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Transition is here: KL Rahul might replace Kohli as Test captain, Pujara and Rahane might be on way out

Transitions are never that boring in the high-stakes game of cricket leadership in India. Adding intrigue to the captaincy debate is the Test series defeat at Newlands.

Written by Sandeep Dwivedi |
Updated: January 16, 2022 8:08:53 pm
KL RahulKL Rahul watches his shot. (AP Photo)

At the start of this week when Virat Kohli was asked about the future of his fellow 30-plus batsmen – Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane – in the Test team, he had given a cryptic quote. It now seems like a hint of things to come. “I can’t pinpoint when we’ll have a transition in the team … I feel transitions do happen, but they happen naturally, you can’t force them,” he had said.

Within days, that much-anticipated transition in Indian cricket happened and it wasn’t forced. With Kohli stepping down as Test captain, the team that had very recently welcomed a new coach in Rahul Dravid looks very different. The picture of an animated Kohli sitting next to an indulgent Ravi Shastri, a perpetual dressing room frame that India got so used to watching, is now part of history. That glorious chapter has ended, Indian cricket has moved on.

Who will now sit next to Dravid? Being the white-ball captain makes Rohit Sharma the most obvious heir apparent. But that would be downright simple. Transitions are never that boring in the high-stakes game of cricket leadership in India. Adding intrigue to the captaincy debate is the Test series defeat at Newlands.

The loss of odds-on favourites India to a relatively weak South Africa has turned the whispers of change into a loud chorus. The aged and unfit are now being seen with suspicion. The era of ‘The Rahuls’ might be upon us.

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KL Rahul, the designated vice-captain, might win the race to be Test captain. Rohit’s long history of injuries might go against him. India, in times of transition, can’t afford to have a captain taking long sick leaves. There’s also Ravichandran Ashwin, a once-in-a-lifetime bowler who might be India’s highest wicket-taker ever, but Indian cricket has a known bowler prejudice when it comes to captaincy.

What about the team’s experienced batsmen? Pujara and Rahane have chosen the worst period of their career to lose form. Had they been among runs, Rahane, commander-in-chief of India’s Greatest Test win ever in Brisbane last year, would have been the natural successor. There wouldn’t have been any debate. Like Anil Kumble, before MS Dhoni, he would have been the perfect interim captain.

Dhoni’s internship under Kumble worked out well for Indian cricket. Even Pujara would have fancied his chances, had he converted those many 30s and 40 into a few 100s.

Now, in the season of fault-finding and low patience, the two stare at the end of a tunnel. If the important voices in the BCCI are to be believed, it is unlikely that they will even retain their places for next month’s home Test series against Sri Lanka. The Indian middle order is expected to have a new look. Kohli’s surroundings are well and truly changing, both on and off the field. India’s regular No.4 might no longer be in the company of his old associates – Pujara at No.3 and Rahane at No.5.

That’s nothing new for Kohli, he has been dealing with transformation for the last few years now. He was the all-powerful leader for most of his captaincy tenure. He towered over Indian cricket like Imran Khan did in Pakistan. He got what he wanted. The BCCI, run by the Committee of Administrators (CoA) then, obliged. Kohli wanted Shastri, instead of Kumble, as coach. So be it.

Winds of change

When the CoA left, Sourav Ganguly became BCCI president and Jay Shah the secretary. Kohli now had to deal with a seasoned cricketer aware about the ins and outs of the Indian cricket system and an administrator who was well versed with BCCI functioning. Unlike in the past, in the new regime Kohli was now being questioned and his performances minutely audited. Ganguly would start his tenure with a very loaded question about India’s abysmal record at ICC events under the Kohli-Shastri leadership.

Kohli’s untimely resignation as T20 skipper, BCCI’s snatching ODI captaincy from him, the subsequent name-calling – all pointed to a changing ecosystem. This wasn’t the world the man, who once rode roughshod over all matters concerning cricket in India, was used to.

Since the time Dravid took the head coach’s seat, the processes and systems in the Indian dressing room too were seeing a sea change. Those in the know say that Dravid’s working style did not even remotely resemble Shastri’s approach. He’s more Kumble, the captain who famously had a fallout with Kohli.

This isn’t about ‘good and bad’, it’s about the two coaches belonging to different schools of thought. Under Shastri, the power was concentrated with a few. The coach and captain were essentially one unit, now that wasn’t the case. Dravid is a man of few words, has a mind of his own and is more guarded in expressing his feelings. Unlike in the past, meetings these days have more voices, it is being said.

In the middle of the worst slump of his career, Kohli might have found it difficult to adjust to the changes around him. The captain would have felt stifled, maybe even suffocated.By giving up captaincy, he would hope to be liberated.

But it will take some time to see the natural born leader, the aggressive hustler, the indomitable instigator as a former India captain when he walks in to bat or fields in the slips.

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