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Virat Kohli's biggest gambit yet

Kohli has made many bold - and sometimes unpopular - calls in his captaincy, but taking on the board might be the boldest

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
Kohli has snatched away the board's most effective weapon: unattributed half-truths and innuendo  •  ICC via Getty

Kohli has snatched away the board's most effective weapon: unattributed half-truths and innuendo  •  ICC via Getty

"Do you know what leadership means, Lord Snow? It means that the person in charge gets second-guessed by every clever little tw*t with a mouth. But if he starts second-guessing himself, that's the end. For him. For the clever little tw*ts. For everyone."
This is not an attempt to link Game of Thrones to suspected palace intrigue in Indian cricket. This is Alliser Thorne, even though he doesn't like him, even though he will go ahead to commit treason because of his decisions, handing out an important leadership lesson to Jon Snow. This is a lesson, it seems, Virat Kohli has never needed.
For Kohli has never second-guessed himself. The trickiest part of leadership is making choices on behalf of others and living with them. In his first Test as captain, Kohli dropped R Ashwin for Karn Sharma. The opposition's experienced, accurate offspinner won them the Test with 12 wickets. India's rookie legspinner never played cricket for India again.
It is the kind of choice that can torture and scar a person, dissuade them from making bold calls in the future. "Would we have been chasing fewer if I had played my No. 1 spinner?" "Would the young spinner have had a better career if I had played him when he was ready?"
Such questions can haunt you.
Kohli, it would seem, is wired differently. He has always given the appearance of a man who has unquestionable faith in his ability to make decisions in the best of the team. Once he makes a call, he doesn't appear to question himself. To him, hesitating means inviting errors on the field. There is a certain amount of self-righteousness in this. He feels the most annoyed when asked if the result might have been better had he played his "best XI". To him it implies he picked less than the "best XI" on purpose.
These things work differently with different people and different cultures, but it is a remarkable quality to have nonetheless. All through his career Kohli has made bold choices, which might seem like big risks to someone on the outside. Not least was when he refused to work with the then-coach Anil Kumble, arguably India's biggest match-winner and someone who had the public sympathy and the past legends on his side.
Kohli single-handedly took everyone on then. Everything was thrown at him. Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman in the Cricket Advisory Committee were against what he wanted. By extension, he was told he was taking on even Zaheer Khan and Rahul Dravid, who were originally appointed in the support staff, as Kohli's choice as coach refused to work with them. Only a naïve person wouldn't have known that he would be hauled over the coals if he didn't deliver the results.
Like him, hate him, you can't deny his strength of conviction. A lot of this clarity, Kohli says, comes from being with a strong partner, Anushka Sharma, who has herself made unpopular choices as a film and TV producer in the current political climate in India.
If he looks back to the Kumble episode, Kohli will see that the board did exactly what has enraged him today: half-truths, innuendo, smear campaign. Kohli himself was dignified throughout the episode. He neither said nor suggested anything derogatory against Kumble. The same goes for Kumble. It was a professional disagreement, and, as far as Kohli was concerned, nobody on the outside had any business knowing the details of it.
In 2018-19 when India played four fast bowlers in Perth and lost - none of whom could bat - Kohli was asked at the end of the Test if the decision was forced on him by any injury besides the one to Ashwin. Kohli categorically said it was a judgement call made in the best interest of the team. Sure enough, with the criticism from former players mounting, within a week Ravi Shastri reported that Jadeja didn't play because he was "60-70% fit". That is not a response you would get from Kohli, who always wanted to own the decisions he made.
Despite being a batter himself, Kohli has never hesitated to make things difficult for batters in order to win Test matches. He is not the first one to play just the five batters, but he has done that with unprecedented consistency. Even during a personal barren patch, Kohli didn't shy away from getting pitches that turned from day one.
This is not to bag former captains. They often lacked the freedom and complete support that the Committee of Administrators (CoA) gave Kohli. MS Dhoni, for example, hardly ever got pitches of his liking at home. He also had to deal with difficult seniors. The new coach Dravid is a relevant example, having quit captaincy because all the shenanigans that come with it dragged him down. Kohli had none of this to live with.
Even in the post-CoA world, even with his own runs drying up, even with pressure mounting after the WTC final loss, Kohli didn't shy away from dropping Ashwin, another one of India's biggest match-winners, a man at the peak of his popularity and form, throughout the series in England because he believed a different combination was best for India. Just as the wins don't necessarily vindicate Kohli, the losses don't necessarily prove him wrong.


Through the years, disregard for optics and the refusal to second-guess himself has remained. So has self-righteousness. For good or for bad, the BCCI is a wheel with different spokes that are variously on top at different times as the wheel moves. Kohli now found himself facing the wrath of the BCCI leaks that are not necessarily baseless but are shared either not in their entirety or without context. Kumble faced it too, but didn't retaliate.
Even Sachin Tendulkar didn't resist this wheel when he came to know through the media that he had been removed as the captain. He enjoyed many years of soft power, and revealed the hurt only after retirement. Lesser players don't say anything at all because their post-retirement careers depend on the whims and fancies of unaccountable office bearers. In that regard, Kohli has been more Sunil Gavaskar than Tendulkar.
At one level, this captaincy change was a routine affair. Kohli resigned from one format, the board said fine. The board felt both the limited-overs sides should have the same captain, and Kohli said fine.
Under the still waters, there was resistance. Kohli threw them a curve ball with his surprise announcement before the World Cup, forcing them to come up with a hurried release. He also essentially dared them to remove him from ODI captaincy by announcing to the world he still wished to take the team into the 2023 World Cup.
They went ahead and sacked him, which was a perfectly reasonable call as Kohli himself conceded, but the manner in which it was done lacked grace. The communication to Kohli was fine - being told 90 minutes before a selection meeting is not the luxury captains in India usually get - but the communication to the public was shoddy: a line in the postscript of the announcement of another team's selection, and a half-hearted acknowledgement of his achievements a whole day later.
Ganguly gave Kohli the biggest opening by divulging the unofficial details of the meeting where Kohli informed them he was leaving T20I captaincy. It doesn't matter whether it was true, false or half-true. Kohli once again, with calm and calculated righteousness, threw the flame back at the board, leaving them to choose between accepting that their president was lying or saying that the captain is lying. In one measured stroke, Kohli has snatched away the board's most effective weapon: unattributed half-truths and innuendo. Now everything has to be on the record or on an official document.
This is not about who is right or who is wrong, or if it will affect India's performance on the field. Their first Test win in South Africa, remember, came at a terribly tumultuous time when Ganguly himself contributed crucial runs to a team in which he was not welcome. Other stories of fractious dressing rooms winning big Tests are yet to be told. Indian cricket has too much talent and too much depth for this to affect them on the field. Once they cross the line, they all play to win, for personal pride, and also, during such a competitive phase in Indian cricket, their own places. There is simply too much to lose.
This is more about a captain openly taking on the board, which hasn't happened since the days of Gavaskar. Like Gavaskar, Kohli is the most equipped to do so: he is articulate, wildly popular and not shy of a scrap, which makes it difficult to isolate him. Yet an angry board is the last thing you want on your back in the final quarter of your career. The board is not used to getting rattled this way. Its reprisal is known to be cold.
At a time when Kohli is walking into a world he is unaccustomed to - shortage of runs, his power no longer absolute, no longer indispensable since the win in Australia - this might just be his biggest gambit yet.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo