It’s a ritual. Before every major Test series, someone – usually a fast bowler – will announce that the team will be “targeting” the opposition captain. It’s one of those meaningless sporting statements: after all, you’re not planning to go easy on the rest of the team, are you? But the captain is a crucial player. If the skipper has a bad series, you know you’re halfway to victory.
Being the most important figure in every cricket team also makes the captain the most vulnerable. Their failure is often the team’s failure – and they know it. A good personal performance leads to strong, confident decisionmaking, but a second-rate showing eats into the confidence of the captain – and by extension, the entire team.
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As the Test series between England and India unwinds across this impossible summer – the more impossible because, absurdly, the Premier League has started right in the middle of it – it becomes clear that this is a personal competition between the two captains – Joe Root and Virat Kohli. Who is the better cricketer? Who is the better leader? Who leads the better team?
Personal performance is closely intertwined with leadership abilities. A captain who can’t buy a run – captains are traditionally batsmen – will often make flawed decisions. That’s why the sight of the opposing captain hopping and ducking at a fast bowler, or groping desperately at a spinner, brings great joy to the opposition.
Root began the series with a terrific innings – but he was run out for 80 by Kohli with a stunning piece of fielding. The fact that it was Kohli made it worse for Root – and the fact that it was Root being run out gave special joy to Kohli. It seemed that the entire match hung on that captain-on-captain encounter, especially as Kohli went on to bat so beautifully himself.
And Root must have felt one-down to Kohli before the series even began. Both have a batting average of a little over 50 – but Kohli is boss when it comes to converting scores of 50-plus into centuries. Kohli has 22 centuries and 17 half-centuries; with Root it’s 13 and 41. That flaw in Root’s record clearly haunts him.
At Edgbaston in the opening Test, Kohli had a period of complete dominance when he batted, making Root look bereft of ideas: and these are times a rival captain cherishes. But cricketing rivalries ebb and flow and, on the last morning of the game, Root had the sort of session in the field that captains dream about. It seemed that every time he changed the bowling, the new bowler took at least one wicket in his first over. You could almost see Root thinking: life – and cricket – should always be like this…
For what it’s worth, Kohli is a better batsman than Root: one is very good and the other is very good indeed. But there can be a problem with top cricketers. Their teams get dependent on them and, like spoiled children, become less capable of helping themselves. Kohli is the best batsman in either team: but did that have a diminishing effect on the rest of the Indian lineup? Perhaps Kohl’s excellence is not only India’s greatest asset, but also their secret weakness.
And so the personal battle between the two men continues. It will be the theme that dominates the rest of this extraordinary summer.
The first of five Test starts on Wednesday 1st August at Edgbaston. The final match begins on 7th September