashid looked settled on 13. Kohli would blame himself after the defeat, but for failing to get India past the finish line on the final morning - not for letting game slip with his tactics.
Curran would continue to hurt India by helping England escape from horrible starts. In the first innings of the fourth Test at the Ageas Bowl, England were 86 for 6 on the second day. The ball was almost 35 overs old. Yet England would end up playing a further 41 overs pushing their total to 246 with Curran making 76.
With Ashwin struggling with an abductor injury and remaining innocuous despite a massive rough, Buttler and Curran would end up doing more damage in the second innings after England were 122 for 5, with a lead of 95 at that point. England's eventual lead was 245.
India allowed Curran and Buttler to wrench back control because Kohli didn't have Plan B. You cannot put the blame entirely on the fast bowlers, who have been nothing but striving. They have bowled tireless spells, been mostly accurate and diligent. But when they looked exhausted and bereft of ideas Kohli has equally looked lost.
At Edgbaston, when Curran was looking solid and hitting over the field, Hardik Pandya asked Kohli to leave the fielders in the deep even for the last ball of the over, allowing Curran to take easy singles and retain strike. Even today Kohli allowed Buttler to walk to the other end each time an over was on the verge of finishing. Instead of setting attacking fields and equipping his bowlers with confidence Kohli has at times gone through the motions.
Even as there is a strong notion that Kohli is an authoritative figure in the dressing room, on the field he has mostly let his bowlers decide their plans. He has allowed the bowling group and the bowling coach Bharat Arun to chalk out their plans and the bowling order. It is not such a bad tactic because you are telling the bowlers that their captain trusts them. But a good captain is always reading the situation and is sometimes ahead of it. And when things don't work the way they are desired, the captain has to take charge.
This morning India wanted quick wickets. So they ought to have had a plan, you would have thought. Every Test of this series he has played, Jasprit Bumrah has shared the new ball with Ishant who has tormented England's top-order left handers. However, the one move that could have also proved effective, but which India have been reluctant to try, is having Mohammed Shami bowl with the new ball or give him the first spell in the morning.
The cloudy and nippy conditions this morning were ripe to facilitate swing. Shami bowls fuller with a straighter seam, always tempting the batsman to play. With England choked for runs on the first day, Kohli ideally should have asked Shami to share the second new ball with Ishant. But he did not.
And when Shami did come on, he straightaway forced Buttler and Broad to play, bringing the edges into play. In contrast Bumrah, who would eventually trap Adil Rashid lbw, was bowling more short of length, giving the batsmen time.
Kohli's biggest test arrived as Buttler and Broad reduced the dot balls and doubled the run rate. All three fast men were tired, having bowled long spells on the first day and once again this morning. They had bowled tirelessly not just in this Test but across the past month. They are the reason India have managed to keep their chin up despite having lost the series. But Kohli had appeared reluctant to attack when Broad came in, which helped the pair settle.
Shami refused to get frustrated despite going wicketless. Luckless, he kept attacking the batsmen and beating the edges. But the nicks did not come.
Ajinkya Rahane walked up to Kohli to discuss solutions. Kohli gestured him to chat with Shami. Rahane, India's vice-captain, using his hands, indicated to Shami to take the ball away from Buttler. KL Rahul, standing at first slip then pointed to Shami, who was at fine leg, asking him not to give width to Broad. Kohli was standing next to Rahul, quiet.
He never asked the fast bowlers to attack Broad's known weakness against the short ball, which could have been tested even on a slow pitch like The Oval. Against England's top order Kohli had three slips and a gully, but against the lower order, there were only two slips, allowing the likes of Broad to have enough breathing space. Consequently, Buttler today, and in Southampton, and Curran at Edgbaston, could play their own game. With Kohli reluctant to set attacking fields and pushing men back square, Broad and Curran utilised the wide spaces to pick up frequent singles.
The helplessness of Kohli was understood by the dressing room. About half hour before lunch, Dinesh Karthik ran in from the bench to pass on a short, quick message. Promptly Kohli pointed to Ishant, standing in the deep. Ishant was replacing Ravindra Jadeja, whose two overs had gone for 13 runs. With India opting to play just four bowlers including Jadeja, the fast men were left with no choice but to wrap things up despite their relentless workload.
In the end the bowlers lost their patience. Post lunch Bumrah attacked Buttler with short-pitched bowling. Buttler hooked him for a six, lofted a length ball into the midwicket stands, took a quiet single off the penultimate ball and walked to safety. Tired and rattled, Bumrah threw his jumper to the ground in disgust.
Just as he does with the bat, Kohli, as a fielding captain, needs to usher India to safety. A five-Test series unravels many things. This series has challenged Kohli properly as a fielding captain. His selections have been debatable, even questionable at times, as with the case of picking two spinners at Lord's. He has been found wanting as England's lower order has attacked his bowlers. As he grows as a leader, Kohli will need find a way out. He will need to make things happen when his bowlers need a helping hand.