Over the next few days, the debate over whether Virat Kohli opted to give up the national Twenty20 captaincy of his own volition, or whether he was ‘convinced’ to do so by the head honchos of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, will gather immense traction. The origins of that debate can be traced to a press release from the BCCI, a little over an hour after Kohli’s social media post outlining his decision to stand down as skipper at the conclusion of the T20 World Cup in the UAE in October-November.
Kohli has identified the demands of playing and captaining in all formats, the significance of giving himself ‘space to be fully ready to lead the Indian Team in Test and ODI cricket’ and management of workload as the prime drivers behind a decision whose only surprise lay in its timing. BCCI secretary Jay Shah perhaps gave the goat up when he said in the release, “We have a clear roadmap for Team India. Considering the workloads and ensuring that we have smooth transition, Mr Virat Kohli has decided to step down as T20I Captain after the upcoming World Cup. I have been in discussions with Virat and the leadership team for the last six months and the decision has been thought through.”
In the end, it might not really matter that much. After all, Kohli’s captaincy credentials in ICC events have been under scrutiny for a long while now. While his record in bilateral series is exemplary, the absence of any global silverware during his reign has loomed as an albatross around his neck. Admittedly, the sample size is limited – India have played only one 50-over World Cup (semi-finalists, 2019), one Champions Trophy (runners-up, 2017) and one World Test Championship (runners-up, 2021) with Kohli in charge. But such were the mighty shoes he inherited and such is the onus on results in India that wagging tongues rapidly started to gather momentum and hushed whispers graduated to more strident cries.
Throw in his inability to lead Royal Challengers Bangalore to even a single title triumph in eight full years at the helm, and the disparity between Kohli’s success as Test and limited-overs skippers comes into sharp focus. Pitted against his heir apparent Rohit Sharma, they pale even further into insignificance. Not only has Rohit led Mumbai Indians to five IPL crowns in seven-and-a-half years as captain (he took over midway through from Ricky Ponting in 2013), he has also steered India to the Asia Cup and Nidahas Trophy triumphs in 2018, triggering loud calls for his elevation to at least the T20 captaincy at Kohli’s expense.
It’s not hard to comprehend why Kohli has decided to bow out now. For one thing, it’s almost certain that his successful partnership with head coach Ravi Shastri will come to an end after the World Cup. Shastri’s contract runs out with the T20 bash and there are strong indications he won’t throw his hat in the ring again. With another T20 World Cup a year away – Australia will host the postponed 2020 edition in 2022 – that will give Kohli’s successor (read Rohit) ample time to stamp his leadership style.
If Kohli has decided to not give up the ODI captaincy too, again it’s not too difficult to see why. The next 50-over World Cup is in India in 2023; perhaps Kohli believes that will be the right time to bid adieu, hopefully after emulating Dhoni and leading India to their second title as hosts. Whether he will be accorded that luxury remains to be seen. Two years is a long time in sport, especially in Indian cricket, and Kohli’s influence on Indian cricket isn’t as unshakeable as it used to be not too long back.
That, perhaps, was the clincher, the final determinator of the move to give up the T20I captaincy. The law of diminishing returns has caught up emphatically with Kohli, especially in Tests. Since the start of 2020, he averages a modest 26.80 in 12 games. While his returns in other formats remain impressive, he has gone an unprecedented 53 innings and 22 months without an international hundred. For someone who places such a high premium on Test cricket, it must be particularly disappointing not to covet greater success. Without the cares of captaincy in at least one version, Kohli will have more energy to work on his batting.
At 32, Kohli has plenty of good cricket in him if the spirit is willing. Till two years back, he was touted to seriously challenge, if not certainly surpass, Sachin Tendulkar’s remarkable achievement of 100 international centuries. However, since November 2019, Kohli has hit a roadblock, remaining stagnant on 70. While Tendulkar’s mark won’t be even in the deep recesses of his consciousness, Kohli has too much pride to allow things to drift.
Rohit’s elevation will mean that for the first time in Indian cricket’s history, the captaincy will be split between players who are certainties in all three formats. When Dhoni was made T20I and ODI captain in 2007, Test skipper Anil Kumble had already retired from white-ball action. Dhoni himself had quit Tests when he led in the shorter versions from 2015 to 2017 and Kohli was the Test skipper. This new Kohli-Rohit dynamic is unlikely to significantly alter the team’s landscape. Both have been around for a long time and have devised ways of striking up an excellent working relationship. Neither is the insecure kind; importantly, the team can rest assured that it won’t receive mixed messages. In so many ways, Indian cricket is fortunate to be blessed with two strong, capable leaders who won’t get in each other’s way.
Whether the ‘roadmap’ Shah and BCCI president Sourav Ganguly referred too entails finding captaincy candidates in the longer term is uncertain. It might be premature to write the epitaph of Kohli as the Test captain, but it is imperative that personnel are identified and groomed in due course so that whenever that transition happens, is as seamless.