Kohli’s ouster as ODI captain a boon in disguise for the batter in him
Much of the 20 hours after the BCCI’s terse statement confirming the appointment of Rohit Sharma as the One-Day International captain on Wednesday night was spent speculating over whether the Indian board/selectors had at least done Virat Kohli the courtesy of informing him that he was being replaced.
Sourav Ganguly sought to draw a line in the sand by asserting on Thursday that Kohli had indeed been intimated of the impending change before it was made public. There is no reason to disbelieve the BCCI president even if he was notorious for half-truths during his playing days; Kohli did deserve to hear first-hand from the men who matter that he would no longer be in charge of India’s white-ball fortunes, given his glittering record only blotted by the lack of silverware in the board’s expansive cabinet.
It should have come as no surprise to the discerning that the BCCI was seized of the need for a change of guard in limited-overs formats in the aftermath of Kohli’s call to quit the T20I captaincy at the end of the World Cup last month. It’s neither practical nor prudent to have two different heads in the two white-ball versions, much as Kohli might have wanted to continue as the 50-over leader.
One of the keywords teams like to bandy about is ‘culture’. That refers to the ethos, the approach, the mindset, the character of the side. Almost without exception, this culture is a reflection of the captain’s thinking. It is impractical for limited-overs teams to have two separate ‘cultures’ when different men are at the helm of affairs in the two different formats. ‘Too much of leadership,’ Ganguly put it succinctly, justifying the move to have the same captain for both the 20- and 50-over sides.
With Rohit having emerged as a key figure in the leadership scheme of things – he is also the Test vice-captain, replacing the straggling Ajinkya Rahane – it might be tempting to believe that a new power centre has been installed within the confines of the Indian dressing-room. That might or might not turn out to be the unwitting outcome, but there is no denying the respect Kohli, the cricketer commands for his sterling deeds over the last decade and a bit.
As Test skipper, Kohli has plenty to offer a side slowly moving towards transition. Rahane’s demotion from the vice-captaincy is the clearest indication yet that the selectors are beginning to lose patience with the Mumbaikar following a string of low scores only occasionally broken by a meaningful contribution. Cheteshwar Pujara too has been under the scanner for a while, and it won’t be fanciful to imagine that the sweeping winds of change are imminent. Kohli’s twin responsibilities will include providing the solidity and class the middle-order has lacked for a while now, and allowing the newcomers around him, whenever that happens, to ease into Test cricket without undue pressure or a heavy burden.
Kohli’s form itself has been patchy since the start of 2020. In 13 Tests and 23 innings, he has mustered a meagre 599 runs at a mediocre average of 26.04. That has seen his overall average drop precipitously to a still impressive 50.65, but Kohli has seldom been about just numbers. He is the heartbeat of the Indian batting; the team relies on him for direction, dynamism and dominance. In the last 23 months, Kohli has looked nowhere near the behemoth he was between 2015 and 2019. His footwork has been tentative, his decision-making questionable. Maybe the unavoidable cares that come with being the best batsman of the team and the captain across formats weighed heavily on him.
Now divested of the responsibilities of marshalling the white-ball teams, Kohli should have more time and energy to concentrate his energies on becoming the best batting version of himself. His limited-overs form hasn’t dipped as dramatically – he averages 46.66 at a strike-rate of 90.90 in 12 ODIs and 49.50 with a strike-rate of 137.18 in 20 T20s in the same period where his Test returns have taken a severe beating — though even against the white ball, Kohli hasn’t been authoritative and imposing.
Much like Ganguly post 2005, this could mark a significant turnaround in Kohli’s recent fortunes, though there are no striking parallels in the two cases. Ganguly was unceremoniously sacked as captain after the tour of Zimbabwe in August 2005 after a scathing indictment of his work ethic and batting by then coach Greg Chappell. The Aussie great had suggested that Ganguly voluntarily give up the captaincy so he could become the best version of himself as a batsman, something the Kolkatan took umbrage at. Once he was divested of his responsibility and then dumped from the team, the left-hander steeled himself to make a triumphant comeback. Every run he scored between 2006 and his retirement in 2008 was a vindication of Chappell’s stand, even if Ganguly might not see it that way.
Kohli, of course, doesn’t find himself anywhere near that position. He is still considered among the premier all-format batsmen in the world, is a certainty in the T20 and 50-over teams and is tasked with continuing the excellent run of the Test side. In so many ways, this is a win-win for Kohli, however disappointed he might be at not being able to remain in charge of the ODI side despite a stunning win percentage of 70.43 across 95 matches in charge. After all, he won’t be unaware that new India is even more unforgiving than India of the past if they are no trophies to show, and for all the bilateral riches he has amassed, Kohli hasn’t been able to inspire his team past the finish line in three successive ICC white-ball tournaments from 2017.
Under Rohit, India embark on a mission to set the record straight. Towards that end, the new captain will rely on his predecessor not just for inputs but also influential performances of the kind Rohit himself turned in under Kohli.