The pink-ball, day-night game in Adelaide, from December 17, will be India’s first Test match since early March. It will also be the only one of four Tests against Australia in which Virat Kohli will feature.
It is now common knowledge that the Indian captain will return home after the Adelaide game on paternity leave. Quarantine rules in Australia necessitate a 14-day isolation period immediately on arrival in that country, ruling out K Uohli’s participation in even the last Test had he so desired.
It stands to reason that Kohli, the designated Test captain for nearly six years now, will walk out for the toss with Tim Paine for the Adelaide showdown, which is expected to set the tone for the rest of the series. Australia-India clashes in recent times have been tight, even affairs and while the first salvo isn’t always decisive, it is a significant statement in the overall scheme of things.
In Kohli’s absence for the remainder of the series, Ajinkya Rahane will assume the captaincy role. Kohli’s long-serving deputy has led India to victory in both his previous appearances as skipper, but will be the first to admit that there is no greater challenge in Test cricket than playing Australia in Australia.
This, therefore, begs the question – will Rahane, and by extension the Indian team, be better served if the Mumbaikar was to lead for the entire duration of the series, and not just for the last three-quarters?
Straightforward as it might seem, the answer isn’t quite that obvious. Convention has it that when the designated skipper is available and playing, he is the one who dons the metaphorical captain’s armband. It is practically impossible for selection committees to so much as suggest that the regular captain stand down. In other words, it is up to Kohli to decide if he wants to play in Adelaide as a pure batsman, allowing Rahane to stamp his style of functioning from the off. Like paternity leave, that is an individual choice, even if it can trigger interesting debates.
Kohli is statistically India’s most successful Test captain. He has steered the side to 33 wins in 54 matches, helped them hold on to the No. 1 ranking for close to four years from October 2016 and, in January 2019, became the first man to lead India to a Test series triumph in Australia.
Clearly, he is the undisputed king of the Test side. Over time, he has stamped his imprint on his team’s psyche, his infectious positivity triggering a trickle-down effect that has helped India hold their own in most places around the world. His band of warriors has responded to the captain’s urgings in stunning fashion. The players are familiar with his style of functioning and they know what is expected of them, just as they know what is coming their way if their intensity levels drop just that tiny bit.
Given all this, the general consensus might be that India’s best chance of beginning the series strongly lies in Kohli calling the shots in Adelaide. And then hand over the reins to Rahane, hopefully with a 1-0 advantage.
There is, however, another consideration that cannot be ignored. In the larger picture of the four-Test series, will it make sense for Kohli to allow Rahane to lead from the first Test itself so that the team doesn’t have to grapple with a change in leadership dynamic? Rahane is an experienced hand with established captaincy credentials at various levels, and while his style of functioning won’t be at loggerheads with Kohli’s, he will inevitably bring a different dimension to leadership.
He might not be as overtly aggressive, his body language might be more subdued, but Rahane is every bit as attacking as the man under whom he has grown as a batsman and an individual. There won’t be a paradigm shift when the mantle of captaincy goes from Kohli to Rahane. However, for the sake of continuity and a seamless implementation of game plans, a case can be made out for Rahane to lead for the whole series, but that is a privilege that rests, as it should, with Kohli alone.
History bears testament to the fact that even in Ranji Trophy action, for instance, when a Rahul Dravid or a VVS Laxman returned from Indian duty to turn out for Karnataka and Hyderabad respectively, he automatically took charge as captain unless he himself decided otherwise. This isn’t unique to India alone, it’s a trend across the cricketing globe. Sometimes, that can be counter-productive because the India star might not necessarily have first-hand experience of the strengths and otherwise of relative newcomers on the domestic scene, but that’s a danger that doesn’t extend to international cricket. Kohli and Rahane know as much of the men under their command as the players do of their designated captain and his deputy. The only difference lies in the style of leadership – no two individuals are ever the same, are they? – and the comforts that stem from having a settled, familiar blueprint.
Kohli is a staunch advocate of Test cricket, and takes great pride in leading his country in the sport’s most unforgiving format. He is the best candidate for the job, of that there is little doubt. But Kohli has also always put team above self–if he is convinced that the side will benefit with Rahane leading throughout the series, he won’t hesitate to step aside temporarily, knowing full well that for the next series, against England at home, he will return to his rightful place at the helm.
As for Rahane, it is an unexpected opportunity to showcase his tactical skills on the world stage over an extended period of time. He will inherit, however briefly, a generally well-oiled machine now slightly rusty through lack of constant use. Perhaps, he himself might prefer easing into the series by starting off playing in Adelaide under Kohli. Food for thought, with Kohli the cynosure as always.