By now we should have trained ourselves to taking Virat Kohli‘s press conferences with generous dollops of salt. His charges against Steven Smith of systemic manipulation of DRS presently lie in some ICC dustbin. His denials of a breakdown in relationship with Anil Kumble have proven to be incorrect. Kohli’s defence for Rohit Sharma’s selection was current form, which he based on Rohit’s last three Tests, the third of which was played in 2016. In his next press conference, he said no one wanted Ajinkya Rahane in the starting XI for Cape Town, which was just not correct.
All of which can be considered fine because Kohli is not the captain for his press conferences. And some of the general disdain for media might be justified. His attitude to multiple reporters questioning his selections and his side’s away record should not take the focus away from the series defeat. Yet, if a man contradicts himself in the same press conference, one of the two must be correct.
Kohli started off admirably when he said: “We will ask the guys to be honest about what they were feeling at particular stages in the game. Unless you speak about it and lay it out in front of everyone, there is very little chance of improving.”
If other parts of Kohli’s press conference are to believed, any such discussion won’t include any talk on the selections, the preparations, the slip catching, the tactics. It will mostly be about “soft dismissals” and whether the players gave “120%” every ball they bowled, faced or fielded.
Sometimes it is not about giving 120% during a match. Sometimes it is about finer things such as technique and the ones responsible for coaching that technique. Sample what Kohli had to say about India’s slip catching a day before the Centurion Test: “I’m not going to sit here and talk about the last one year. The last game was pretty good. Apart from one dropped catch from Shikhar [Dhawan] in the first innings, which we looked at as a team. We want to plug all those gaps. I think the catching in general was good. Rohit’s catch on day four was a momentum change for us, and they had a collapse from there on. We only want to focus on the positives. What’s happened in the last year does not matter. What matters is what we’re going to do from tomorrow onwards to try and win this Test match.”
The good thing about Kohli’s Centurion press conference when compared to earlier times when India used to lose away from home is that Kohli is openly showing his hurt
When India were focusing on positives, catches went down at slip in Centurion, without which, who knows, they might have even won. You can only hope that this refusal to accept that something might be wrong with their techniques is limited to only press conferences. It extends to their batting, which was clearly not prepared enough to adjust to the bouncier pitches, and their bowling, which, contrary to popular perception, put India so far back on the first morning and afternoon in Cape Town that they could never really recover.
While it sounds good to ask the team to be harsh on itself, there is a great fear that there is within this team a tendency to put a positive spin on everything. You really have to wonder why a captain so openly bent on world domination would compare South Africa’s one bad tour of India in 20 years with this tour and seek solace in losing less poorly. This is the same thinking as the “we will see you in India” campaign during the second whitewash in a year, in Australia in 2011-12. Since then, India have lost a home series to England, almost lost one to Australia, and have not come close to winning in Australia, South Africa, England and New Zealand.
You can only hope Kohli’s response was his on-field combativeness carried off the field, a bit like an appeal when you know the batsman is not out. You can only hope that he was being truthful when he said everything will be laid threadbare, and the rest was just his pride – and elite sportsmen have a lot of it – refusing to take a fall.
You can only hope there will be a team meeting where everyone will honestly speak of what was going through his mind when various mistakes were made. Starting from the refusal to come to South Africa early from Kohli and Shastri, to selecting Rohit ahead of Rahane, to M Vijay talking about why he is playing more shots now, to Kohli talking about his defensive shot to wide balls on pitches with movement, to Cheteshwar Pujara talking about his shot first ball after lunch in Cape Town, to the fast bowlers talking about a spate of half-volleys they served on day one in Cape Town, to slip fielders talking about why they don’t consider an alternate technique when the current one is not working, to everyone talking about why nobody took the option of showing up for an optional training session the day before the first Test of a big series, to Hardik Pandya talking about his running, to R Ashwin talking about the full tosses to Dean Elgar on the third evening in Centurion, to Parthiv Patel talking about not going for catches to his left.
Kohli will do well to ask his players if the constant chopping and changing – he has dropped every member of his squad bar himself and Hardik Pandya in 34 Tests – is making them insecure. He will need to ask his players if they need more than just a “positive influence” as a coach.
The one good thing about Kohli’s press conference compared to the earlier times when India used to lose away is that Kohli is openly showing his hurt, hence the combative answers even if arguable in their logic. This is his chance to channel this hurt into something positive, and do a proper appraisal of Indian cricket as opposed to seeking comfort in other team’s perceived discomfort away from home. Otherwise we will see the repeat of home domination, false hopes when touring and consequent indignation when touring and losing outside Sri Lanka and the West Indies.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
ESPN Sports Media Ltd.