As if speculation over the future of Virat Kohli’s captaincy and his alleged rift with touted successor Rohit Sharma were not already at a high point, the former’s social media announcement on Thursday evening that he would be stepping down as captain of the T20 International side sent fans and media into frenzy.
Several questions pop into one’s head. Was it Kohli’s own decision or was it the BCCI who prompted the announcement? Is making one concession his gambit to save his Test and ODI captaincy, or is he in no danger of losing his position? Was it perhaps a way to ensure he retained the captaincy of the T20 team for the World Cup, which might not have been the case if it weren’t his last tournament as captain? Will Rohit Sharma be happy to lead the team in just one format, or will he ask to be limited-overs captain too, which is how split captaincy typically works? What exactly is M S Dhoni’s mentorship role in this context? With Ravi Shastri’s tenure as coach set to come to an end, what could it mean for the future of the team captaincy?
Rumours of a rift between Kohli and Sharma have been doing the rounds since the 2019 World Cup. This has been compounded by the fact that—with Sharma making more contributions with the bat of late than Kohli, and having proven himself as captain with all his silverware from the IPL—the chorus calling for his helming the national team has been getting louder. That way, Kohli might be able to focus on his batting, which hasn’t produced big scores of late—particularly when runs would be invaluable.
Kohli’s captaincy style has been euphemistically termed “wearing his heart on his sleeve”. But, for a good while now, it is an open secret that the dressing room considers him rather autocratic. His involvement in team selection and his angry press conferences after poor team shows haven’t won him popularity points. As a captain, Kohli is aggressive rather than assertive, and one wonders whether the induction of “Captain Cool” Dhoni as “mentor” might have something to do with soothing ruffled feathers.
Virat Kohli might have a little more in common with Sourav Ganguly than antics on the Lord’s balcony. His my-way-or-the-highway attitude is reminiscent of the temperamental Ganguly. Ajinkya Rahane’s quiet leadership in Kohli’s absence Down Under won unanimous praise, with some players stating that his encouragement lifted team morale. Kohli’s lashing out after losses may not be particularly motivating to his crew. While Kohli has been credited for the team’s comebacks in the second innings, he hasn’t been blamed for collapses, even if he doesn’t make huge contributions with the bat; he has become something of a talisman, and probably more popular with fans than teammates.
It is true that every captain has his drawbacks. Dhoni’s weakness was a coterie, of which it may not incorrectly be said it was more important to be a member than to be in form. And while India may not have won any of the last World Cups, they came rather close, finishing as runners-up in two formats and reaching the semi-final in the ODI world championship in 2019.
Following Kohli’s announcement, several media reports cited an “insider” from the BCCI stating that he was unlikely to be remain captain of the 50-overs side. While his note on social media mentioned Rohit Sharma as part of a “leadership group”, along with coach Shastri, he is understood to have asked for Sharma to be removed as vice-captain, and suggested K L Rahul and Rishabh Pant as possible alternatives—apparently because Sharma, at 34, is two years older than Kohli and the team should be looking for younger blood to groom for succession. The suggestion has reportedly not found much favour with the board, which perhaps sees the request—if indeed these rumours are true—as a sign of insecurity.
It might well be that Kohli is stepping down for exactly the reasons he has cited. As far back as 2014, he has spoken of struggling with mental health. Since he took over the T20I captaincy, India has played 67 matches, most of them before the pandemic. Kohli has played in 40 of those, and has featured in nearly all of Royal Challengers Bangalore’s IPL matches over the last years. The workload is immense. Even before the coronavirus pandemic and the quarantine imposed on active cricketers, several have retired or taken breaks citing mental health. Jonathan Trott and Marcus Trescothick—and nearly two decades earlier, Graham Thorpe—quit the game for their peace of mind. Australian cricketers Glenn Maxwell, Will Pucovski, Nic Maddinson all took time off in 2018-19, and Ben Stokes recently pulled out of two series.
Kohli’s personal life has got almost as much media attention as his on-field performance, and it is understandable for him to want some alone time with his young family, which recently expanded to three.
But what could Rohit Sharma’s promotion to T20I captain mean for the team, and for Kohli?
Let’s leave aside analyses of who unfollowed whom on social media. Shastri, who was among those who denied all rumours of tension between the two stars, recently hinted in an interview with Times Now that all might not be hunky-dory. He mentioned that whatever was on between the two wasn’t “affecting” or “impacting” the team, saying he would have sat them down a talk if that was the case.
But then, it does indicate there is some friction. If Rohit wins the vote of the dressing room in addition to the coveted silverware, will he be given captaincy for the 2023 World Cup? And what impact will that have on Test captaincy? Chances are that we will have our answers in a month or two.
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Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com