The year ahead: Rohit has his task cut out, 11 months before T20 WC
Although MS Dhoni became India’s white-ball captain after the 2007 ODI World Cup debacle, the T20 World Cup later that year was at best an experiment. It meant there was no expectation and he had four years to build a team for the 2011 World Cup at home. When Virat Kohli became India’s all-format captain in January 2017, he was given a good 30 months to sort out his squad for the 2019 World Cup. Rohit Sharma will barely get 11 months before his first big captaincy test—the 2022 T20 World Cup in Australia. And another 11 months on will come the ODI World Cup at home. Sharma is in an unenviable position.
Despite the controversy it sparked, Sharma replacing Kohli as white-ball captain makes sense. There is no denying the weightage of winning an IPL. Sharma has done it five times, Kohli has never. Kohli has significantly more runs, centuries and a better average than Sharma despite playing just 27 ODIs more than him. But there has rarely been a better impact batter than Sharma in recent history. He has three double hundreds, a better range of shots (no one pulls or hooks like him) and the right performances in the right tournaments—an apt example being the 2019 World Cup which he topped with 648 runs in nine innings, hitting five centuries and one fifty. And since the problem lies in India not winning an ICC tournament after the 2013 Champions Trophy, the simplest solution seemed to be in handing the captaincy to someone who revels at this stage. Kohli, one of the most successful ODI captains, had a forgettable 2019 World Cup as a batter. The narrative didn’t change much at this year’s T20 World Cup.
The India captaincy will be markedly different from what Sharma has experienced at the Mumbai Indians. Selection, for example, can be a brutal process of elimination now that India has a wider talent pool. Sharma has to start making some tough decisions, beginning with the spinners. In the next two years, India will play a T20 World Cup on the bouncy pitches of Australia and an ODI World Cup on India’s low and slow surfaces. Kohli discarded wrist-spinners Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav after the 2019 World Cup but they could find favour again in Australia. In India though, it’s difficult to look past Axar Patel, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. If Sharma wants to keep everyone in the mix, he needs to get the transition right so that no spinner goes into ICC tournaments underprepared, and down on confidence as a result. The gap left by Hardik Pandya’s prolonged fitness issues too need to be addressed by allowing Shardul Thakur to find his groove in both formats.
India’s batting doesn’t need much tinkering. It needs a vote of confidence, though Shreyas Iyer, Suryakumar Yadav and Ishan Kishan make compelling case for them to play both formats. Sharma is best placed to tackle this conundrum on a match-by-match basis and communicate to them since he leads Yadav and Kishen at MI as well while Iyer is his Mumbai teammate as well. Most uncomfortable though could be asking the team to adjust to an environment where Kohli isn’t calling the shots anymore, when it’s public knowledge that Kohli didn’t want to move on as ODI skipper. It is unlikely that this will blow up into a battle of ego, considering that Kohli has always acknowledged Sharma as a superior batter. And Sharma knows India can’t progress without Kohli being a mid-innings anchor.
Kohli will have more time now to concentrate on his batting but he is still likely to be part of the leadership group. A lot though will depend on how maturely Sharma and Kohli accept this reversal of positions and don’t let their performances to be affected. It will also hinge on the BCCI’s ability to steer clear of controversy now that the worst is arguably over. Kohli the Test captain has publicly backed and committed himself to Sharma the ODI captain and Rahul Dravid the India chief coach. The priority now is to ensure India get used to Sharma as the white-ball captain. That they have to tick so many boxes while also playing the World Test Championship and hosting two Indian Premier League editions, making it a race against time.