India's Test Captaincy Conundrum: Who After Kohli? Rohit, Rahul, Bumrah or Pant?
Rohit Sharma had been named vice-captain for the South Africa Tests, before injury ruled him out.
India’s Test cricket is at crossroads.
And it comes at just the wrong time for Indian cricket. Indian cricket was looking up just over six months ago. They were and are still leading in a Test series in England.
Then came the T20 World Cup and everything changed. Virat Kohli at the centre of it all for the past seven years, has suddenly stepped down as India’s Test captain and the drama has resurfaced.
Indian cricket did not have such succession dramas since the 1990s or even mid-2000s because the future was planned meticulously. When Mahendra Singh Dhoni quit as India’s Test captain in dramatic style, the plan was in motion already with Kohli ready to take over.
In December 2014 when Kohli took over as India’s full-time Test captain, you never really felt the pinch. The entire squad had to be cast in Kohli’s mould, but the personnel was around for India’s Test cricket to look up.
Now seven years on, when India is at the brink of yet another transition in the format, Kohli will not be leading the transition. The question remains as to who will be the man in charge going forward.
We have a new head coach in Rahul Dravid who has had the first reversal of fortunes in his very first away Test series. India’s Test cricket is virtually in a state of flux.
Rohit vs Rahul Debate
It remains to be seen who gets the job next. Rohit Sharma who was appointed India’s Test vice-captain for the South Africa is injury-prone. He has missed more Tests than he has played because of injury. If you remember, his Test debut itself was delayed by three years because he was all set to play in 2009-10 against South Africa but an injury on the morning of the game put paid to his hopes.
Now it remains to be seen if the selectors want to gamble with Rohit as the next Test captain. Remember, he is a year older than Kohli, plus we don’t know how much longer he would want to play the longest format.
Then there is Lokesh Rahul who was, till six months ago, not even assured of a place in the Test XI. It was only thanks to injuries to Shubman Gill and Mayank Agarwal that he leapfrogged into prominence. His form in England and South Africa pushed him into a Test vice-captain’s role, in Rohit Sharma's absence. He even led India in the second Test at Johannesburg in the recent series when Virat Kohli was ruled out due to a back spasm. With Sharma constantly breaking down, Rahul has emerged as a possible candidate as well to take over the Test reins. He will in fact be leading the ODI side this coming week in South Africa, so the tide could turn completely in his favour.
Those Who Could Have Been Worthy
The ideal replacement would have been Ajinkya Rahane, especially after his heroics in Australia in January 2021 when he beat the odds to come up trumps. But a lot has changed in the last one year for Rahane. He has not scored runs; he has lost his vice-captaincy and now is on the brink of an exit from the Test squad.
The other senior pro Cheteshwar Pujara is also on the way out after a poor South African tour.
Bowlers can never be considered for leadership role. The problem is India’s best bowlers away from home are fast bowlers and they don’t play at home, whereas the best bowlers at home are spinners who are neutered overseas. So that rules out Jasprit Bumrah and Ravichandran Ashwin.
India also has a problem in the sense that if there has been a failing of the Kohli era, then it has been a lack of forward planning. No clear second-in-command was put in place and it reflects in the way everyone is scrambling to see just who is going to lead the Test side.
The coming 12 months are going to be a relatively lean period for Indian Test team as they are set to feature in not more than nine Tests. The incoming Test captain will have enough and more time to move forward. The question is, does Indian cricket have the stomach for that much forward planning?
Other Big Decisions in Test Team
There are a number of issues to be decided going forward.
Quite a few players are on the wrong side of 30. This includes the batting and the bowling line-up.
Ashwin, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, and Umesh Yadav will start getting the nudge shortly for different reasons. Then in the batting, the senior pros Pujara and Rahane are certain to exit for poor form.
Kohli and Sharma are also on the wrong side of 30, but may prolong their careers because they are all-format players unlike the other lot.
So, India’s Test squad will very soon have a new look by default and not by design. This means you need a new voice and new vision for this format if India wants to be the pre-eminent Test side that it has been under Kohli.
India needs to bring in the next set of fast bowlers and look for new spinners coming into the line-up. They should now not make the same mistake they did with the batting that they did during the Kohli regime and have a clear second-in-command going forward.
Rishabh Pant, The Dark Horse?
Former India captain Sunil Gavaskar has come up with a radical suggestion of making Rishabh Pant as the next Test captain. That could be an interesting move, but Pant himself has been on the edge for the past year. His returns with the bat and his own keeping has been below par. But Indian cricket needs a radical shift. Pant could well be an interesting shift in that sense, because as Gavaskar said it might push to be more responsible. And the fact is, in the Test XI he is the only one sure of a place across conditions. The only other person sure of his place both home and away right now, apart from Pant, is Kohli.
The good thing for Indian Test cricket though is that the next set of away tours is still a couple of years away. That is when the real test begins for the new lot who will be groomed over the coming 12 months. The major focus, as always, in the coming two years will be the two World Cups: T20 World Cup in Australia later this year and the 50-over World Cup in India in 2023.
Indian cricket’s legacy since 1983 is defined by how you play in the International Cricket Council (ICC) tournaments, so that will continue to be the focus, unfortunately. India’s Test cricket in any case will take a back seat. In proper systems, all three formats will be looked at with the same lens, but that will not be the case in India.
India’s Test cricket, which rode a wave for close to seven years, will endure a period of pain in a throwback to an earlier era. All the gains of the Kohli regime will be frittered away because of the complete mismanagement and lack of communication.
Let us hope the doomsday predictions do not come true and a braver, fresher Indian Test squad emerges from this mess.
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