Will split captaincy work in Indian cricket?

Kohli and Sharma are indispensable across formats meaning the commander in one could be commanded in another.
Rohit Sharma (L) and Virat Kohli. (BCCI)
Rohit Sharma (L) and Virat Kohli. (BCCI)
Published on Oct 01, 2021 08:37 PM IST
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By, Mumbai

After leading in all formats with complete authority, Virat Kohli’s decision to relinquish captaincy of the Twenty20 team means India will again move towards split captaincy. Is this what India need? The debate’s far from settled.

With so much cricket and conversation on workload management, an all-formats captain is and will be a rarity but ultimately the decision is made on how it fits into a particular team set-up and culture.

Currently, we have examples of both. Australia and England have different captains for their red and white ball teams but New Zealand have been successful with one captain across formats.

Both have its challenges. Having a common captain means a heavy workload but there’s just one power centre. Split captaincy can get complicated if the two captains also happen to be all-format players. That could be an issue for India to deal with.

Kohli remains indispensable across formats. Given his larger-than-life persona, the next India T20 captain will have Kohli’s looming presence to deal with. Rohit Sharma is everyone’s favourite to take over in the T20s and, after the England Test series, he is an automatic choice across formats as well. It’s the same situation with the other captaincy candidate, KL Rahul.

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England or Australia didn’t have to deal with this while going for split captaincy because Eoin Morgan and Aaron Finch don’t play red-ball games.

That is how it was for India when they had different white and red ball captains in the past. Following Rahul Dravid’s resignation after the 2007 tour of England, Mahendra Singh Dhoni was appointed captain of the Twenty20 and One-day teams, while Anil Kumble got the Tests’ leadership role. That is how it stayed till Kumble retired in November, 2008.

Kumble was not playing limited overs cricket in that period and Dhoni wasn’t in the longest version. When Dhoni retired from Tests in December 2014, Kohli was handed the captaincy while the keeper-batsman continued to lead the white-ball squad for two years before stepping down at the start of 2017.

Kohli and Sharma’s case is different. They are two strong, successful personalities. So, for split-captaincy to work, the key would be that players manage egos and strike a good understanding.

To understand their equation we have to go back in time, to the start of their India careers. Now, Kohli is eyeing Sachin Tendulkar’s record of most ODI centuries, but Sharma, two years senior, had begun his India career earlier. When Kohli was playing the 2008 Under-19 World Cup final, the Mumbai batsman had already established himself in limited overs cricket.

On wickets with pace and bounce in South Africa and Australia, Sharma dazzled. He played his part in helping India win the inaugural 2007 ICC T20 World Cup in South Africa and the 2007-08 CB Tri-series one-day tournament in Australia. But, came the 2011 World Cup and they were competing to get into a squad full of superstars. Sharma lost out to Kohli on account of a poor series in South Africa.

Sharma was primed for his Test debut in 2010 versus South Africa in Nagpur. He got injured during the warm-up an hour before the start. Kohli leapfrogged him to make his Test debut in 2011 in West Indies.

Sharma’s inability to cement a Test berth and Kohli’s soaring run graph meant there was no questioning the pecking order in the change room. Split captaincy could alter that.

What the two will be grappling with is a case where they will be receiving commands in one format and be the commander in another. Sharma doesn’t have Kohli’s aura but is known to be equally confident as captain and player.

Sharma and Kohli will need to show the kind of maturity former Sri Lanka batters Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene did. The two greats played under each other without ever allowing egos to come in the way of team goals.

Perhaps, the most telling statement on the subject was made by Dhoni himself. “Split captaincy doesn’t work in India,” Dhoni had said after stepping down in 2017. Even the legendary Kapil Dev has in the past said he isn’t sure the idea will work in India.

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MSK Prasad, chairman of the previous selection committee, is optimistic. “If you see the way MS (Dhoni) and Virat (Kohli) gelled and they had a wonderful captaincy during that split captaincy time. I feel during the last one-and-a-half years, especially since Rohit (Sharma) started playing Test cricket, their understanding has become much better. In the interest of Indian cricket that chemistry must become stronger,” said Prasad.

But, does India’s cricket culture allow for the smooth functioning of two captains? “There’s nothing like (personal egos) that, ultimately they are playing for India, not for any club that Sharma can’t play under Kohli or Kohli can’t play under Sharma. When it comes to the nation, when it comes to the country they all should be one and playing as one,” said former India pacer Karsan Ghavri.

During Ghavri’s time, a lot was made about the personality clash of Sunil Gavaskar versus Kapil Dev. “See, all those rivalries… it has been going for years and years, right from MAK Pataudi’s time, to Bishan Singh Bedi’s time to before that, even when Lala Amarnath was playing (in the 1930s and 1940s). It is a part and parcel of the game. They have to tackle these things,” said Ghavri.

How it looks from outside can be completely different from the real picture. Kapil and Gavaskar flatly deny personality clashes affecting the team’s performance. It was the same in the Pakistan dressing room in the time of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. It was said they didn’t get along---two highly successful bowlers, each sure about his greatness, yet having differences when captaining Pakistan. Yet during the one-off 2005 ICC World XI versus Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground when Younis, whose wife is from Sydney, came to the ground, the Ws made for a picture-perfect moment, bonding together for the entire time Younis was at the ground.

“We are lucky that we have Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma, so we are in a better position. Split captaincy is alright,” said former India player and coach Madan Lal.

About adjusting to play under each other, Lal too alluded to his time as a player when the captaincy changed between Gavaskar and Kapil. “It is alright, they are colleagues. If you have an ego problem, that ego is going to hurt you. It is a team game, we had Kapil Dev as captain, we had Sunil Gavaskar as captain. Kapil Dev won the 1983 World Cup and we won the 1985 Benson & Hedges World Championship of cricket under Sunil Gavaskar.

“Two players’ opinion can differ but that doesn’t mean that they don’t like each other. Gavaskar wanted to perform, Kapil Dev also wanted to maintain the standards he has set for himself. I have not seen it (any ego issues) and have always maintained that at the end of the day the story is that your performance doesn’t dip. I don’t believe it is going affect Rohit and Virat (either), they are above all these sort of things.”

When Lal was India coach, Mohammed Azharuddin lost his captaincy and had to play under Tendulkar. “Both played under each other, but their performance didn’t dip, that’s important. Every player has a different nature. Tendulkar wanted to concentrate more on batting, he had set himself a very high bar,” said Lal.

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What complicates the situation for India is that they will have two separate captains in white ball cricket. Australia and England have the same captain for T20 and 50 overs team. Ghavri said Sharma should be handed the reins of the white ball teams. Madan Lal though isn’t sure. “Let us see how Sharma handles it (the T20 captaincy). Kohli has done very well in 50 overs and Test cricket; he has built the team around him. T20 is a totally different game which can change in an over or two,” he said.

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