Three hats in the ring

Who will replace Kohli now? All photos : Getty Images)

Rohit Sharma, Rishabh Pant or KL Rahul: Who will succeed Virat Kohli? That is the question uppermost in the minds of cricket lovers.

 

Now that Virat Kohli’s exit as Test captain has been thoroughly debated and discussed, the time has come for someone to step into his shoes. Kohli has heralded the process of transition in Team India, which was something that was not in the minds of selectors till then. However, a lot of his supporters will be hoping that he has put his differences with the BCCI firmly behind him and that the One-day series starting against South Africa starting on Wednesday will see a much mellowed former skipper with his willow doing most of the talking on the field.

Kohli certainly needs his willow to silence his critics. A highly desired century, that has been eluding him for the last two years, would be something that all his fans are looking forward to. Forget whether Kohli’s decision to step down was a shocker or a well-calculated one. The important thing now is how quickly and swiftly the five wise men of Indian cricket – the senior selection committee led by former pacer Chetan Sharma – will solve the puzzle of Kohli’s successor.

Had it happened a couple of months back, Kohli’s long-time deputy in the Test arena, Ajinkya Rahane, could have been an ideal choice given Team India’s Test series win in Australia under his leadership. But that’s no longer the case now as Rahane’s batting has seen a serious slump over the last few months. In fact, the five selectors would certainly be discussing the 33-year-old Rahane’s continuity in the team altogether.

The Indian selectors have certainly not groomed anyone other than Rahane to take over from Kohli. That leaves India with three choices: go with white-ball skipper Rohit Sharma in all three formats, or pick between KL Rahul and Rishabh Pant as the new Team India boss. Ravichandran Ashwin could have been a serious contender, given his performances over recent times and also his cricketing knowledge, but then his place has never been guaranteed on overseas trips and that leaves him out of the race.

Age and fitness issues

Rohit has been struggling with his fitness for a long time. Giving him the captaincy in all three formats simply means that “he will be expected to play almost every single game in the immediate future”. That may even jeopardise his career altogether.

But from the selectors’ point of view, Rohit was India’s official deputy to Kohli in almost all the formats ever since Rahane’s demotion due to his poor batting form. Nevertheless, many critics feel that Rohit may not be the best candidate to be India’s next leader in Tests because of his age and fitness.

To his credit, Rohit has emerged as India’s best batter since he returned to the test team in January 2021 for the final two Tests of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. With Kohli having to return to India for the birth of his child, Rohit served as deputy to Rahane in those two matches and helped India win that historic series Down Under.

Rohit’s age of 34 is something that is not on his side. Replacing him with Kohli would hardly serve Indian cricket for long. He has been troubled by a recurring hamstring problem for quite some time now. Every time Rohit runs for a cheeky single, his hamstring injury could well resurface. But that doesn’t rule him out of the race. Can he sustain the pressure of playing all three formats without compromising his batting?

The selectors, or for that matter, the Indian Cricket Board (BCCI), may go in with Rohit as the next skipper in their bid to groom a younger player like Rahul or Pant. Since India will be playing the next nine Test matches on Indian soil and will not be touring overseas for any Test series over the next two years, Rohit could well be rotated wisely in all three formats given India’s home advantage.

Separate leaders in red & white formats

A debate has already started in cricketing circles about handing over the reins of Test captaincy to someone like Pant, as he is an automatic pick in all three formats. This has accounted for the aggression that he has shown while batting under extremely challenging conditions. Pant is credited with Team India’s most famous victory over Australia in Brisbane in 2021. More recently, he put up a fighting century against South Africa in the Newlands Test, where no other batter made more than 29.

But some critics feel that it might be a little too premature to burden this 24-year-old with such a huge responsibility at this age. Unlike Rahane, Rohit, or Rahul, this Delhi-lad has not led India at any level to date. Pant has barely led the IPL team, Delhi Capitals, for a season. For being young, he has been seen as India’s future for a long time. Many feel that if not captaincy, Pant should be made vice-captain to groom him to take over from Rohit.  That would make him more responsible in the coming months and make him realise his potential as a batsman.

Rohit Sharma continues to be a choice after Kohli’s exit.
(Photo : Getty Images)

The man for all reasons

That leaves 29-year-old Rahul with a firm choice to be either the straight Test skipper or an understudy to Rohit for the time being. Rahul’s batting skills have impressed each and every one in the cricketing circles. More recently, he scored a century in the first Test of the South Africa series. 

However, it was only a few months back when he was picked as the third opener for the England tour. An injury to regular Mayank Agarwal gave him a chance to cement his place in the squad. He emerged as the second-highest scorer from India with an aggregate of 315 in four Tests.

Rahul, like Rohit, has held captaincy positions in the IPL.  Having led the Punjab Kings for the last two seasons, Rahul was the best batter not just for his team but in the tournament. That ability to handle pressure is what influenced the selectors to give him the responsibility of leading India in the Johannesburg Test (South Africa) in the absence of an injured Rohit. India might have lost that Test, but Rahul has won many admirers for his mature behaviour on the field.

Rahul has the technique to last longer at the highest level. Though he has been opening the batting for India, he is equipped to bat anywhere in the top order. Rahul has a quiet, calm approach as compared to Kohli’s over-aggressive behaviour on the field. Now that he has led Team India in all three ODIs against the Proteas, selectors may consider the “end result” when selecting the leader of the Test squad!

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Chander Shekhar Luthra
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