It was clear, once Virat Kohli decided to step down from the 20-over captaincy at the end of the T20 World Cup last month, that Rohit Sharma would succeed him as India’s next white-ball skipper. After all, it seemed unthinkable that one man would lead the Test and 50-over teams, and another the T20 side.
The only element of surprise, therefore, about Wednesday’s announcement by the BCCI that Rohit would skipper the One-Day International team too was the timing. Having sought leeway in picking the team to play South Africa in three ODIs in January, the national selectors could have been tempted into putting off naming the captain as well. By choosing to make it clear that Rohit would be in charge of both limited-overs sides ‘going forward’ (as a press release mysteriously put it) while selecting a 18-strong Test party, the Indian board has killed off all scope for speculation and left no one in any doubt about who they think is the leader best suited to pursue their quest to end an eight-year drought in global competitions.
There was no element of intrigue to Rohit’s elevation as the Test vice-captain either. After all, incumbent Ajinkya Rahane is in the middle of such a lean patch that he must count himself lucky that the axe hasn’t fallen on him yet – assuming the hamstring injury that kept him out of the Mumbai Test against New Zealand isn’t a convenient screen to hide behind. By stripping him of his status as Kohli’s long-format deputy, the message has been delivered loud and clear – don’t assume you are guaranteed a start when the first of three Tests against South Africa begins in Centurion on Boxing Day. Rohit’s Test vice-captaincy is an acknowledgement not just of his leadership credentials but also a logical progression given how indispensable he has become in the five-day game since his promotion to the top of the order in October 2019.
What Wednesday’s late evening developments have done is firm up the conviction that this is the dawn of a new beginning in Indian cricket. The old dispensation of Kohli and head coach Ravi Shastri did a stellar job across formats for more than four years. Not even the absence of a major trophy worth the name, no matter how cherished and coveted it is, can eclipse that reality. In the Kohli-Shastri regime, India lorded over all-comers in bilateral limited-overs contests of both hues and became a formidable all-weather Test team, evidenced by successive series triumphs in Australia and potentially a winning 2-1 lead in England this summer before the scrapping of the final Test in Manchester.
All good things, though, must come to an end. With Shastri refraining from seeking a return to coaching ambit and Rahul Dravid tasked with extending the good work of his predecessor, more changes were inevitable following India’s first-round elimination at the T20 World Cup. For all his excellence at the top, Kohli hadn’t overseen a single major title triumph. The clamour for change wasn’t unjustified and the BCCI/selectors could ill afford to ignore that, especially considering Kohli’s diminishing returns in the longest format over the last two years.
Rohit was a natural fit to take charge of the T20 team. Apart from leading Mumbai Indians to five IPL titles, he had steered India to victory in 15 of 19 matches as captain (before being appointed to the job full-time ahead of the home series against New Zealand). The players were familiar and comfortable with his more relaxed, less intense but no less inspired brand of leadership; the transition was seamless as India thumped the Kiwis 3-0.
Rohit wasn’t auditioning for the 50-over captaincy during that campaign. After all, he had led India to eight wins in ten ODIs previously. More importantly, common sense dictated that the two white-ball formats have the same man in charge, if only because there is a T20 World Cup (in Australia in 2022) and a 50-over World Cup (in India the following year) to aspire for.
Rohit has 18 months to stamp his style of functioning on the team ahead of the World Cup at home, when expectations will be sky-high. Having made his international debut as far back as 2007, Rohit is attuned to the pressure of expectations and how to insulate himself from the same it. His tactical awareness and acumen are second to none. He is also a fabulous man-manager with the great gift of extracting the best out of his charges with no more than a friendly arm around the shoulder and an encouraging pat on the back.
From all accounts, Rohit’s captaincy revolves around meticulous preparation. Insiders aver that he places great faith on data and analytics, that he encourages players to be leaders and captains. That said, he isn’t unafraid to go with his instincts either. He brings calmness and a sense of control; the latter is also a Kohli trait, but in direct contrast to his successor, the Delhiite is a firebrand who wears his heart on his sleeve and who makes not even a token attempt to mask his innate aggression and competitiveness.
Those inclined to stereotype might be tempted to coop Rohit in the ‘laidback’ category, but nothing could be further from the truth. The Test opener is as tough as they come, with the caveat that toughness can be confined to the interior and doesn’t necessarily have to be overt and in-your-face. In Dravid, there is a kindred spirit because the current head coach’s captaincy philosophy revolved around the same tenets.
India are in the unusual position of having two captains, both certainties in all formats unlike when Anil Kumble and Mahendra Singh Dhoni were the first set of split captains in 2007, and when Kohli and Dhoni captained in different formats between 2015 and 2017. It’s unlikely that this unique scenario will cause any disruptions because of the culture within the team Kohli is so proud of. Then again, this is no longer Kohli’s team; Rohit is the pervading flavour, and deservedly so.
R Kaushik is a Bengaluru-based freelancer who has been writing on cricket for 30 years. He has reported on more than 100 Test matches and is the co-author of VVS Laxman’s autobiography, 281 And Beyond.