There is an eerie similarity between how Virat Kohli takes up the Test captaincy baton from MS Dhoni and how Dhoni himself succeeded Anil Kumble in 2008. On both occasions, the change of guard, while long expected, came to pass with some suddenness — during the third match of a four-Test series. And then, as now, the opponent was Australia.
India will hope that this change brings about the similar result as the previous one. For, within a year of taking charge, Dhoni’s team were standing atop the ICC Test rankings, a spot they went on to keep for the next 21 months. They are sixth now and could soon be seventh.
A big slice of credit for the spectacular early success of Dhoni’s leadership goes to the men he could summon. Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Zaheer Khan and, of course, Dhoni himself — seven players, and all at the peak or near peak, of their powers. The Indian team-sheet at that time used to read like a fantasy cricket XI. And his ‘cool’ demeanor fostered a harmonious environment in a dressing room to harness that potential.
By contrast, the team that Kohli inherits from Dhoni, while brimming with talent, hasn’t really stepped up. The much-improved Murali Vijay is still a work in progress, Shikhar Dhawan is a couple of failures away from losing his place in the XI, Cheteshwar Pujara is a work in regress, and Rohit Sharma exemplifies India to a T: great at home and atrocious overseas. In bowling, only Bhuvneshwar Kumar has performed with some sort of consistency in the last one year. Of the current lot, then, only Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane could be placed in the same bracket as Dhoni’s Big Seven.
Kohli, therefore, has a much harder task at hand than Dhoni had at the time of coronation. And his ‘hot’ temperament, it looks like, won’t make things any easier.
Kohli is a supremely motivated player. You discern it in his celebrations every time he scores big runs, you notice it in his frustration when he gets out. In fact, you see it all too clearly in his anger at a fellow batsman when he gets run out. On such an occasion, as he mouths expletives and gesticulates, it seems he can’t distinguish between a teammate and an opponent. A Rohit Sharma and a Mitchell Johnson. Like he did in Kolkata last month. In an ODI where he was playing as captain.
It reminded you of a similar incident where Kevin Pietersen gave Kohli a piece of his mind during an IPL game in 2010 after the latter ran him out. Kohli and Pietersen went to become best of friends after that — not as much because of that incident but because they are so much alike. And Pietersen was a hugely divisive figure, and anything but a great captain.
Maybe, Kohli will prove all these fears wrong. Maybe, he will be more Sourav Ganguly — fierce, proud and a leader of men — than Pietersen — fierce, proud and a loner. We will have to wait and watch. It will help him that India are playing exclusively at home, or in the sub-continent, in 2015. Nevertheless, it would be wise to start grooming another player for that next change of guard whenever it happens — or when Kohli is unavailable.
The friendly and unassuming Rahane, who is the opposite of Kohli in terms of temperament, could be the next vice-captain. Rahane has proved himself in all forms of cricket and, in the current set-up, he is India’s best player overseas, with a century in New Zealand, England and Australia (a near century in South Africa). Yes, he is shy and doesn’t have captaincy experience, but so was Dhoni and he didn’t have any leadership credentials either when he led India to the World T20 triumph. And like Dhoni, he is a calm player yet an aggressive batsman.
Who knows at some point in the future, Rahane could be the ‘Captain Cool’ India have just lost.