Era of Rohit Sharma could see more nuanced approach to shaping careers
- India’s new white ball captain has a reputation of persisting with players.
Adelaide, 2014. In a Test played under the looming shadow of the unfortunate demise of Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes, with India's then skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni nursing an injury to his right thumb, Virat Kohli walked out for the toss and read out his team for the series opener. Three fast bowlers, and a left of a left field selection in leg-spinner Karn Sharma. Ravichandran Ashwin, with 20 Tests and 107 wickets under his belt at that time, benched.
David Warner, Michael Clarke, and Steven Smith put the attack to the sword. Off-spinner Nathan Lyon returned a Man of the Match performance with 12 wickets. Karn Sharma never played a Test again. But by the time India responded with a memorable batting effort of their own that would ultimately fall short by 48 runs, it was apparent that a corner had been turned.
Terms like 'New India' were not a part of the parlance then, but undeniably, irrevocably, something had flipped. From the silent, slow, simmer of Dhoni. From the tired, safety-first approach that had once seen India opt for a draw in Dominica Test with 86 runs to get in the mandatory 15 overs and seven wickets in hand. The all-encompassing (r)age of Kohli arrived, without warning or foretelling.
Kohli demanded attention, by way of his vision and beliefs, by the inherent swagger that stemmed from him being the best at what he did, and by way of copping his first ball of that Adelaide Test on his helmet and casually waving away a concerned Mitchell Johnson. The next ball was crashed through covers for four, and a century of rare class and enterprise that would typify him followed. That aggression would become his captaincy template too, manifesting itself in him playing five bowlers in away Tests, building a fearsome all-condition, all-format pace attack, losing matches in pursuit of wins, and sometimes, arriving at logic-defying decisions - cue Champions Trophy 2017 final and so forth, but we shall come to those later.
He was not afraid to talk back, to the opposition and to the inquisitive press, often taking one for the another, revelling in the siege mentality that cloaked his interactions.
The choice of Rohit Sharma as India's T20I captain couldn't have been more antipodal. Sharma's pressers have their share of laughs. He answers uncomfortable questions with honesty and humour. Often, a team is a reflection of its skipper. Sourav Ganguly's India mirrored their skipper's spunk in Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, and Yuvraj Singh. Dhoni's India was a reflection of his astuteness in Ravichandran Ashwin, Suresh Raina, Bhuvneshwar Kumar. Kohli's India was comfortable in brawn and beard, unbridled in aggression, and unchained in ambition.
It would be fascinating to see the image Sharma's team reflects in days to come. To his advantage, Indian cricket is not going through a big transition yet. The core of the team, nurtured by Dhoni and given wings by Kohli, is still the same, and is likely to remain intact till the 2023 World Cup.
Much like Sharma's rare talent and the work he puts in gets buried under the flattering but superficial encomiums of “lazy elegance” or “effortless grace”, his canny reading of match situations and smart selections are swept aside by the five IPL trophies that headline his credentials.
Trust in Kishan, Yadav
To be sure, winning an IPL is not the same as winning an ICC Trophy, nor is serving as a stop-gap captain in any way similar to assuming duties full time. But go deeper into Sharma's style of captaincy and it becomes clearer that his success is built on consistency of selection - a Kohli counterfactual. His persistence with Suryakumar Yadav and Ishan Kishan in IPL is a recent case in point, where he groomed the two gifted cricketers at polar opposite stages in their careers to the point that they ended up playing for India.
His leadership has been equally impressive in the limited sample size of two international tournaments that he has led and won. In the 2018 Asia Cup played in UAE, Sharma fielded the same XI in three of the six games that India played, and made more than one change from the previous game only once - against Afghanistan - when India's place in the final was sealed and the management wanted to give at least a game to each member of the squad.
In the Nidahas Trophy held earlier that year in Sri Lanka, he played the same XI twice in five matches, and never made more than one change. Compare this with Kohli's decision to not repeat a Test XI for 39 games, his fatal tinkering with the batting order in the knock-out against New Zealand recently, the revolving door that the No. 4 position became before and during the 2019 World Cup, or inexplicably sending MS Dhoni at No. 7 in the that World Cup semi-final two years back.
Then, there's the issue of handling the “Test specialists”. Kohli's scheme of things had little room for the likes of Ashwin, Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara, who, despite being pivotal figures in the red-ball team, were dropped at various junctures. Rahane was the vice-captain when he was dropped for consecutive Tests against South Africa in 2018. While Pujara was deemed a white-ball pariah quite early in his international career, Rahane and Ashwin rarely got a consistent run in ODIs or T20Is, especially after 2017. It will be interesting to see how Sharma handles these players, particularly Ashwin, who was benched in the Tests in England earlier this year as well as in the first two matches of the T20I World Cup.
It probably helps that unlike Kohli, Sharma took his time to blossom despite making his international debut a year before the former and having a head start of three T20 World Cup appearances (2007, '09, '10) over Kohli. For the first six years of his white-ball career, Sharma remained a selection enigma. He was dropped more than he was picked, and very rarely would he bat at a position that suited his style of play. His career turned when Dhoni asked him to open the innings at the Champions Trophy in 2013. By that time, Kohli had already racked up 13 ODI hundreds and was a 50-over World Cup winner.
As Kohli imposed himself on the cricketing firmament - with his sublime strokeplay, pathbreaking fitness, multi-million dollar endorsements, and an odd middle finger to the crowd - Sharma ploughed along silently, until the deafening proclamation of his white-ball greatness arrived with two ODI double hundreds within 13 months. It is tough to disagree that Sharma's grind and the long route to success may have played their part in imparting him a nuanced understanding of shaping and saving careers.
At 34 and predictably in the last lap of his staggering career, it could be argued that T20I captaincy has arrived too late for him, and there's indeed a fair case to be made for a younger captain. But now that his time under the sun, no matter how brief, is finally here, expect him to shine bright.