During recent days, when Australia’s mauling of England in the Ashes entered its final throes, another series concluded in exciting and unexpected fashion. South Africa, with a new captain, beat India, with an established one, 2-1 in a three-match series at home.
In historical and statistical terms, this should not be a surprise. India have never won a Test series in South Africa. Out of seven series contested since 1992-93, India had lost six and drawn one. These series yielded twenty Test matches, out of which India had won only three, with three draws and ten losses.
However, going into the series, India were in superior form, having beaten Australia away in 2020-21 and leading England 2-1 away in the summer of 2021, before failing to engage with the final and deciding match on Sept. 10 on the grounds of mental health issues. There was a sense at that time of all not being harmonious between the Indian camp and its authority, the Board of Control for Cricket in India.
South Africa, on the other hand, have been through tough times, losing five of their previous eight Test series. They have had to cope with the retirement of fourteen match-winning world-class players in the last ten years, plus off-field distractions involving the suspension and dismissal of administrators for alleged misconduct and malpractice. More recently, a call by one player for Cricket South Africa to stand in support of the Black Lives Matter movement received mixed responses.
The loss of a key bowler to injury before the first Test on Dec. 26 was a further setback, and South Africa were beaten. However, in a remarkable turnaround, they won the second and third hard-fought matches to win the series.
Captain Dean Elgar said that he had challenged the players within the group, knowing that immense character was needed to stand up to tough situations. His bowling unit responded by capturing all of India’s wickets in the Tests and a star batting performance from a player in only his fifth Test proved to be crucial. Elgar acknowledged that it is one of the biggest challenges to get all players on the captain’s side and buy into his vision.
This is something easier said than done, an achievement that the defeated Indian captain, Virat Kohli, has managed in his seven years in charge. Prior to the series, he had become his country’s most successful captain in Test cricket and, as captain of T20 internationals and one-day internationals, fourth overall. In his sixty-eight Tests, forty were won, eleven drawn and seventeen lost, a win ratio of 58.8 percent.
His belligerent, aggressive, intimidating, self-confident, win-orientated style of leadership, with great emphasis on fitness, earned him a few critics along the way, possibly within the BCCI. It was hoped that the appointment of a new president, a former Indian captain, in October 2019, would lead to improved communications between the board and the players. This does not appear to have happened.
In September, Kohli announced that he would stand down as T20 captain after the T20 World Cup in the UAE in November, but continue as ODI and Test captain. On Nov. 7, it was clear that India would fail to make the semi-finals. Combined with failure to win the World Test Championship in June 2021 and the 2019 ODI World Cup, criticism mounted. On Dec. 8, ninety minutes before Kohli was due to join a call with the selectors to discuss the squad to tour South Africa, he claims that he was told that there would be a change of leadership for the 50-over format as the selectors preferred to have one person to captain both of two short formats.
Subsequently, there was claim and counter claim about what was said and by whom. Prior to this, there had been signs of tetchiness in Kohli’s on-field behaviour and, in the third test in South Africa, he was especially incensed that an umpire’s decision was overturned on appeal to the off-field decision review technology, for which he may yet be censured.
On Jan. 15, one day after the defeat and series loss, Kohli announced that he was standing down as Test captain. Thus, in a little over two months, he has gone from being leader across all three formats to leader in none. The question on many lips is did he jump before being pushed? The coach with whom he enjoyed so much success, especially in maintaining a position at the top of ICC Test rankings for forty-two months, finished his stint in Nov. 2021. Together, they changed the culture of the team to fit their own philosophy, style and vision.
The new coach, another legend of Indian cricket, has a different personality and approach. Now, a new captain has to be appointed. This is the task of the selectors. Neither captain or coach has voting rights in the selection process but, normally, are asked for input. India’s men’s national cricket seems set for transition, along with amendments to its approach. Such change must have the support of the BCCI. It may even be the place where the change was initiated.
During the years in which Kohli was in charge, South Africa’s Test team has had five captains, one of whom captained 36 Tests. it was a surprise that it was Elgar who took the reins in March 2021. His no-nonsense, steely approach may be just what is required to mould a team that is short of proven world-class players but looks to be genuinely inclusive and representative, working towards a common goal of success based on teamwork.
The series with India proved to be a catalyst for change in the leadership of both teams. Captaincy is such a vital role, both on and off the field. Harmony, not just with players, but coach and governing Board, are key factors. When harmony breaks, it is usually the captain who is first to go.