Stern test of white-ball captaincy awaits Kohli Down Under

Kohli and Rohit
Virat Kohli will be without his deputy Rohit Sharma in the white-ball series Down Under. File photo: AFP

Indian cricket has been lucky that there has been a series of steady captains starting with Sourav Ganguly in the new millennium. Despite a brief period of uncertainty when Rahul Dravid took over the mantle from Ganguly in 2005 under rather unpleasant circumstances, there has been no ambiguity about the leadership role.

After Dravid relinquished the role in 2007, Anil Kumble became the Test captain while M S Dhoni was given charge of the white-ball teams. Post Kumble's retirement in 2008, the Test captaincy was also thrust upon him. 

Dhoni remained the undisputed leader in all formats of the game till he quit Test cricket in December, 2014. Virat Kohli was the natural choice to succeed him as the Test captain, and ever since Dhoni stepped down as the skipper of the ODI and T20 squads in early 2017, the superstar of world cricket has been at the helm in all three formats. 

Kohli built a new Indian team focussing primarily on fitness and pace bowling. Kohli's motto has been to play to win in any conditions. After the fall-out with Anil Kumble, Kohli found the perfect match in Ravi Shastri as the head coach in 2017. Kohli's decision to play five bowlers in South Africa and England in 2018 backfired big time as India lost both the high-profile Test series -- 1-2 and 1-4  respectively. Here again, Kohli's intentions were right, for he was desperate to succeed.

At a crossroads
As India gear up for another gruelling series Down Under, Kohli, the skipper, is at a crossroads. His regular white-ball deputy Rohit Sharma will not be there for the ODI and T20I series, which precedes the four-Test series. It's a challenge and an opportunity at the same time for Kohli.

The clamour to make Rohit white-ball captain has only grown louder with the opener leading Mumbai Indians to a record-extending fifth IPL title on Tuesday. Lack of sliverware has been Kohli's biggest drag. A runner-up spot in the 2017 ICC Champions Trophy is the closest Kohli came to winning a major title. India came up short to New Zealand in the 2019 ODI World Cup semifinal after dominating the group stage.

A runner-up finish in 2016 is all what Kohli has to show in the IPL with his franchise Royal Challengers Bangalore.

Even the two triumphs India had in the last two years – Nidahas Trophy tri-series (T20) and Asia Cup (ODI) in 2018 – have come under Rohit when Kohli was rested. Clearly the records favour Rohit. 

Huge disappointment
Virat Kohli failed to take India past New Zealand in the 2019 World Cup semifinal. File photo: AFP

In every major overseas assignment, the Test series assumes significance over the ODI and T20I series. However, this time around the three-match ODI and T20I series will be of utmost importance to Kohli. If the Men in Blue lose both the series, Kohli's position will become precarious. 

The ICC T20 World Cup will take place in India next October. If Kohli can win at least the T20I series despite missing Rohit, it will be good enough to retain his captaincy in all formats. India were blanked in both the ODI (0-3) and Test series (0-2) in New Zealand earlier this year after whitewashing the hosts in the T20I series (5-0). 

It is important to note that Rohit had returned to India after the T20I series following a calf injury. The elegant right-hander has been India's best white-ball batsman for the past three years. Rohit's dodgy hamstring has kept him out of the white-ball leg in Australia and he is expected to regain full fitness for the Test series.

Kohli will return to India after the first Test on paternity leave and even the most optimistic Indians fans know top-ranked Australia are the firm favourites to regain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. India had become the first Asian team to triumph (2-1) on Australian soil during their last tour over a depleted hosts.

Lot at stake
The white-ball series in Australia presents Kohli with a challenge and an opportunity. File photo: AFP

This time though, the Aussies are at full strength and without Kohli, India face an uphill task.

England will be touring India early next year. After a long and arduous tour, a home series could just be the tonic India need. But Kohli knows very well that it can wait. The key is to come good in the white-ball series Down Under.

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