Sunday, 4 January 2015

India vs Australia: Captains face a test of conviction at SCG............

SYDNEY: MS Dhoni offered the perplexing sight of a retired captain training as usual at nets on Sunday, but it is clearly Virat Kohli who now epitomizes Team India. 

The hundreds of Indian fans who gathered at the Sydney Cricket Ground reserved their loudest cheers and most ebullient appreciation for the new captain, whose quest to revive Indian cricket's fortunes will begin from Tuesday. 

Kohli seems to have taken to his new role as easily as an Aussie cricketer resorts to sledging. The buzzwords he has created around his nascent reign include words like "positive", "pro-active" and "aggressive". 

As he feels his way into the Test captaincy, this provocative and electrifying cricketer from Delhi might find Sydney a turning point in his career. 

Will he know when to take his foot off the pedal? Can he recognize the moments when a clever retreat, instead of a hasty attack, is the need of the hour? 

Most importantly, can he rally his teammates around his cause and keep his calm in pressure situations? It's a journey which has just begun, fraught with fears but fertile with hope. His counterpart Steve Smith, meanwhile, finds himself in a similar situation but facing entirely different questions. 

Seldom does a Test series mark the end of eras for both competing sides. The Aussies too have marked a line in the sand, taking steps towards easing away from Michael Clarke's style of leadership by appointing the young Smith. In Australia's case, it was injury which forced their hand. 

While Kohli's attacking approach in Adelaide was hailed as a breath of fresh air compared to Dhoni's bone-weary tactics, Smith found himself unable in Melbourne to adhere to Clarke's ideology of fiercely challenging declarations. 

Smith faces a dilemma opposite to Kohli's: Is it all right for an Australian captain in this day and age to be conservative, to adopt safety-first tactics? To not throw the challenge at every roll of the dice? The Sydney Test will offer the first match-up of these two disparate personalities. 

Smith might find the pressures to adopt an aggressive tone against opposition teams a bit overwhelming in this Australian set-up. Can he, too, stick to his guns? 

Smith, a soft-spoken character, is quite unlike the verbose, demonstrative Kohli. Both are in the form of their lives with the bat and quite capable in their present state of turning games on their own. 

"It's a tough job taking over from Michael Clarke, who has been exceptional," said coach Darren Lehmann on Smith's delayed declaration in Melbourne, which played into India's hands by preventing a 3-0 scoreline, though it won the series for the Aussies. 

"I'd like to believe he still wants to win this game," Michael Clarke said wryly in the commentators' box on Day 5, also in Melbourne. 

Kohli hasn't had such veiled criticism coming his way but he has his share of baiters. David Warner on Sunday threw down the gauntlet, saying, "I'd like to see him, if he comes out with the same aggression as the last Test, if he will do it as captain. MS thinks a lot about the game, Kohli is a fiery character who goes out there and plays with his heart on his sleeve." 

Ryan Harris said Kohli's biggest test would be knowing when to take his foot off the pedal. "I think Kohli will be a bit more attacking. There are going to be times when he wants to be attacking and can't be. So he has to learn whether or not to do that, and when to do that. I'm not saying he's very calm. The way India came out and attacked in Adelaide (under Kohli), that's the way we play. If India think win first and draw second, it's going to be very interesting." 

But can this new Australia think "win-first" under Smith? And will Kohli fall into the trap of living up to his reputation of chasing victory at all costs? 

It will not be easy for the combative Kohli to take a backward step. Smith will find it hard to give the opposition "a whiff of a chance", which he said he wanted to deny them in Melbourne. But in the Sydney Test, there will be times when both captains must step out of their comfort zone.