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The inside story on why Rohit Sharma replaced Virat Kohli as India’s white-ball captain

Three months after Kohli expressed desire to remain ODI captain, BCCI relieves him of limited-overs leadership role.

Written by Shamik Chakrabarty , Sandeep Dwivedi | Kolkata |
Updated: December 9, 2021 9:22:55 pm
With India hosting the 2023 50-over World Cup, Kohli didn't wish to give up the ODI captaincy but the BCCI wanted a change in white-ball leadership.

It was just a line at the end of the press release announcing the Test squad for the South Africa tour. The BCCI, on Wednesday, underplayed Virat Kohli’s sacking as India’s ODI captain and the handing over the overall white-ball charge to Rohit Sharma. The Test opener will now lead both T20I and ODI sides.

A senior BCCI official informed that the decision was in the works for a while but it was the selectors who took the final call. “The BCCI wanted absolute clarity between red-ball and white-ball cricket. The BCCI wanted a complete (leadership) separation between the longest format and shorter formats to avoid any confusion. In the end, it was left to the selectors to take a call. They decided to appoint Rohit as new ODI captain,” a BCCI insider told The Indian Express.

Unlike the T20I captaincy change, where the announcement came from Kohli, citing his workload, the ODI leadership switch is seen as a BCCI decision. Three months ago, while relinquishing T20I captaincy, Kohli had expressed his desire to lead India in Tests and ODIs, going ahead. “Understanding workload is a very important thing and considering my immense workload over the last 8-9 years playing all 3 formats and captaining regularly for last 5-6 years, I feel I need to give myself space to be fully ready to lead the Indian team in Test and ODI cricket,” he wrote on Instagram on September 16.

However, after India’s early exit from the T20 World Cup, it was clear that BCCI wasn’t on the same page as Kohli. They would make it official at the first given opportunity. The Test squad announcement that had Kohli as captain and Sharma as vice-captain ended thus: “The All-India Senior Selection Committee also decided to name Mr Rohit Sharma as the Captain of the ODI & T20I teams going forward.”

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The Indian Express has also learnt that Kohli wasn’t informed about the decision beforehand. Again, this was a departure from the past. At the time he relinquished T20I captaincy, Kohli had mentioned his conversation with former India head coach Ravi Shastri, BCCI president Sourav Ganguly and board secretary Jay Shah before taking the decision. Giving up Royal Challengers Bangalore’s captaincy in the Indian Premier League, too, was his own choice.

The first signal about Kohli’s shaky position in the hot seat came about when BCCI brought in MS Dhoni as the team mentor for the October-November T20 World Cup. Kohli’s inability to win ICC events was a concern for the Indian board. Insiders say that India’s performance at the T20 World Cup was to decide Kohli’s captaincy future. However, in a move that surprised even BCCI officials, Kohli made public his decision to give up T20I captaincy even before the tournament started. What piqued the officials was his desire to continue as Test and ODI captain. With India hosting the 2023 50-over World Cup, Kohli didn’t wish to give up the ODI captaincy. In a way, this was Kohli throwing down the gauntlet to the BCCI – remove me as ODI captain if you want. On Wednesday, the BCCI did exactly that.

Going back in time

In Indian cricket, captaincy decisions have never been left to the players. Kapil Dev was sacked within a year of winning the 1983 World Cup. Sunil Gavaskar stepped down after winning the World Championship of Cricket in 1985. Sourav Ganguly’s captaincy was taken away in acrimonious circumstances. Even Dhoni, with three world titles in his bag, was given a tap on the shoulder by the then selection committee, when it was felt that a white-ball captaincy change was required. Kohli probably failed to read the room.

In another interesting development, the selectors elevated Sharma to Test vice-captaincy, replacing Ajinkya Rahane, although the latter was picked for the three-match series in South Africa. Sharma’s growing stature in the team can offer scope to read between the lines, that phasing out of Kohli, the captain, has begun.

Kohli has been one of India’s most successful white-ball captains. In 95 ODIs, he won 65, giving him a winning percentage of 70-plus. In 45 T20Is, he led India to victory 27 times. Sharma has been Kohli’s longstanding deputy in limited-overs cricket, captaining the team in 10 ODIs and 19 T20Is before he was given full-time charge during the recent three-match home series against New Zealand. He started with a clean sweep. Five IPL titles leading Mumbai Indians made him a shoo-in as Kohli’s successor.

Kohli took over limited-overs captaincy from Dhoni in 2017 and under him India won limited-overs series in every country. But he failed to triumph in ICC events. The closest India came to annexing global silverware was at the 2017 ICC Champions Trophy, where the team lost to Pakistan in the final. The T20 World Cup in UAE this year was probably the nadir; India losing their first two group league games against Pakistan and New Zealand and crashing out of the tournament in the group phase.

The BCCI publicly took a kinder view on the team’s T20 World Cup debacle, considering it as “one bad tournament”. But it is learnt that the board wanted a new direction in limited-overs cricket under a new captain. The next T20 World Cup in Australia is less than 12 months away, while India will host the 50-over World Cup a year later. The BCCI and the selection committee clearly wanted to give Sharma time to build the squad for the two upcoming ICC events.

A form slump also didn’t do Kohli any favours. Over the past two years, he has scored 560 runs in 12 ODIs without a century. His average during this period is 46.66, well below his career average of 59.07. In 20 T20Is during the same period, he has scored 594 runs at 49.50, while in 13 Tests in the last two years, he made 599 runs at an average of 26.04. Shastri, however, had defended his captain’s lean patch, citing bubble fatigue. “In the last 24 months, they (players) have been home for 25 days. I don’t care who you are, if your name is Bradman and you are in a bubble, your average will come down because you are human,” he had said.

Indian cricket has barely dealt with split captaincy and two power centres in the team. It would be interesting to see how new head coach Rahul Dravid handles this going ahead. Under Kohli, India have scaled unprecedented heights in Tests and as for now, he remains the long-form captain. But even there too, Sharma’s shadow could be unmistakable.

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