What does success in the Indian Premier League mean?

India’s all-format captain Virat Kohli and chief selector MSK Prasad may not have considered performances during IPL 2019 while zeroing in on the World Cup squad, but the biggest T20 tournament on the planet hasn’t always faced such neglect.

Over the years, there have been plenty of cricketers who have made their way into the Indian team on the back of good outings in the IPL. Ravichandran Ashwin, Yuzvendra Chahal, Axar Patel, KL Rahul, Ravindra Jadeja, Hardik Pandya and Jasprit Bumrah are some of the players who have made their international debuts thanks to impressive IPL campaigns. Then there are those who have made comebacks into the national team by shining in the IPL, like Ambati Rayudu did last year.

Despite what the wise men of Indian cricket may want us to believe, these examples prove that the IPL is an integral part of the sport in the country. Which raises the question – shouldn’t Rohit Sharma, who is the most successful captain in the T20 tournament, be considered for leading India in the shortest format?

Mumbai Indians defeated arch-rivals Chennai Super Kings in the IPL 2019 final on Sunday to bag a record fourth title. All these triumphs have come under the leadership of Rohit. The opener was made captain of MI in 2013, replacing Ricky Ponting a few games into the tournament. He went on to hand the franchise its very first trophy that year itself. And he hasn’t looked back since.

To put things in perspective, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, widely regarded as India’s greatest ever captain in white-ball cricket, has led CSK to three IPL titles in ten seasons as captain. Rohit, on the other hand, has led MI to four titles in less than seven full seasons as captain.

Similarities with Dhoni

There’s a stark similarity to the way IPL’s two most decorated leaders operate. Although Rohit doesn’t often pull-off instinctive strokes of genius like Dhoni does, he has the same sense of calm on the field as the senior pro. They both tend to keep an uncluttered mindset, remain proactive, back their players, and be mindful of the bigger picture. Case in point – Rohit giving Lasith Malinga the ball in the final over on Sunday.

The Sri Lankan pacer had conceded for 42 runs from his three overs at that point, including 20 in his previous over. But Rohit was clear that Malinga was the best option in the given situation. And the veteran didn’t disappoint, giving away just seven runs in the last over to hand Mumbai Indians a one-run win. “I was thinking of Hardik [Pandya] for the final over, but I wanted to back someone who has been in that situation for us before, and Malinga has been there many times,” said Rohit after the match.

Rohit Sharma lends his support to Lasith Malinga on Sunday – Vipin Pawar / Sportzpics for BCCI

The Mumbaikar has self-admittedly improved a lot by watching Dhoni operate over the years. It isn’t just a coincidence that the two have similar styles of captaincy. After leading India to the Asia Cup triumph in 2018, Rohit had reflected on how he has learnt from the man who has led India to two world titles.

“Whatever I have seen of him [Dhoni] leading the Indian team for all these years, he never panicked, took time while taking decisions,” Rohit had said. “There are those similarities in me, too. I also try to first think and then react. I have learnt this from seeing him, we have played for so many years under his captaincy. Whenever there is something, he is ready with advice. We always keep on learning from Dhoni bhai because he has been such a great captain. Whenever there were questions or doubts on the field, he was always there to answer.”

At the start of 2017, Dhoni’s powers with the bat were on the wane and it was clear that he wouldn’t be the right man to lead India in the 2019 World Cup. The obvious choice to succeed him in One-Day Internationals was Kohli – the Test captain and by far the best player in the country. But was it the right decision to hand him the T20I captaincy as well?

Unimpressive Kohli

Kohli’s record as a skipper in Tests speaks for itself. India have been dominant in the longest format over the past few years. Even if it’s the final ball at the end of a scorching day, Kohli’s energy will be at full throttle. Such passion can drive the team in a draining five-day contest. And India have reaped the rewards of this aggression in recent times, with a historic series victory in Australia earlier this year.

However, leading a T20 side requires more than just desire. In the shortest format, forget every over, the game can twist and turn with every delivery. There is an acumen that a captain absolutely must possess. There is scope in 50-over matches for a skipper to let the game amble along, but T20s offer no such margin.

At the moment, India’s T20 side is being led by a player who hasn’t won a single IPL despite captaining his team for seven seasons. Both Rohit and Kohli were made captains of their respective franchises in 2013. Since then, Kohli has anchored his team to the bottom of the table on most occasions, while Rohit has gone on to achieve greatness. In the three IPL seasons since Kohli was made India’s T20 captain in January 2017, Royal Challengers Bangalore have finished eighth, sixth and eighth, while Mumbai Indians have claimed two titles in the same period.

If the IPL has any significance in the larger scheme of things [which it undoubtedly does] then shouldn’t this statistic amount to something? Even in T20 Internationals, Rohit has a better win percentage as India captain than Kohli.

Stats as T20I captain

Player Matches Won Win %
Virat Kohli 22 12 57.14
Rohit Sharma 15 12 80.00

After India’s Asia Cup victory last year, there’s one other thing that Rohit had stated. Asked about the possibility of being named India’s full-time captain in limited-overs, he had said: “We have just won so I will surely say that I’m ready for captaincy. Definitely. Whenever the opportunity comes, I will be ready.”

While there’s no real reason to doubt Kohli’s credentials as captain in one-days, it wouldn’t be the worst idea to consider Rohit as skipper of India’s T20 team. It’s not like he’s nearing retirement anytime soon. He is 32 and has several years of top-flight cricket ahead of him. With the T20 World Cup scheduled for next year, it’s about time we pay serious heed to what Rohit’s doing with Mumbai Indians.