Three months ago, as India landed in Australia, something strange happened. The Australian media – television, print, radio, etc. – were all gung-ho about Virat Kohli. A superstar had arrived on their shores and in a cricketing summer hampered by the pandemic, he was their saviour.

Thing is, Australian media doesn’t usually take kindly to visiting superstars. Lead batsman – great. Captain as well – even better. Target them; rile them up; all of it before the first ball has been bowled – this is the Australian way. The verbal red carpet laid out for Kohli was unique in every sense of the word. It is not to say Kohli didn’t get a barrage aimed at him. Funnily enough, it came from the Indian corner.

Scroll through the headlines again – Rohit Sharma had just led Mumbai Indians to their fifth IPL title. Kohli fell short with Royal Challengers Bangalore once again. A stormy debate raged from social media, to newspapers, to online analytics, to newsrooms, to pre-match shows on radio and television. All of them asking the one question – should Rohit take over India’s T20I captaincy duties (if not white-ball cricket entirely) in the build-up to the 2021 T20 World Cup?

Perhaps it even helped Kohli to reach Australia and receive that standout welcome, especially with Rohit absent (injured). Perhaps it also helped that India won the T20I series against Australia 2-1, despite losing the ODIs by the same margin. Since then, we have witnessed arguably the greatest Test series’ win ever registered by India – home or away.

The crescendo of questions hasn’t gone away, though. Only this time, in the past six weeks, an additional chorus has been added to the pre-tour tunes. And, just like in November, now too, it is everywhere. Having stomped his authority Down Under with a massively depleted Indian Test side, should Ajinkya Rahane continue to lead India in Test cricket?

The Rohit-Rahane Factor

On India’s last tour of Australia, after the first ODI in Sydney (January 2019), Rohit Sharma spoke about MS Dhoni’s position in the batting line-up. “Personally, I always feel that Dhoni batting at number four will be ideal for the team,” he replied, to one question in the press conference. He added it was his personal opinion and the final call rests with the captain and coach.

As India mulled over their batting line-up in the build-up to the 2019 ODI World Cup in England, Rohit’s comments set the cat among the pigeons. In hindsight, given how India’s top-order dependency and the prolonged instability at No 4 cost them the semi-final against New Zealand, the vice-captain was proven right. There are umpteen examples of Rohit’s tactical nous, most of them seen in the way he marshals Mumbai Indians.

Rohit’s difference in opinion about India’s batting order highlighted – and publicised – a different vision and potential pathway for the Indian batting. Whether the outcome would have been different is moot. Rohit’s ability to envisage a distinctive method, and an individual brand of leadership, in addition to his batting stature, gave enough credence to the split captaincy theory. That too long before the fifth IPL title.

Rahane’s tactical leadership, meanwhile, came across in the manner he used India’s depleted bowling resources across the last three Tests in Australia. That there was a set plan for different batsmen is public knowledge now. Even so, Rahane was pinpoint with his bowling changes across the three Tests and the Indian bowling – even when down to bare bones – never allowed the game to drift too far from grasp. To set plans is one thing, but by showcasing the management to see them through, in adverse conditions, Rahane earned top marks for his leadership.

Ambition is perhaps the word that defines the difference between Rohit and Rahane. When asked about Indian captaincy, Rohit has often deflected the matter to selectors. When asked the same question, Rahane clearly underlined how he was just stepping up in Kohli’s absence.

Chalk and cheese personalities if you will, and yet, Indian cricket will be blessed to have three ‘captains’ together on the field when the first Test against England begins in Chennai on Friday.

The Virat Kohli Argument

One of the reasons Australian broadcasters went crazy every time Kohli appeared on screen was because cricket, like everything else on television, is all about TRPs. Superstars, whether Indian or foreign, retain that pull among fans (or audiences). And Kohli, without a doubt, is the biggest star of them all.

When the camera pans to your face after every delivery, when your every reaction is beamed across the world, at times a volatile persona comes across. Sure, Kohli has his own method of celebrating and getting into the opposition’s face. But does it get played up too much because he celebrates that way? The answer is yes, and it is also problematic because the spotlight goes away from what the other ten players are doing on the field.

A important reason why Rahane’s captaincy style found much appreciation was the manner in which India’s batting and bowling had new leaders taking charge. Whether it was Cheteshwar Pujara, Ashwin Ravichandran or Jasprit Bumrah, or even the young guns – Shubman Gill and Mohammad Siraj – they had their moments under the televised sun and were noted for it. It is the same when Rohit leads Mumbai Indians – you get to see the like of Pandyas, Ishan Kishan and Surya Kumar Yadav assume leadership roles within the microcosm of their individual abilities.

Is it Kohli’s fault then that the spotlight shines brightest on him, so much so that everyone else fades away? The answer isn’t so simple and it delves into the other aspect of superstardom captaincy.

When you have such an all-encompassing figure as the leader, he, at times, isn’t able to grasp the limitations of those around him. Indian cricket has seen such an example in the past – Sachin Tendulkar. A great batsman but a poor captain because his team couldn’t accomplish what he, in his individual capacity, thought possible.

Arguably, we have seen similar shades in Kohli’s captaincy. The 2017 Champions Trophy final? It was an ICC tournament final, a key clash against Pakistan, and yet India chose to field because the captain likes to chase. Ultimately the pressure factor told and the Men in Blue lost.

Or, rewind further to Adelaide 2014, his first Test at captain. It was as if Kohli batted on a different pitch to other batsmen, especially in the second innings when he went for the chase. But was the Indian batting, as a whole, good enough to cross the finish line?

At this juncture of the argument, only results matter. Kohli’s captaincy began with a bright spark and across formats, it has retained volatility. But what do the statistics say? In ODIs, there is only one parameter for judgment – ICC trophies. Kohli’s Men in Blue fall short on that mark. Yet, they have achieved the basic requirement in both 2017 Champions Trophy and the 2019 World Cup – reach the knockouts, wherein anything can happen.

In the shortest format, Kohli is yet to lead India in a T20 World Cup. His bilateral record is quite impressive – 24 wins in 40 matches, a win percentage of 60, almost similar to a 68% winning record in ODIs (63 wins in 92 matches). Further, India have never lost a bilateral T20 series (more than one match) under Kohli, home or away. The last two series wins – both away, in New Zealand (2020) and Australia (2020) – were quite impressive as he prepares to lead the team at the 2021 T20 World Cup (in India).

In Test cricket, the win percentage is similar too – 58.92 (33 wins in 56 matches). But there are also additional factors. Under Kohli, India rose to No 1 in the Test rankings, bouncing from a lowly position under Dhoni. They are near unbeatable in home conditions, and the away results have been impressive too with series wins in Australia, Sri Lanka and West Indies along with Test victories in South Africa and England.

Arguably, India should have won in South Africa (2018) and there were some dubious captaincy calls. But can this really be held against Kohli? Isn’t captaincy as much of a learning job as batting and bowling?

The word learning is where this captaincy debate rests at the moment.

Can Kohli the captain balance this equation with what the two other ‘captains’ bring on the field? Can Kohli the captain share the limelight across his dressing room? Can Kohli the captain use newfound leadership strength in this Indian team’s core to pull them across the finish line when it matters most? He deserves the time and, more importantly, the respect to be allowed the leeway to showcase these attributes.

Statistics and results show that Kohli, in captaincy terms, is worthy of a longer rope. As he returns to lead the Indian side on an exhausting schedule across formats and potentially two ICC tournaments, 2021 will give us these answers.