EXCLUSIVE – Virat Kohli is a Man Who Knows How to Lead a Team: VVS Laxman
Former India batsman VVS Laxman, a veteran of 134 Tests and accumulator of 8,781 runs with 17 centuries including the famous 281 against Australia in the Kolkata Test two decades ago, tells News18.com that Virat Kohli is undoubtedly the leader of the Indian team and is lucky to have senior players as part of the core group. He is not worried about Kohli not scoring an international hundred in his last 34 innings (until the start of the 2nd T20 on Sunday) and that the hundred is round the corner. Once he gets it, there will be a flurry of runs, Laxman predicts. Here, the 46-year-old stylish batting great talks about India’s entry into the World Test Championship final, the prospects in the T20 World Cup and the positive mindset of the Indian team, and many more that sets the team under Kohli a winning unit.
The Indian team have made it to the World Test Championship final. How do you look back at the journey?
They richly deserved to play the final because if you see during the journey of the World Test Championship, barring the series in NZ, India dominated. Even though there was a change in rules because of the pandemic, the way they won in Australia, which I think will be a victory that will be remembered for a long time, was remarkable. Also, they comprehensively beat England and earned their berth in the final. I think the Australia win is something which is very memorable for the Indian team for obvious reasons – after being bowled out for 36 and to come back in that fashion, win in the absence of your captain Virat Kohli, and then your senior bowlers, Mohammad Shami, Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar not being there, and the last Test match without R Ashwin, and then the net bowlers (T Natarajan and Washington Sundar) playing their first Test match, that too in Brisbane. All the youngsters showed a lot of character. The partnership between Shardul Thakur and Washington (123 for the seventh wicket, Brisbane Test, first innings) summarised the entire mindset of the Indian team. Both of them playing their first Test innings, the way they bailed the team out of the tough situation, theirs was the defining partnership of the series. And the way Rishabh Pant and Washington finished off things on the final day.
What they (youngsters) taught all of us is that if you are prepared well when the opportunity arises, you make use of it. That is an important lesson for all the young cricketers. The BCCI conducting so many first-class matches, the role of NCA, so many India ‘A’ tours being organised, the role of IPL, the Indian team management, the coaching staff need to be commended for keeping up the positivity and the morale after losing the first Test in that fashion. And, after facing so many adversities, to keep the morale is very very tough. Credit to Ravi Shastri and the entire coaching staff. I believe that the Australian series sums up the character of this Indian team — the never-say-die attitude and the preparation are given a lot of importance, everyone is focused on maintaining the fitness standards. Above all, they are not overawed by the challenge facing the team. That sums up the character of the Indian team.
India have won 5 Tests and drawn one, losing the first Test each against Australia and England. What do you draw from this?
In Australia, the preparation was spot on. I always feel that before a Test series, you play white-ball cricket, invariably, the players who play in all the three formats get used to the conditions, the environment. In white-ball cricket, we usually don’t get challenging pitches. They are ideally suited for shorter formats where the batsmen can get into a rhythm. Everyone can get used to the conditions. I felt India were on top in the first Test and suddenly a crazy one hour made them lose the first Test. Such things happen. What was important was how they reacted, introspected, and came out with a positive mindset in the first session in Melbourne. For me, that was the most crucial session of the series. When you are bowled out for 36 and you face a humiliating defeat, how you bounce back is very critical. Here, the role played by Ajinkya Rahane (stand-in captain) and the support staff was very critical in what kind of message they were passing to each and every player. That first session showed that they had forgotten what happened in Adelaide and taken the positives from that Test, came up with a positive plan and the bowlers executed it. Ajinkya was fantastic in his captaincy. It was a freak one hour that resulted in that loss.
In the first home Test, the England batsmen took the opportunity given by the inexperienced bowlers in the form of Shahbaz Nadeem and Washington Sundar, and they got the benefit of the toss going their way and got the best surface for batting. Having said that, India would have definitely been disappointed with the way they batted on turning tracks. Playing on turning tracks and countering the challenge by the spinners has been Indian batsmen’s strength. That is one area India needs to address going forward. They are very good players of spin bowling and the only way to showcase the potential and talent is by playing on those kinds of surfaces and you are supposed to score runs. Like the way Rohit batted in Chennai (2nd Test), the way Virat batted in a couple of innings, or the way Ashwin got that hundred.
What is the way to bat on such pitches?
It is important to have a mindset where you don’t allow the spinners to settle down into a good rhythm. Secondly, you should have a lot of belief in your defence. If you don’t trust your defence, you are forced to play shots, which probably is not according to the merit of the ball. Showing the positive intent where you use your feet or the depth of the crease or play some aerial shots just to move around the field or play the sweep or reverse sweep. Basically not allowing the bowlers to settle into the rhythm, which the Indian batsmen were not able to do consistently. But, it was great to see youngsters like Washington and Pant play in that fashion, especially in the final Test when the chips were down, and at one time around tea on the second day (4th Test), if felt that the match was in balance. It was great to see both the youngsters playing their natural game even though they were under tremendous pressure. Their partnership (113 for the 7th wicket) and the next between Washington and Axar Patel (106 for the 8th) took the game away from England. And, the Indian spinners were too much to handle for the England batsmen.
Talking about Rahane doing a turnaround as captain in Kohli’s absence, there are suggestions about him being made the skipper, giving Kohli a break from captaincy. Your thoughts?
This debate or discussion does not make sense at all. Ultimately, it is Kohli who has defined this team. His positivity, his work ethic have inspired the Indian team and an entire generation of Indian cricketer to become very professional about the game. Virat is very fortunate to have seniors in the form of Rahane, Cheteshwar Pujara, Rohit Sharma, Ashwin, and also Ishant and Bumrah in the fast bowling unit, to form a core group. I have always felt that to have a champion side, while you have a designated captain, it is important to have a core group of leaders. This Indian team has that core group. I feel Virat is still the leader of the pack and leads by example. And, whenever Rahane and Rohit have got the captaincy, they have impressed everyone with their captaincy and managerial skills. This adds to the depth of the leadership group. The debate is not even required or worth thinking about.
Or for that matter, split captaincy in limited-overs as Rohit, having led Mumbai Indians to five IPL titles, could lead India in T20s…
I have always felt that as long as your captain is not burdened by captaincy and he is someone who enjoys the responsibility without compromising his performances, in this case Virat the batsman, it should be the same captain for all the formats if he is regular in all the three formats. In England, the split captaincy works because Joe Root is not a regular in white-ball cricket, or Eoin Morgan is not a Test player. If a captain is all three formats players and on top of that, a performer, it should be one captain.
Ravi Shastri being a man full of confidence, do you see similar traits in Kohli? Their partnership seems to work wonders, isn’t it?
When you are captaining an international side, every individual has his own way of leading the side. Virat himself has been a trendsetter, the way he has raised his standards, the way he creates and breaks records, has a lot of pride in representing the country. He is a man who knows how to lead a team. I have seen in my career that the coach-captain relationship is very important. It is great to see Ravi and Virat have that mutual respect for each other and this has helped Indian cricket to move forward. Virat knows what he wants and how to accomplish it. Ravi helps him in reaching the goals for himself and the team. This partnership has worked wonders for the Indian team.
The icing on the cake has been the 2018-19 Test series win in Australia and the recent 2020-21 win in Australia. The two wins are among the most significant wins in Indian cricket. Sometimes, the coaching staff don’t get enough credit. A lot of stuff is done behind the scene and it is disappointing to see coaches’ contributions based on the result. Unfortunately, we live in the professional world where based on the performances of the players on the field, coaching staff is judged, which is not the right way. What I look at is how the team has progressed in various aspects. There is no doubt the bench strength we have, the kind of bowling unit we have, the kind of options we have for each and every slot, the way we have performed, especially the way India won in Australia in 2018-19 and recently, the coaching staff deserve a lot of credit. The Indian team in all the three formats is a formidable unit. Our system is very robust. There are so many opportunities for creating that bench strength. The entire system has facilitated that.
Speaking of Kohli, having had three zeroes this year (2 in Tests and one in T20I), is there something that he has to address in his game? And, he has not scored a hundred in 34 international innings (12 in Tests, 12 in ODIs, 10 in T20Is).
I am not too concerned about this. We know the way Virat has played and the way he has maintained consistency for a long period of time. There comes in everyone’s career wherein some matches, the player may not be performing to his best or the benchmark that he has set. Virat has set high benchmarks for himself. He is not even contented with just fifties because of the high standards he has set. The important thing Virat will be pleased is that even though he has not been amongst runs, the team is winning the majority of the series. Virat the captain will be proud of his team’s results and am sure Virat the batsman will leave no stone unturned where he will be preparing to the best of his ability. I am sure it is not far away when he will get those hundreds. I feel once he gets that hundred, there will a flurry of hundreds to follow.
How do you look at the arrival of youngsters in the side – Shubman Gill, Pant, Sundar, Siraj or a Prithvi Shaw, who has fallen after a promising start to his Test career?
We are very fortunate to have the juniors come to international cricket. They make you feel they are a part of it for the long time. That is because of the structure in Indian cricket. IPL also played a huge role. I remember, the first Test I played for India, I was overawed by seeing so many people in the stadium. I had never played in front of a packed house earlier. In IPL, every match is like an international match, you play with and against quality international players, there’s so much of expectations from yourself and also from the franchise. The atmosphere is like an international match. When they come to play international match, it is like another day in the office for them.
The other important aspect is it is great to see someone like Prithvi Shaw, who did not get runs in the opportunities he got, it was great to see him go back to domestic cricket and score tons and tons of runs in Vijay Hazare Trophy. That is the only way you can bounce back into the Indian team. Standards are high, competition is a lot more for each and every position. Luckily, there is so much of depth in every department. I would love see a lot more spinners as far as the bench strength is concerned.
Why don’t we have enough spinners in the country?
A couple of reasons. Because of emphasis on playing well on overseas tours, we started to play a lot more on seamer-friendly pitches, which means a lot more grass on the surface and a lot of moisture on it. This takes the spinners away from what they usually contributed to a Ranji Trophy side. If you look at Ranji Trophy teams, very few can have two quality spinners. In the past, each Ranji Trophy had two or three quality spinners. Automatically, the number of spinners playing first-class cricket is very less compared to the past.
Secondly, with a lot of emphasis on T20 cricket, right from the younger days, the spinners are taught not to deceive the batsmen in flight, not to be worried when the batsmen play their shots but they are always looking at restricting the flow of runs. Not allowing them to progress or being given bowling by their captain or coach. In the bargain, the art of spin bowling where you deceive the batsmen in flight, where you are focussing a lot more on turning the ball is diminishing. When you play at the highest level, you need to have skill and suffocate the batsmen. Good batsmen will work out what the spinners are trying to do if you don’t have the skills.
Talking about Pant and how he has pushed behind Wriddhiman Saha as the No. 1 Test wicketkeeper for the manner in which he bats, are you in favour of a wicketkeeper who keeps first or a wicketkeeper who gets you the runs?
In Test, I will always goes for the best wicketkeeper because you know he will take all the chances behind the wicket that become so crucial. Rishabh has shown us from the second Test in Chennai that he has improved as far as the glovework is concerned. It is great to see. A lot of credit be given to R Sridhar, the Indian team fielding coach, who has extensively worked with Pant in improving his wicket-keeping. For me, I’d always go for someone who is the best ’keeper. It is not that when you are playing international cricket, the ’keepers don’t contribute with the bat. Someone like Wriddhi has contributed with the bat. He has got Test centuries, got some crucial scores especially when the team was under pressure. But, knowing Rishabh has got the ‘X’ factor, and the way he has kept wickets, he has sealed that spot. Not only has he impressed with his batting, the maturity with which he batted right from the second innings in the Sydney Test (97) and that win in Brisbane (89 not out) followed by half-century in Chennai (58 not out) and the century (101) in Ahmedabad. For me, the most pleasing factor is the way he has improved as a ’keeper, and that really augurs well in all the three formats for Indi He is young, willing to learn, worked hard on his fitness and much more nimble on his feet.
What can we expect from India in this year of T20 World Cup?
We just want India to play to its potential. There is a lot of depth in the squad, a lot of quality in the squad. What is important is they have to play with the right combination based on the opposition and the surface they will be playing on. It is critical that the team is not dependent on one or two players but as a collective unit, they have to perform. Big tournaments like the World Cup is not won by one or two individual performances. It is won by collective performances. That’s what Team India will look to do, come October. Also, take the advantage of the home conditions, which I am sure the Indian team will do. It was unfortunate they came close to winning (in the last two editions), being semifinalists (2016) and finalist (2014) but not finish oon a high. Probably this year, we will see Virat get his hands on the trophy.
Is this Indian team lacking in a left-arm pacer, and the arrival of T Natarajan would fill in that space? Is the team not encouraging a left-arm pacer or aren’t there enough of them?
The team invested a lot in Khaleel Ahmed, who did not live up to the expectations. It is not that the team management or the selectors are not looking at the left-arm option. Now that you have got Natarajan, I know that working with him at Sunrisers Hyderabad and seeing him from close quarters, he is someone who can add a lot in T20s, someone who can bowl those tough overs. It is important not to judge by one or two performances. If someone is bowling the tough overs or batting in the tough period like doing the finisher’s role, it is not about the average but about the impact. Batsmen sometimes get out playing the big shots. Bowlers can be hit for maximum even if they bowl good deliveries. It is about taking that into perspective and seeing how someone executes the plan. I believe Natarajan has got the confidence to bowl the tough overs to good batsmen. He could be the solution for the left-arm puzzle. I always believe the left-arm angle will definitely have an advantage. It provides that variety to the captain.
With the pink ball match being a regular feature in Test series, how can India prepare specifically for this?
It is going to be tough. They conducted the Duleep Trophy with the pink ball. A majority of these players play throughout the year. I don’t see any possibility where they practice with the pink ball a lot more. It is just about getting ready whenever the Test is scheduled. What I like about this team is it will never ever compromise on preparation. Whatever the challenge they are going to confront, whichever team they are going to play against, and I have seen from close quarters as a broadcaster, it never compromises on preparation. The players will prepare well for pink-ball. They played three, won two of them. The quality of this team is that whenever the next pink-ball Test comes about, am sure it will be prepared and playing to the potential. There is no doubt that when they play overseas, there will be a lot of offer for the fast bowlers. Am sure the Indian team will be prepared for the challenge.
Were you surprised with the way the pink-ball Test ended in two days in Ahmedabad?
I was definitely surprised. It also showed that with the pink ball, you can play on dry surfaces. From the time I have followed pink-ball Test matches, I was always of the opinion that for the ball not to lose its colour, you have maintain a certain amount of grass cover. What we saw in Ahmedabad, even on a dry surface, though the match did not last long, none complained about the colour of the ball or not sighting the ball. The challenge was the dew, especially in the last 20 overs. If the groundsman can find a solution to address the dew, pink ball Test is the way forward. It definitely gets a lot of eyeballs, not just in the stadium but also on television. That’s what you want — a quality game on the ground for the followers to enjoy.
Which aspect of this Indian team do you like the most?
I like the mindset of the players. In the recent past, what we have seen, and with experience, I can say, that with the mindset of a champion, whatever the shortcomings you may have, you will overcome that. The players and teams who are mentally strong have succeeded at the highest level. As far as talent is concerned, you expect it to be on par when someone playing at the highest level. But the players who are mentally tough, who have that positive attitude and the killer instinct will have success. We have seen in Australia. That is something I admire in this Indian team.