Not long after his triumphant return from Australia, the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in tow, Ajinkya Rahane set about trying to douse a steadily spreading fire.
The stand-in skipper’s exceptional handling of dwindling bowling expertise, and his innate composure, were the cynosure as he masterminded a fairytale comeback that culminated in a scarcely believable 2-1 series victory. Reactions ranged from the pedantic to the knee-jerk, including suggestions that Rahane replace Virat Kohli as red-ball captain.
“Virat was, and will always be, the captain of the Test team, and I am his deputy,” Rahane insisted, in an earnest effort to draw a line under the meaningless debate. “When he was absent, it was my duty to lead the side and my responsibility to give my best for Team India’s success.”
Typically Rahane, one might say. Understated and unpretentious, uncomfortable under the cutting glare of the arc-lights even when they shine benevolently on him. Rahane is more substance than style. From time to time, he will wow with his burgeoning vocabulary of crowd-pleasing stroke-play, but as a rule, he shuns the flamboyant and makes no attempt to impress with fluff.
Which is not to say that Kohli is any less substantial. There’s a reason he has been hailed the best all-format batsman for a long time now. If he can attain that status with panache and luminosity, hey, why not? His captaincy record in Tests isn’t shabby even if, six years into his reign, opinion is divided on whether he is the master strategist the numbers make him out to be.
India’s most successful leader, Kohli boasts 33 wins in 56 Tests, several masterminded by his scything willow and the profusion of bowling riches at his disposal. At home, Kohli has won 20 and lost just one of 26 matches; his average is a stunning 77.11. Rahane’s home batting record is less edifying; since mid-November 2016, he averages a modest 35.75 in 18 Tests.
Admittedly, Kohli has overseen series defeats in South Africa, England and New Zealand, and made questionable, self-defeating selection calls, but on the grand statistical scale, the plusses outweigh the minuses.
Unlike Rahane, Kohli was earmarked for captaincy from the time he established himself in the Test eleven. It was always a question of when, not if, he would take over from Mahendra Singh Dhoni. His graduation from deputy to No 1 was as seamless and predictable as when Kapil Dev took over from Sunil Gavaskar in the 1980s, or Rahul Dravid from Sourav Ganguly two decades later.
Under Kohli, India created history in Australia two years back when they won a series Down Under for the first time ever, but the end of a 71-year drought was somewhat muddied by barbs that the hosts were without the suspended pair of David Warner and Steve Smith. Rahane’s India has emphatically silenced the Doubting Thomases; Australia were at full strength, India limped from one high-profile withdrawal to another. By the time of the Gabba decider, India’s collective Test bowling experience was a grand four appearances. Australia’s four bowlers, by contrast, boasted of upwards of 1,000 Test wickets. How Rahane inspired his Davids to slay mighty Goliath at the most Australian of venues, a fortress guarded with zealous pride for 32 years, will remain one of the great cricketing folktales of all time.
It is inevitable, no matter how superfluous, that with another high-octane showdown imminent, Kohli will be judged against the Rahane template. Already, there is a strong slant towards bestowing the national white-ball captaincy on Rohit Sharma. India have garnered no global silverware under their limited-overs skipper of four years, while the Mumbaikar has performed admirably whenever he has filled Kohli’s shoes while also leading Mumbai Indians to five Indian Premier League crowns (wagging tongues have been given a fillip by Kohli’s Royal Challengers Bangalore primarily watching the climactic stages from the comfort of their living rooms).
Against this backdrop, and with the more immediate success under Rahane in Australia when Kohli availed paternity leave during the last three Tests, the long-standing captain’s leadership skills will be viewed through a brand new prism during the four-match series against England. Should they be? Definitely not. But that’s not how the world functions, and definitely not how followers of Indian cricket are wired.
Will Kohli feel the heat? Will he lose sleep owing to extraneous pressures? Will he allow his focus to waver, his confidence to take a hit, insecurity to grab hold of his assured self? No way. That’s not Kohli, as anyone who has followed even a brief passage of his 12-year international career will acknowledge.
There will be pressure, but of course. How can there not be when India play cricket, any cricket, anywhere in the world? That they are playing a Test match at home for the first time since November 2019, and are battling for the one remaining place in the June final of the World Test Championship, will add to the already overwhelming desire to end up on the winning side. But in a world of precious little guarantees, one can rest assured that Kohli will not be looking over his shoulder, wondering if Rahane is plotting to take his place if the opportunity presents itself.
Without taking anything away from the Brearley-esque Rahane of Australia, he wasn’t unaware that he was merely warming the chair until Kohli’s return. Stand-in captains enjoy the luxury of empathy, the safety net of happenstance not available to designated skippers. Kohli won’t waste time on any of these. His vision will be trained on runs with the bat after a relatively lean 2020, and results that will formalise a showdown in England against New Zealand in the WTC final.
The Kohli-Rahane debate, in whatever shape or form, is a non-starter. If anything, India must look at the longer term, and groom a younger man to succeed Kohli when the time is opportune. Rahane’s misfortune might lie in being the generational equal of Kohli.