These were not the sort of headlines Virat Kohli has grown used to over the past couple of seasons, as India swept all before them at home. They certainly are not what he would have chosen to read the morning he was named ICC Cricketer of the Year for 2017. But it was not just the headlines that savaged a team that has already lost twice as many Tests in 2018 as they did in the two previous years.
Much of the coverage dealt with Kohli’s behavior at the post-match press conference. He admitted South Africa had thoroughly outplayed his team, and answered every question lobbed his way, until the selection debates that have shadowed this entire tour came into the picture.
“How much does this loss hurt, that despite having that formula (that worked in similar conditions back home), you could perhaps not get the best XI out and win this match?” he was asked.
“What’s the best XI?” he asked back, clearly irked by the line of questioning.
The journalist continued: “Was it your best XI?”
Kohli responded: “But if we had won this, was this the best XI?”
“Again, It’s a pitch that was much more subcontinental,” said the journalist.
“I’m saying that we don’t decide the XI according to the results,” said Kohli.
“You tell me the best XI and we’ll play that. I’m saying the loss obviously hurts. But you make one decision and you back it. Didn’t we lose in India? We had the best XI there. Whoever plays should be good enough to go out there and do the job for the team. That’s why we’ve got such a big squad. Because we believe in their abilities and they are good enough to be at this level, but you need to do that collectively as a team. We played with teams before that have looked really strong, and have lost as well. So, I certainly don’t bend toward that opinion at all.”
One fire doused, another was set alight. One of the local scribes pointed to the inconsistency in Indian selection, with different XIs having played in each of the 34 Tests in which Kohli has led.
“To win Test matches you need consistency, and you have been lacking that part,” he said. “How would you say that you will continue changing your team and still expect different results?”
It was more statement than question, and Kohli snapped.
“How many Test matches have we won out of 34?” he shot back. “21 wins (20 in reality). Two losses (there have been five). How many draws?”
“How many in India?” asked the journalist, not taking a backward step.
“Does it matter?” said Kohli. “Wherever we play, we try to do our best. I’m here to answer your questions, not to fight with you.”
With the greenest of pitches awaiting India at The Wanderers next week, that line of inquiry is not going to go away any time soon.
Three of the top-order batsmen selected for this series — Shikhar Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara and Rohit Sharma — average less than 30 in the four countries where India have struggled the most in recent times — South Africa, Australia, England and New Zealand. Since the turn of the decade, they have won one and lost 17 of 24 Tests played in those countries.
Given such underwhelming records, I asked Kohli whether he was tempted to look outside the current playing group, and consult someone like Rahul Dravid, the former batting great who now coaches both the Under-19s and the A team.
After all, Kohli himself was drafted into the ODI side at 19, soon after he led India to Under-19 glory, because the selectors felt he was someone they could build the team of the future around. At the time, he was picked ahead of those with far more impressive domestic records.
“We will have to sit down and discuss those things,” said Kohli. “It almost has to be a madness to be able to win away from home. And you have to live that every minute, every day of being on tour. It is a very individual thing, but we need to discuss this as a team for sure.
“The selectors will come into the conversation as well when we are looking at planning for future tours, because we have a lot of cricket away from home. This was not the only tour.”
Shreyas Iyer, a 23-year-old who has played three ODIs and who averages 54 in first-class cricket, is one of those on the fringes. Another romantic option, for a country that capped Sachin Tendulkar at 16, would be Prithvi Shaw, currently leading the Under-19s at the World Cup in New Zealand. He already has five first-class hundreds in a career that is only nine games old.
Back in 1996, on a tour of England, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly were thrown into the deep end. It would be a big surprise if Kohli did not think of a new swimmer or two before he heads to England in late June.