Three years ago, Rohit Sharma cut a lonely figure as he was dropped from the Test squad for the series in England.
It came as a shock to him and those who tracked Indian cricket. There was simply no place for Sharma to fit into the Test squad. He did return later, but Sharma was branded a white ball specialist who would rarely get opportunities in red ball cricket.
It was not until the home series against South Africa in 2019-20 that Sharma made a strong comeback as an opener in Test match cricket that he showed signs of succeeding in the longest format. His form in the preceding 2019 ODI World Cup and his success in the Test match format as an opener suggested that he was a player who was reborn.
But then almost 12 months back, Indian cricket bungled once again. Sharma was once again at the centre of it all. He was dropped for the Australia tour citing injury. Sharma claimed he was fit, there was confusion over his injury, and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) as usual communicated poorly. There was a lot of drama around Sharma’s fitness test and injury, and his eventual linking up with the squad in Australia was messy to say the least.
Indian cricket was in a mess at this time last year. Virat Kohli was heading home on paternity leave and Ajinkya Rahane was the toast of the nation. Every move of Rahane was being analysed and everyone raised a toast to the quiet Mumbai batter for leading India to a Test series win in Australia, against all odds.
Sharma was nowhere in the picture at the start of the year. Things changed post that as Rahane lost form, Kohli never quite regained control of the dressing room, and Sharma gained ascendancy as a batter in all three formats.
Sharma’s form on the English tour helped matters as the others around him, except Lokesh Rahul, seemed to fail. So, it was only a question of time that Sharma would have an enlarged role in the Indian cricket set-up. The shambolic performance in the T20 World Cup hastened the changes in the Indian cricket set-up. Kohli’s pre-emptive strike of stepping down as T20I captain only helped matters for Sharma.
But what Kohli had not bargained for was a complete ceding of space to Sharma, even in the ODI format. Kohli had been hoping to lead India at the 2023 ODI World Cup in India. He had been hoping to be at the helm of affairs, perhaps even lifting the cup. But now the job could well be Sharma’s. The stress is on ‘could well be,’ because we can never think that far in Indian cricket as 2023 is still two years away!
The R&R period of Kohli during the recent New Zealand home series perhaps cleared the minds of the powers that be in the BCCI. They had enough of Kohli as the ODI captain and it was only a question of time that Sharma would be handed that role.
Indian cricket loves to have too many power centres within the squad. This usually happens when the board is all powerful and they don’t like the player power to rule the roost. Kohli ruled the roost when the Committee of Administrators (CoA) ran the show at the BCCI. But now it was time for Kohli to be shown who the boss was.
Now with two power centres in the Indian squad, the board becomes all powerful again. Earlier, we have had a powerful captain and a powerful BCCI president. For perhaps the first time we could have a weakened power structure in the Indian cricket squad, but a powerful board. This was very much the playbook of the BCCI in the late 1980s. It is making a grand comeback in Indian cricket after nearly three decades.
What is jarring is not the change to make Sharma as the ODI and T20I captain, alongside the Test vice-captain, but the way in which the whole change has been handled publicly. Just how can you dismiss the work done by one of your most successful ODI captains in just one sentence is simply baffling. It just underscores just how power equations work within the board.
The selectors obviously have had a role in the decision, but the bigger work was probably by the BCCI in the way Kohli was given the boot. After all, back in September 2021, Kohli in his resignation was keen to continue as the Test and ODI captain. This has been a botched-up job.
For Sharma, though, it is a moment to celebrate in the way he has been nominated as the new prima donna of Indian cricket. In just 11 months, he has gone from being a bone of contention to being the man who is in every possible leadership role. His biggest test will obviously be the two World Cups – T20 and ODI – coming up in the next couple of years. Indian cricket fans care two hoots about the results in Test cricket, either home or away. The only results that matter to Indian cricket followers are the performance of their side in white ball ICC events. So, the pressure on Sharma is just about to increase.
What this means for Kohli is that his periods of leading Indian cricket are going to get further reduced. After the South Africa series, there is a series against Sri Lanka at home, followed by a one-off Test in England. Then there is a long break before India plays Bangladesh (away) and Australia (home) in the 2022-23 season. This means much like the Test specialists, Kohli the captain will make limited appearances in the coming months, since he has also quit the IPL leadership role.
Kohli may also start making reduced appearances in bilateral white-ball series at home like against West Indies, then Sri Lanka and South Africa. The only appearances of Kohli in coloured clothing could well be in red of the Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB).
Surely a man proud of his record as a captain would have expected a better send-off. The best he can do is score runs with vengeance in red ball cricket and continue to be the chase master in the ODI format.
While both Kohli and Sharma still have something to fall back on, the biggest loser in the entire bargain has been Ajinkya Rahane. From being the toast of the nation at the start of 2021, Rahane has become persona non grata who may well not even feature in the Test playing XI in South Africa. For his misfortune, Rahane has only himself to blame.
Can we say that something for Kohli too? Possibly, yes.
The silence from fellow players, former players and everyone else connected with Indian cricket on Kohli’s sacking perhaps underscores just how unpopular he had become.
Nothing lasts forever, perhaps nowhere is it truer than when it comes to Indian cricket.
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