IPL: Litmus Test for India’s Current Captain
Rohit Sharma in the spotlight as Team India’s next captain
It is a well known fact that the Indian Premier League has become a criteria for selectors when choosing the Indian cricket team for the next tourney in limited overs cricket. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the IPL is also becoming the ground for choosing India’s next captain.
If you live by the sword, you must die by it. Thus goes the popular adage. By that assumption, it should come as little surprise that the IPL, which put Rohit Sharma in the spotlight as India’s potential next captain, should now be dealt a similar hand.
While the charms and chants of Hardik Pandya are getting louder from the BCCI’s mouthpiece which abound in many at this time of year, the current Indian captain is on rough seas and playing on borrowed time.
There is a flipside to the story when Rohit Sharma hits the headlines for his batting but it comes with a footnote of statistics that are not too flattering.
When Rohit Sharma scored his 41st IPL half century in the 16th match of the IPL 2023 edition against the Delhi Capitals in Delhi, it was also not only Mumbai Indians’ return to winning ways after a dismal start to add to a abysmal last season, but also, it was Rohit Sharma’s first half century in 24 matches for his IPL team, coming as it did after 808 days. The Hitman name tag was taking a nose dive while reiterating his prowess. A double edged sword, if ever there was one.
Ironically even as Rohit Sharma is doing his quiet and sometimes not-so-quiet badgering about the ill timing of his injuries, the injury spates with the Indian cricketers and not having enough time to settle with a full strength Indian cricket team and squad, ironically the epitaph is being written not by the average Indian cricket fan but by the very board that decided that Rohit was the change India needed after trophy-barren Virat Kohli was considered as going against the grain of the then BCCI chief, Sourav Ganguly in 2021.
While the debutant IPL team, the Gujarat Titans, were on a high last year, finishing as eventual winners of the IPL 2022 season, the Mumbai Indians, like the Chennai Super Kings, hit a new low, finishing at the bottom of the pile. Even then it was felt that Rohit Sharma’s fortunes had hit a trough as far as his captaincy was concerned, since taking over as India’s captain.
Some might ask, why not the din then? Why wait? Why not make the change if the BCCI and their voices believe Hardik Pandya was as good and ready as he was ever going to be? Why toy with India’s fortunes if the clamour for the incumbent in waiting is louder than the heroics of the present skipper and that too in a year of double World Cup scenarios?
One plausible explanation is that the BCCI, having made such a mockery out of the succession and planning process vis-à-vis Kohli, could not now not back the horse they had pushed to the front of the line. Besides, they had little inkling of a tough 12-month period to follow.
It would become clear to everyone who hadn’t been hoodwinked by the captaincy urgency that India were faring no better with a change of guard, the Asia Cup and the ICC Twenty20 World Cup only exposing the fact even as Virat Kohli’s bat started to mend for the better.
Embattled Kohli relinquished the captaincy of the Royal Challengers Bengaluru but vowed to stay with his IPL alma mater as long as he played the game, if they would have him. The resurrection in fortunes, still subtle by his own standards, is an indication that things have moved in the right direction for him.
In contrast, there has never been a more sign of concern that the clock is ticking down on Rohit Sharma and in the end, whether it will only be his white ball captaincy at stake or his future entirely remains to be seen.
Of little comfort was the fact that by hitting a century in the first Test against Australia in Nagpur, he became only the first Indian captain to score centuries across all three formats like his international counterparts, South Africa’s Faf du Plessis, Sri Lanka’s Tilakaratne Dilshan and Pakistan’s Babar Azam.
Worrisome is the fact that Mumbai Indians lost 10 out of their 14 matches last season, starting under severe duress to keep their status as a five time IPL winnings champs this season. Their skipper’s fortunes could well depend on how well the Mumbai Indians perform.
It was interesting that after Rohit Sharma broke his personal deadlock by scoring his IPL half century, there seemed a deliberate reality television-type manoeuvre in the way that his conversation with his wife was captured. As part of that conversation, when his wife told him how excited his daughter was that her father got the award of the day, Rohit Sharma signed off vowing that he would win the trophy for his daughter.
The Indian captain has been vocal in his resentment in any statistic that points to a drought, taking pains to remind all and sundry not only about the pandemic year that saw a dearth of cricket matches but also, about his own injury niggles which impacted his own winning statistic as well as his averages, not being able to participate in quite a few matches since being anointed captains, eventually across all formats.
The IPL will have a major influence over decisions in the boardroom and on the selection panel, what made his captain in the first place is now likely to displace him from the post.
Rohit Sharma, aged 35, is aware of the fact. He has been doing his own PR machinery of sorts, claiming how the injury problems to some of India’s best players, such as Jasprit Bumrah was out of his hands and so was the workload, now in the hands of the IPL franchisees despite requests to put India’s needs first. However, Rohit might also remember controversially showing up for matches when it was speculated he was injured or resting when Virat Kohli was captain.
As Virat Kohli’s time of influence seemed to have hit a wall with Sourav Ganguly, as the duo continue to stare down at each other and avoid where possible as the IPL 2023 soap opera has evidenced. There was contention that there was no clear successor to the Indian captaincy.
The BCCI’s push for Rohit, who was older than Kohli, seemed more about favouritism than merit and while Rohit did earn his credentials through the IPL success for his franchisee, the embers of the stormy engulfment that consumed Kohli’s final days as captain are now threatening to ellipse Rohit well before his time.
Although there appears to be a clear deadline when Rohit will be asked to step down post the ICC Cricket World Cup 2023 at home later this year, the whims of the BCCI can be unpredictable. If they had their way, perhaps Hardik Pandya would be leading India’s charge already. It is something astute former cricketers like Kapil Dev are warning against, the possibility that the same might happen to Pandya should results not become immediately apparent.
Such has been the bugle through the airwaves, Rohit Sharma is entitled to feel slighted. After all, Pandya’s stars were not exactly aligned when he was roped into becoming the captain of one of the two IPL franchisees last year, the Gujarat Titans.
Injuries had laid him low from the Indian team and his wane as the allrounder touted rather unfairly to take up the mantle of Kapil Dev began to bite the dust. By his own admission, he might not even have had the opportunity to captain the Titans while he pursued playing under his friend and fellow Indian team mate at the other new franchisee, the Lucknow Super Giants.
As fortune would have it, former Indian fast bowler, Ashish Nehra, took over the charge of the new franchisee and brought on Pandya as the captain even when the Gujarat Titans were still a concept and not a reality. Winning in their inaugural year has changed the Indian cricket landscape dramatically, while BCCI were laughing their way to the bank for expanding despite backlash from the cricket overload factions.
But none could see the ascent as quickly as Pandya himself did, suddenly becoming the toast and changing overnight people’s opinion about him as captain.
It seems almost blasphemous when former cricketers and captains like Sunil Gavaskar are singing high praises about Pandya and about how he is a player’s captain when he has won one trophy compared to Mumbai Indians’ five trophies in the IPL under Rohit Sharma. It has to be remembered that while Rohit alone was not the architect of the turning around of the beleaguered fortunes of the richest IPL team at the time, his promotion to captaincy really hit an anchor point for the team.
While he does stand a chance, swaying people’s perception should India go on to win the ICC World Test championship that follows immediately after the conclusion of the IPL 2023 season and do the unthinkable and lift the ICC Cricket World Cup 2023 later this year. Given Hardik Pandya’s bleak Test record of having played just 11 Tests since making his debut in 2016, Rohit Sharma stands a better chance extending his Test captaincy, if only that.
What has become evident is that the BCCI, who plotted rather haphazardly Kohli’s downfall under the guise of lack of trophies in the cupboard, have already changed their mind about their own anchorman, as it were. Rohit Sharma’s vociferous defence of his own statistics even before the IPL and rather prominently during the Border-Gavaskar series against Australia is only further confirmation that Rohit Sharma intends to fight this to the end, even if at times, he has openly spoken about how he has been dealt a dented deck of cards with not all Indian cricketers on board, injuries notwithstanding.
That even Pandya knew his time might not be far away was not only evident in how the selectors played musical chairs with the Indian captaincy while Rohit was away but also, in the manner in which he has been talked up, almost overlooking the current captain. Although there seems to be a blaze attitude when Pandya says he is not looking at the captaincy like a burden and will be okay should it be taken away, there is a pride element there as well as prestige.
With all of this talk, which can be disheartening to someone in Rohit’s position, Indian cricket can only hope the prestige element is what pushes Rohit to lead the team – the Mumbai Indians but more importantly, the Indian cricket team, out of his skin to leave a legacy behind.