Rohit Sharma is the most successful IPL captain in history, with five trophies to his name. Anyone who follows his captaincy closely - outsiders like me and players who play under him - vouches that he is tactically astute and that there are few who read the game better than he does. He remains calm under pressure, marshals his troops with a sense of control, and makes the most radical changes to the flow of the game without making them look radical at all.
Captaincy consists of two equally important parts: one, the ability to read the game so that you are at least a couple of overs ahead of it (in white-ball cricket), and two, acknowledging your instincts and sticking with them when you're convinced. A good captain has no ego and is happy to take his leadership group on board for a lot of the decision-making but has the confidence to overrule them if he thinks otherwise.
Sharma ticks all these boxes, and while the Mumbai Indians' success is a lot about their auction strategy and talent-scouting, it is equally about his leadership both on and off the field.
If he is such a successful IPL captain, wouldn't it be natural to make him the captain of the Indian T20I team too? If players get picked for India in the shortest format on the basis of their performances in the IPL, why should it be different for the captain?
Just that it isn't the same thing - ever. And to be fair, it shouldn't be either, unless there's a captain who's failing with his playing skills in the format while leading the Indian T20I team.
After Mumbai's fifth IPL title, there was a clamour among some former cricketers to replace Virat Kohli with Sharma as captain in the shortest format. Their argument is that Kohli's record as a captain leading the Royal Challengers Bangalore is quite poor and that that should be enough to make the change for India too.
Sharma has won five titles and has won 60% of all his games as captain of the Mumbai Indians. On the other hand, Kohli's team has never won the IPL; and RCB have won just about 47% of their matches under his captaincy. The argument against Kohli is that since Sharma not only wins more games but also knows how to win knockout matches, he should be leading India into the next T20 World Cup.
Let's look more closely at Kohli's returns as captain and then at the merits of possibly making a change.
Kohli as an India captain in ODIs has won 72% of his games; in T20Is this figure is about 65%. If we were to further narrow it down in the shortest format, his win percentage goes up to 75% since the start of 2019 - 12 wins from 16 games.
To put things a little more in perspective, MS Dhoni is arguably India's most successful limited-overs captain, with a T20 World Cup, 50-over World Cup and a Champions Trophy title to his name - the only captain in the world to have all three. Dhoni's win percentage in T20Is and ODIs is about 60%. When you set Kohli's returns as an India captain alongside Dhoni's performance, you can't possibly punch holes in it.
"Would you drop proven international performers like Jasprit Bumrah or KL Rahul from the Indian T20I team if they had a poor IPL? The answer is an overwhelming no"
While some argue that bilateral cricket doesn't matter, others say Kohli's numbers are as good as they are only because India is such a strong team that captaincy does not have much impact on their win percentage. To answer both these reservations: since Kohli hasn't led in an ICC event in T20Is, we ought to look at his records in bilateral series only. And beating both New Zealand and England in their backyards must count for something. Also, the two ICC events in which he has led India, they have got to the final once and to the semi-final the other time. Those aren't poor results by any stretch of the imagination. As for the second point, if Kohli is a good captain with a good team under him when he leads India, perhaps it's the team at RCB that needs changing and not the captain.
Of course, winning the trophy is all that matters for a team of India's calibre, but let's remind ourselves that that is not easy for even the best captains. While Dhoni won the inaugural Word T20, he led in many more World Cups in the format but couldn't win the trophy again. Is that a slight on his captaincy skills? Not at all, for that is how it is at the highest level.
Going back to the argument about Kohli having a good team under him when he leads India, it's understandable if some of the blame for RCB's poor results is directed at him, but what does that have to do with his performance as India captain? Given his win percentage of 47, RCB might not want to continue with him as captain, but maybe they will have him stay on as captain anyway.
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It's important that we understand that we aren't stakeholders in franchise teams, which will always be run the way their bosses want them to be. They have every right to take the direction that suits their cause, and they are not obliged to share the reasons for their decisions with the public at large. If you don't like their ideas, stop following them. The India team is different, though. We are stakeholders when we follow India.
We, the fans of the sport and former cricketers and experts, ought to learn to separate the two - international and franchise cricket. Indian players must be judged on their performances -- whether captaincy or otherwise - for India alone. For example, would you drop proven international performers like Jasprit Bumrah or KL Rahul from the Indian T20I team if they had a poor IPL? The answer is an overwhelming no, because they have been outstanding for India in the T20I format, and that will supersede all franchise cricket.
Given that the captaincy role went to Kohli when Dhoni moved on, it's only fair that he get as long a run as his performances as India captain merit; his lack of IPL success must not come in the way of his chances of leading in his maiden ICC T20I event. The fact that when Kohli took over from Dhoni there was no ruckus about the appointment tells you that Sharma wasn't really in the contest for the job back then.
If Kohli goes on to win the next World T20 and more ICC trophies, it is possible that Sharma might never get a crack at the captaincy at the highest level. While that will be unfortunate, it will be a case of him being born in the wrong era. Amol Muzumdar scored tons of runs, and Rajinder Goel and Padmakar Shivalkar took truckloads of wickets, but all three never got a chance to play for India, unfortunately. And that was because India was blessed with the Fab Four batsmen in Muzumdar's time and Bishan Singh Bedi and other fine spinners in Goel's and Shivalkar's time.
As much as it's about being fair to Kohli (who has won 12 of his last 16 T20Is in charge), it's equally about being fair to Sharma. If and when the selectors decide to turn towards him to lead India in T20Is, they must give him enough time to build the team he wants to build. Rome wasn't built in a day, and nor were the Mumbai Indians, and the same will be true for Sharma's India team.