When the England tour was called off in September, Indian cricket revolved around Virat Kohli. He was the master of all he surveyed and in many ways, decided the way forward for the team.
Then, he decided that with workload becoming an issue, he wanted to step back from T20I captaincy despite the BCCI asking him not to so that he could focus more on his batting for Tests and ODIs.
Then, the BCCI decided that they didn’t want a split white-ball captaincy and handed the ODI captaincy to Rohit Sharma.
And that brings us to where we stand today. A situation that Kohli is partly responsible for but one that he perhaps won’t wholeheartedly appreciate. His record as captain is stellar and he would have felt he could still contribute to India’s cause as a leader.
But the BCCI’s decision means that they have recognised the option that Sharma represents and also that they don’t want Kohli to have it all his way. In an ideal scenario, the board will want the transition to be smooth and on the surface, perhaps it will be too.
But still waters often run deep. A change in leadership also results in a change in dressing room dynamics. There will be respect for Kohli but others in the team won’t be looking at him for solutions all the time and neither will it be his prerogative anymore.
There are other Indian cricketers who have given up captaincy and continued to do the job for the team. Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and MS Dhoni are three who come to mind right away but they had walked away before they were pushed.
In a sense, Kohli will be angry. He didn’t want this. But it is a decision, that for now, he will have to accept. He will have to move on. He will have to step back, refocus and set new personal goals.
But there will still be questions: How quickly will he adjust to not being the ultimate authority in the team? How will his motivation levels be after the snub by the BCCI? Will he maintain his place in the T20 side?
Kohli has always been recognised as a very combative individual. He loves taking people and situations on. Put him in a spot; paint a target on him and he will respond. And in a certain sense, the BCCI’s decision could bring the best out of him as well but at 33, do the competitive fires burn as brightly?
In 2018, the world was shocked when after 114 Test matches, 228 ODIs and 78 T20 Internationals, South African great AB de Villiers called time on his international career.
“I have had my turn, and to be honest, I am tired,” he had said in a statement just four days after the end of the IPL season.
Given how close Kohli and de Villiers are, perhaps a conversation will be in order. But then again, talking with new coach Rahul Dravid and skipper Sharma might give him the best idea of where he truly stands. A frank conversation is the need of the hour.
Not being captain in white-ball cricket will give him more time to himself; more time to find his best game in Test cricket and perhaps an even higher gear in T20Is. But for that to happen, he will need to be willing to reinvent himself; to play with the freedom that India needs him to.
The greatest players evolve over time; they succeed because they change and if Kohli can find it in himself to do the same, he can look at the BCCI’s decision as a trigger to evolve and focus even more on his game.
Kohli remains India’s best batter in Tests and ODIs and for Sharma to find success in the shorter formats, he will need his predecessor to put his best foot forward too. A man with Kohli’s experience and success will always be hard to replace and to that end, the country needs him.
The goal for the Indian team, with and without Kohli at the helm, remains the same. They still want to win ICC trophies. To that end, there is an alignment between what Kohli, Sharma, Dravid and the BCCI want but they’ll need to find an even greater balance to achieve that goal.
Being a captain is a special existence in Indian cricket but true leadership is not just being in charge; not just being the boss. Dhoni and many of the other seniors have done stellar duty on the other leadership front and it will be time for Kohli to walk down that path too.
The manner in which he does that could not only redefine him but also help Sharma find the success that eluded him in ICC tournaments.