Over the next 18 months, Indian cricket will be consumed by some on-field queries that fans need immediate replies to.
The first among them is the question around whether India will be able to lift the T20 World Cup for the second time in 2022. The second query that will start rearing its head right after the T20 World Cup in Australia will be around the 50 over World Cup scheduled to be held in India next year.
The third query that is now on everyone’s mind is around Virat Kohli’s continued poor luck with the bat, and, finally, some questions in hushed tone around Rohit Sharma’s form too.
One man who can provide answers to all the queries is Sharma himself. As India’s all format skipper and now one of the few regulars who play all three formats, Sharma has a lot riding on his mind, and indeed his body.
Over the next 18 months, Sharma will find out just why India’s captaincy is a crown of thorns. Sharma’s form will be the biggest driver in answering most of the queries. If he keeps up the form that saw him emerge as one of the top Test batters of 2021, Sharma would have answered at least two of the queries raging like fire. But if he does not, or rather if he continues to have a poor run of scores, Sharma will find it difficult to answer any of the queries.
Sharma’s form is tied to India’s performance in the 2022 T20 World Cup. If India does not go the distance, then public pressure will ensure that the 2023 World Cup will be a write off for him. This is where Sharma’s mental strength is going to be tested.
Now, Sharma is 35, and a year from now he will probably begin what is usually the evening of most cricketers. So the pressure is going to rise further for Sharma who has been thrust into the leadership role because Kohli decided to give it up.
Now, Kohli’s form is a whole different ball game altogether. No one really knows when he will get an international hundred the next time. No one knows how long Kohli will play T20 cricket at the international level. But everyone knows Sharma is going to be around for the foreseeable future in all three formats.
There is soon going to be a transition in the Test team, the ODI team is also going to witness a transition post next year’s World Cup, and if India do not win this year’s T20 World Cup, we can expect a few changes there as well.
So it is important for Indian cricket that Sharma stays in form, and more importantly, stays fit. We have seen him miss a lot of important Test matches in recent years. He missed out on the entire South African series after getting the ODI reins. He missed the Test series in New Zealand in 2020 with an injury, and then another injury kept him out of the initial part of the Australian tour. After much drama, Sharma finally reached Australia and witnessed history. But since then, a lot has changed for Sharma.
His stardom notwithstanding, he will realise in the coming months how unforgiving the Indian public can be to captains who do not deliver an ICC trophy. Kapil Dev, Mohammed Azharuddin, Sourav Ganguly, and Rahul Dravid are some of the recent Indian captains who did not deliver titles and had to unceremoniously give up captaincy in all formats. In the case of Sharma, he is in a modern era where he can choose to exit the formats that he is not comfortable with.
One format in which he may want to reconsider his captaincy position in the coming months could well be the Test match. India does not play much Test cricket in the coming 12 months – just a one-off Test in England, which is anyways a continuation of last year’s series, and a two-Test series in Bangladesh is scheduled for later in the year.
Next year’s Border Gavaskar Trophy at home against Australia is going to be the toughest challenge for Sharma as a Test captain. India have beaten Australia in the last three Test series both home and away. Australia have not beaten India in India since 2004-05. Does Sharma really want to be the one in the role of giving up a proud record? That’s a question that Sharma will have to answer.
Australia have already started building for that series in early 2023. They have beaten Pakistan in Pakistan and are now heading to Sri Lanka. With these tours in the subcontinent, they are preparing with one goal in mind – to beat India.
Unlike India who is obsessed with white ball ICC titles, Australians are obsessed with being world champion in all three formats. Sharma is lucky that the Indian public will not really pay much attention to results in whites, unless it is something extraordinary, like the one the side achieved in Australia.
Else, India as a country is obsessed with titles in coloured clothing. Even if we have split captaincy, with a different captain in Tests and white ball formats, it is unlikely that many fans will remember the one leading in whites.
Add the IPL captaincy to the mix and you really have a lot on Sharma’s plate. If he does hold onto Test captaincy, then Sharma will have to deal with leading India in three world events in three different formats. Age is not on his side and this phase is going to test Sharma immensely.
The good thing for him is that he has had a good handover from Kohli in the Test match format with an excellent fast bowling line-up to do the magic abroad, and the Ravichandran Ashwin-Ravindra Jadeja-Axar Patel partnership to spin victories at home.
He now needs to take a call on how to separate the winning template for T20I cricket and ODI cricket if India have to become world champion once again.
Either way he has a tough job, with nothing less than two World Cups providing him some respite from the immense scrutiny that is coming his way right at the end of the ongoing IPL. But for now, he can just relax for a bit with Mumbai Indians, who are all but out of IPL 2022, and play with gay abandon.
Let go, release the spirit of the old Rohit Sharma and become the hitman once again. Then begins the toughest part of being the Indian captain.
Make it or break it this year, skip!