From Virat Kohli to Rohit Sharma, India's cricket landscape transitions

By Venkata Krishna B| Published: 19th December 2021 05:00 AM
Indian cricket team.

It happened during the English summer this year. The setting was Ravi Shastri’s spacious hotel room, one that is always open for those who wish to have a relaxed time. Guests, including players, can drop in and share stories and exchange tales over a drink or two. During one such evening, Virat Kohli dropped by for an informal chat. As the evening wore on, the Indian skipper, while sipping green tea, revealed that he would like to give up the captaincy of the T20 team.  

The difficulty of living a bubble life, confined to restricted movements coupled with having a young family as well as a busy calendar, was beginning to take a toll on the Indian captain. The captain responsible for a tangible rise in fitness standards across Indian cricket wanted to take a back seat. Being an Indian captain is a rigorous job. You can argue that the glamour is there but it’s extremely high profile and draining, physically and mentally. Not that Kohli realised it when he was handed the job more than six years ago (in Tests).

ILLUSTRATION Soumyadip sinha

It started even before the New Year’s Test in Sydney. His duty started on January 1, 2015, at Kirribilli House, the official residence of the Australian Prime Minister. “Since (MS) Dhoni announced his Test retirement, he chose to stay in the background and it was Kohli who did everything from (the) thanking speech to introducing everyone to Tony Abbott (the then PM). What struck everyone was how prepared he was for the occasion. The transition was totally smooth,” recollects R Sridhar, India’s fielding coach from 2014-2021. Since then, Kohli always knew how demanding the job was. It was the reason why he put fitness as a non-negotiable. It made him think even thrice before having a cheat meal.

Even in this new normal, the life of an elite athlete is something different. Crossing borders, undergoing hard quarantines, playing with restricted movement (airports to hotels to grounds) and meeting the same faces over and over again on an endless loop. It is hard to understand their rigorous lives without experiencing it. This is the life Kohli has been living since August 2020. 

So when Kohli made his intention clear to Shastri and the support staff, it didn’t really come as a surprise. In a way, it was expected. Kohli, India’s premier batsman over the past decade, by his own standards was going through a lean patch with the bat. He is without an international century since November 2019. Giving up one of the responsibilities meant it would ease a bit of his workload. And despite being a supremely fit cricketer, he is not getting any younger.

These days even cricketers pick and choose what is best for them as it has become impossible to have it all. However, as things in the Indian cricket board transpires, sometimes quite mysteriously and without a warning, Kohli was removed as captain from ODIs too. Just like that. Though it was expected, the manner with which the board acted seemed malicious. After much hue and cry, board president Sourav Ganguly had to explain the circumstances under which Kohli was removed. Though not convincing, that BCCI was trying to fire-fight was evident.

As 2022 looms, India is officially entering a transitional phase. The team now has two captains: Kohli for Tests and Rohit Sharma for white-ball cricket. Having Dhoni in charge of the limited-overs team in 2015 and a part of 2016 allowed Kohli to grow into his role before the former passed on the baton at the right time. However, as Rohit prepares to lead India as a permanent captain in ODIs for the first time in January against South Africa, the question on everyone’s lips is—why and how did India enter this transition phase when the team was winning across the world?

Three weeks before the Tests against England began, much before Kohli revealed his intentions to the support staff, there were whispers in the BCCI corridors about a potential change of guard. The reasons were varied. One was purely on cricketing sense; Kohli was not a strategically good captain and despite being provided with the best of resources, failed to bring home an ICC title. The second was that some of the senior players had become tired of Kohli’s operative style, where more and more were getting insecure about their places. Some of them even forgot to enjoy playing cricket. 

The first signs of looking at someone beyond Kohli happened Down Under in 2020-21. With Kohli opting for paternity leave, an under-strength team defeated Australia against all odds. The players noticed how a relaxed atmosphere played a huge role in it. During the England tour, all of it changed following the defeat to New Zealand in the final of the World Test Championship. It led to a couple of senior players expressing their dissatisfaction over Kohli’s style of functioning. It was perhaps the call the BCCI’s top brass were waiting for. With a ready-made replacement in Rohit waiting in the wings, the decision became a lot easier.

The transition phase is always considered the most difficult one to manoeuvre for coaches, selectors and players. A powershift, more often than not, happens quickly. In a team filled with superstars like India, it is as good as arranging a big fat Indian wedding and keeping everyone happy without ruffling feathers. Such phases are not new to Indian cricket, but rarely have these ended without controversy or on a sour note. In a country where fans tend to attach emotions and hero-worship their favourite cricketer, even dropping an under-performing captain has led to the team being jeered (Eden Gardens 2005). So, invariably, the selectors and the board have chosen the right moment to phase out senior players and captains.

“When you take a call about dropping senior players and bringing in youngsters, it is important to have the selectors, BCCI, coach and captain on the same page,” says former India captain Dilip Vengsarkar, who served as chairman of the selection committee from 2006 to 2008, and under whose tenure Kohli made his ODI debut. “When you are replacing an existing captain or player, you should have someone ready to take over the job without affecting the balance of the team. These decisions should always be taken not based on the immediate future, but on keeping long-term intentions in mind. But whenever you take a big decision, the selectors need to have absolute conviction that it is going to work and there shouldn't be back and forth.”

In late 2007, Vengsarkar’s committee took one such decision, which sowed the seeds for India’s World Cup triumph in 2011. Though Vengsarkar’s term ended in 2008, his panel took a bold decision of dropping Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble for the tri-series in Australia, which Dhoni went on to win with a young squad. “I was fortunate to have been the head of TRDO (talent resource development wing). Through that, I’d seen the next generation of players and we didn’t have a strong ‘A’ team culture back then. So after watching these players in domestic cricket and NCA, we were convinced to give youngsters a chance because you need to take the team forward after what happened at the (2007) World Cup,” Vengsarkar adds.

In 2021, the landscape looks totally different. India now has the biggest talent pool in the world and easily has the best team across all formats, capable of winning series overseas. The overseas Test series wins don’t really come as a surprise anymore, it is their defeats that come across as a shock. Even as Kohli, Rohit, R Ashwin, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Ravindra Jadeja, Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah still have at least good two-three years of cricket left in them, that India are already switching into the transition mode tells how far the landscape has changed.

Make no mistake, this is a new territory for Indian cricket. In the past, there have been examples of stars deciding their futures. Some have hung around way past their prime. For a team to start looking ahead was unheard of. This also illustrates how serious the whole Indian cricketing set-up is to take the team to the next level.

Which is why when Shastri, who won two back-to-back Test series in Australia, wanted to step aside, the BCCI didn’t stand in his way and instead brought in Dravid as a replacement. During his playing days, Dravid had seen a similar transition—Australia. In the 2000s, Steve Waugh’s all-conquering side was unstoppable. After winning the 1999 World Cup, they were only going from strength to strength but all it took was one tri-series at home. They failed to qualify for the final and the selectors dropped the two Waughs—Steve and Mark. In came Matthew Hayden, Damien Martyn and Andrew Symonds as Australia went on to become an Invincible side. It was a ruthless call. One that needed absolute conviction as the Waughs were still playing their best cricket, but Trevor Horn’s selection panel felt the team would stall and were compelled to upgrade and reboot the team.

That India are now taking at a similar call by getting rid of their most successful captain (the difference here is Kohli will continue to play) is an indication of the overhaul. “The selection committee’s primary role is to look forward,” says MSK Prasad, who was the chairman of selectors from 2016-2020. “The selectors’ role as far as the senior team is concerned is minimum because 90 percent of the players pick themselves. Just one or two changes is what you will be looking at. The selectors’ primary role is to look at the next five-six years of cycle and prepare a succession plan for the current lot.”

The role of Prasad’s committee can’t be overlooked in terms of the team’s performances. Throughout this period—it is also coincident with Dravid taking over the reins at the NCA and age-group sides—Indian cricket underwent a revolution like never before as fringe players made a seamless transition to the international game. This is why India are already looking at the likes of Rishabh Pant, Shreyas Iyer, Shubman Gill, Prithvi Shaw, Ruturaj Gaikwad, Mohammed Siraj, Washington Sundar, Devdutt Padikkal and Ishan Kishan to take them forward. The next two years will see these players get more and more opportunities as the likes of Pujara, Rahane, Dhawan, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Ishant Sharma and R Ashwin move out.

While some decisions have to be made immediately, there are others that will be taken a couple of years down the line based on the performance. “In India, it is difficult to convince a senior player and say ‘we are looking beyond you and you are not part of the plan’. Instead of revealing the reality to the players, you should develop bench strength. By creating one healthy bench strength for each position across all formats, you are bringing in a perform-or-perish policy. As long as you are performing, you would get to hold on to your spot. Otherwise, the fringe player will take the claim,” Prasad says.

Dravid has an enormous task at hand. Apart from giving the limited-overs team a new direction, one which will play an aggressive brand of cricket aligned with the modern needs with an eye on T20 and 50-over World Cups, he also needs to ensure the Test team doesn’t slip. During this phase, it is important not just to have clarity and calmness, but also to be aware of the new players coming through. In that sense, Dravid has an advantage as he is familiar with the upcoming players.

“When Dravid was at the NCA, we had regular meetings with the selectors and the senior management. We used to identify players who were on a downward spiral and also the potential replacements who then will be given adequate opportunities at the ‘A’ team. Ravi Shastri and his team have done a wonderful job. When they took over, the team was down in sixth, and they took them to No 1. At that time, Shastri was the best fit because the team needed a mentor who would work on their mental aspect.

Now, for this phase, there is nobody better than Dravid. With two captains around, it can lead to complexities which is why Dravid is required. He is a studious coach, one who will wish to be in the background and push the players to the forefront. That is what Indian cricket needs now,” says Prasad.
The next 24 months will see the team face new challenges home and abroad. Its success will decide whether the decision to have split captaincy was the right call or not.

Four to keep an eye on

With the Indian team in transition, a look at the four figures who could play the principal role 

Rohit’s search of big hit
Series after series, India proved to be a force in white-ball cricket under the Virat Kohli-Ravi Shastri era, but failed to win an ICC crown. The ICC trophy cabinet has remained empty since the Champions Trophy in 2013 under MS Dhoni. With the management hungry for world titles, they have banked on Rohit Sharma to lead them to victories in multi-nation events. It remains to be seen if the Mumbai Indians captain can bring his franchise’s success formula to the India team. His first big test will be the T20 World Cup in Australia late next year.

Blessing in disguise
Whenever Kohli walked onto the field, there was too much on his plate—the weight of the nation on his shoulders with both the bat and his leadership skills. Sometimes, it might have had an impact on his batting too. Now with the pressure of captaincy off his back (at least in white-ball cricket), he can devote his entire time to his batting. If he manages to do that and scores runs at will, it could prove to be beneficial for both India and him in the long run.

How will it fare?
Rahul Dravid is quite new to coaching the senior team, but just weeks into the assignment, his innings has coincided in dealing with two different captains—Rohit and Kohli. No Indian coach of the men’s team has ever come across with such kind of a situation, so it will be interesting to see how the legend handles this split captaincy with both Kohli and Rohit having different personalities. This could easily be one of the biggest challenges of his career, including his playing days. 

Gill—key to future
Shubman Gill is the future of India cricket. With the 22-year-old, who is one of few youngsters in the current squad, playing under seniors in the current team, the next couple of years is going to be crucial for his development. Also, having his former India A coach Dravid by his side, it is going to be a massive boost to take the next few steps of his career. If the opener adapts to the demands of the elite game quicker, he may well usher in a few of the seniors out of the door sooner rather than later. 

It was good, can be better

Since the 2018-19 Border-Gavaskar Trophy win in Australia, India have lost only one series away from home under Virat Kohli’s captaincy and Ravi Shastri as head coach. As Rahul Dravid takes over with different captains for red-ball and white-ball cricket, the Test series in South Africa will be his biggest challenge. At home, India are almost invincible in Tests, losing just four matches in the last 10 years. However, Kohli and Dravid would be keen to bag as many wins as possible to secure a place in the next World Test Championship final. In limited-overs, Dravid and Rohit Sharma’s first stop would be the 2022 T20 World Cup in Australia before the final frontier at home—the 2023 ODI World Cup. 

Shastri-Kohli Success

3-0 Test series win in Sri Lanka 2017
2018-19  BGT win in Australia
2019 ODI WC Semifinalist
2020-21 BGT win in Australia
2021 WTC runner-ups

42 months as top-ranked Test team

Building a strong pool of fast bowlers

Challenges ahead for Dravid as head coach

3-match Test series in South Africa

4 Tests against Aus at home

2022 T20 World Cup (AUS)

2023 World Test Championship; ODI World Cup in India 

India’s tours in next two seasons

Away

Dec 2021 India tour of South Africa (3 Tests, 3 ODIs)

Jul 2022 Tour of England (3 ODIs, 3 T20Is, 1 Test)

Aug 2022 Tour of West Indies (3 ODIs, 3 T20Is)

Oct 2022 T20 World Cup in Australia

Nov 2022 Tour of Bangladesh (2 Tests, 3 ODIs)

Jun 2023 Asia Cup in Sri Lanka

HOME  

Feb 2022 West Indies tour of India (3 ODIs, 3 T20Is)

Feb 2022 Sri Lanka tour of India (2 Tests, 3 T20Is)

Jun 2022 South Africa Tour of India (5 T20Is)

Dec 2022 Sri Lanka tour of India (5 ODIs)

Jan 2023 New Zealand tour of India (3 ODIs)

Feb 2023 Australia tour of India  (4 Tests, 3 ODIs, 3 T20Is)

Oct 2023 ODI World Cup in India

* Schedule subject to Covid and other changes

“When you take a call about dropping senior players and bringing in youngsters, it is important to have the selectors, BCCI, coach and captain on the same page When you are replacing an existing captain or player, you should have someone ready to take over the job without affecting the balance of the team.”

Dilip Vengsarkar, former India captain

A new era will see the power centre being split two distinct ways: Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli. Team India is in transition with new faces. Venkata Krishna B finds out the challenges coach Rahul Dravid and the two captains will face as India embark on a journey to win at least one ICC trophy by the end of 2023.

Tags : Virat Kohli Rohit Sharma BCCI Ganguly Kohli Test cricket White ball cricket

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