When a team is led for seven long years by a captain with a stadium-sized personality, there is bound to be a major shift in team dynamics following a leadership change. This was an Indian team used to a certain style of play and philosophy instituted by Virat Kohli. India did lose the South Africa series, but Kohli’s system worked–he had made India a team used to winning.
Soon India will have a new Test captain and coach Rahul Dravid is also fresh into his job. Trying to adapt to this new reality will be one of the key challenges for the team now.
The team is staring at a transition in terms of players too. The obvious one waiting to happen was the middle order. But Kohli’s sudden decision to step down has caught everyone by surprise. The selectors have to now think twice before making the next change because transitions are best executed step by step, allowing things to settle down before the next change.
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India’s last major transition happened in a relatively smooth sequence. Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar were phased out with considerable gaps of time between each. It allowed Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Virat Kohli and KL Rahul to come in one by one and by 2016, India was the No 1 ranked Test side.
On the other hand, there are examples of team’s struggling to recover for a long period after their main players bowed out in a bunch. The decision of Greg Chappell, Rodney Marsh and Dennis Lillee to retire together in 1984 left a big hole in the Australia team that took a long rebuilding process, led by Allan Border, for them to be a force again.
The Indian selectors face a tricky decision to time the transition from the current side. If Kohli hadn’t stepped down, it was a straightforward choice of starting the process with the middle-order where the pressure has been building on Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara. Now, the Chetan Sharma-led committee will have to take a call whether introducing wholesale changes will be a good idea.
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“The first thing is that to replace Virat Kohli is very difficult. We don’t have anyone right now of that quality and class,” said former India pace bowler Karsan Ghavri. “Lot of people say that KL Rahul can be a good future captain but I don’t think so. Some say R Ashwin can make a good captain, I don’t agree with that either. Rohit Sharma can be a very good captain in white ball cricket, and may be the best option in Tests too. Rishabh Pant is too inexperienced. (But) all these names that I gave just now, there is no match to Kohli’s aggression or his tactical acumen.”
There was pressure on Pujara and Rahane before going into the SA series. The two didn’t look out of form but couldn’t capitalize on occasions when they got a start. Pujara scored a 53 in the second Test and a 43 in the third, Rahane made 48 in the first Test and 58 in the second. In the final analysis it didn’t count for much as the team lost the series 2-1.
What makes it an even more difficult decision for the selectors is that they are dealing with the two most experienced players in the side – Pujara has played 95 Tests and Rahane 82. The selectors have to weigh in whether the team needs their influence at this stage of leadership change. Kohli’s decision to step down means a massive shake-up if the changes are carried out in the batting line-up as well.
Former India player, coach and selector Madan Lal said, “we don’t want wholesale changes, you don’t want to break the team, you have to make the team. You have to give a chance to one player at a time, groom him and so on. I don’t want to see many changes, but make sure you introduce the right people at the right time. Not that you change the whole middle-order and the team struggles.”
In any decision, Kohli’s form will have to be factored in as well. At the top of his game, he could have shouldered the extra responsibility and held the batting together, but he is far from the top of his game right now.
Change starts at home
The selectors will also look at the schedule while making the big decision. Knowing how challenging conditions are for batting in South Africa where the pitches not only offer pace and movement but can also have spongey bounce, they didn’t tinker with the batting line-up.
“But since we are playing the home series, there is nothing wrong in giving a break to Rahane and Pujara,” Ghavri said. “Give a chance to Hanuma Vihari and give a go to Shreyas Iyer. We need to keep the team ready for the future. Rahane and Pujara are not going to play for the next five years, we need to keep the players ready who can play for the next four-five years on the trot. Luckily for the next four to five months we are playing most of the cricket at home, it’s the best time to give players a chance to perform and establish themselves. Suryakumar Yadav is also there, get them ready.”
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One bridge during the transition from India’s previous generation to the next in the pace unit was Ishant Sharma. He was the constant between the Zaheer Khan led pace attack and the new bowling line that formed as Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami and then Jasprit Bumrah made their way into the team. Sharma is now a 105-Test veteran. Ghavri feels it is time to look beyond Sharma as well as Bhuvneshwar Kumar after his dismal returns in the ODIs.
“They have lost the bite, lost the swing,” he said. “It is time we develop new players and let them establish themselves.”
Madan Lal agreed: “Bhuvneshwar is not bowling well at all. They shouldn’t have played him.”
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