India’s resounding defeats in the first two ODIs vs Australia in Sydney have once again triggered debates across various platforms about whether the time has come to split the captaincy for different formats.
Rohit Sharma’s success as captain of the Mumbai Indians in the IPL and India’s lack of success in the two ICC tournaments that Kohli has led the team in, the 2017 ICC Champions Trophy in England and Wales, where they were soundly beaten in the final by arch rivals Pakistan, and the 50-over World Cup in England, where India came up short in the semifinal against New Zealand, have been a source of constant debate.
But with three World Cups lined up in a span of three years, two of them in the T20 format and one in the 50-over format in 2023 is it wise to change captains now?
There is a consensus now that Kohli was tactically poor in both the ODIs and more so in the second one when he gave an in-rhythm Jasprit Bumrah just a two-over spell and brought on Navdeep Saini, which eventually opened the floodgates.
Criticising his handling of Bumrah, former India ODI skipper and left-handed opener Gautam Gambhir, who for a long time has pointed to Kohli’s lack of success for RCB in the IPL, said, “I find it difficult to comprehend that if you have a bowler of Jasprit Bumrah’s calibre and you give him only two overs upfront. It’s not a tactical mistake but a tactical blunder,” Gambhir said in ‘ESPNCricinfo’s ‘Match Day Hindi’.
“I was expecting Bumrah and Shami to bowl five-over spells each upfront to try and get a couple of wickets each. I don’t think there is any captain in world cricket who would give Jasprit Bumrah, two overs with the new ball,” Gambhir added.
Gambhir has been a strong advocate of handing India’s limited overs captaincy to Rohit Sharma and has called it “India’s loss and not Rohit’s” if Sharma is not made captain in white-ball cricket.
It is true though that Kohli has not been at his best both as a batsman and captain since the start of this chaotic year. After winning the ODI series 2-1 at home vs Australia in January, Kohli captained the team in the first four T20s and oversaw a five-nil sweep vs New Zealand in New Zealand. (Rohit captained in the fifth one). But India were well beaten 3-0 in the ODIs and 2-0 in Tests.
His personal form in the eight ODIs that he has led India in has also suffered a dip if you go purely by the numbers. In eight matches, he has scored 368 runs with four 50s at an average of 46, well below his overall average of 59.29.
Of course, any ordinary mortal would happily take 46 as a batting average, but when you are a colossus as Kohli has been over such a long period of time, you are often measured against your own greatness.
In T20Is this year, his performance has been even poorer. The seven matches that he has played in have earned him 161 runs with a top-score of 45 and an average of 32.20, massively below his overall average of 50.80.
Former India left-arm-seamer Ashish Nehra, who has worked closely with Kohli at RCB as a bowling coach for two seasons, describes him as an “impulsive” captain.
Pointing out some of his bowling changes, Nehra said that some of his decisions looked hurried and didn’t make any sense. “In today’s game, Virat gave two overs to Mohammed Shami and then brought Navdeep Saini. He wanted Shami to bowl from the other end, that I understand, but then, why would he use Jasprit Bumrah for only two overs with the new ball?
“He is making frequent changes in bowling. He only had five bowling options. India used Mayank Agarwal and Hardik Pandya – it was a decision made on the ground. If things were going in India’s way, you would not have seen these two getting an over,” Nehra said on Cricbuzz.
To support Nehra’s view on Kohli being impulsive, one has to say that he is right and one can see that even in Tests where he plays follow the ball and puts a fielder wherever the ball has gone. But Test cricket allows you to recover from a bad spell or bad 15 minutes.
Nehra even pointed out to his batting approach in the first ODI when Kohli, after India had raced to 50 for no loss in 5 overs, walked out at No.3 and started playing a shot a ball.
“He is being hasty in his decisions,” Nehra said. “In the previous game, after he was dropped, it seemed like he was in a hurry. Kohli has chased 350 several times in his career. It seemed like he was chasing 375 and not 475,” he added.
While those points are well taken, one must also keep in mind that Kohli is someone who revels in the responsibility of captaincy. While there is no immediate threat to his status as an undisputed Test captain, he has been terrific as a white-ball leader too.
His ODI numbers are staggering as it is, (In 250 matches, he has scored 11977 runs at an average of 59.29 and a strike-rate of 93.92 with 43 centuries, many of them in winning chases), but as captain, those numbers look even more surreal. He has led India 91 times and in those 91 games, he has scored 5257 runs at an average of 74.04 and a strike-rate of 98.87 with 21 hundreds.
India have also enjoyed a good winning record under him, winning 62 of those games. And in those wins, Kohli’s numbers are divine. He has 4085 runs at an average of 90.77 and a strike-rate of 100.36 and 17 centuries.
In the ultra-short format, T20Is, also he has a stunning record. In 82 games, he has scored 2794 runs at 50.80 and a strike-rate of 138.24. India have won 22 T20I matches of the 37 that he has led them in and in those games, he averages 55.64 with a strike-rate of 146.42.
Kohli is yet to lead India in a T20 WC, so people who like to judge captaincy based on success in ICC events, will have to wait for him to at least fail there as captain, before they can pass their judgment.
But the question is for someone who has performed exceptionally as a captain and team’s premier batsman, will it be wise to demotivate him and hand over the captaincy to someone else?
When Dhoni was nearing the end of his captaincy tenure, everyone knew that the mantle was being handed over to Kohli. Hence the move was seamless. Now, with three big events lined up, will it be ok to change captains? Will it be fair to Kohli? Will it be fair to Rohit? India will be playing only a handful of T20Is before the T20 WC in India next year. Is it ok to give Rohit such a short handover time? Kohli got two and a half years to shape the team for the 2019 WC and India played beautiful and modern ODI cricket in that period. If at all there is a change in captaincy being planned, it is only fair that Rohit too gets that time to shape the team the way he wants.
The new selection committee does not have an easy job. But they can make life a little less complicated for themselves if they don’t make any hasty moves regarding the captaincy of India’s white-ball teams. If at all a change has to happen, they can think about it after next year’s T20 WC. That way, Rohit will have two years to target at least one of the two big events, the World T20 in Australia in 2022 and the 50-over World Cup in India in 2023.
IPL success is not the best benchmark to judge international success. Would we be having the same debate if Rohit was the captain in the first two ODIs and the IPL was won by RCB under Virat and not by Rohit for MI?