A year that should have ended with Indian cricket celebrating the feats of the Gabba and Lord’s and potentially Centurion, has turned into a mess no one saw coming, writes Sarah Waris.
It was ‘South Africa 2018’ that started India’s journey to becoming the best Test team in the world. With an extensive focus on grooming fast bowlers and increasing the fitness levels of players in the squad, the duo of Ravi Shastri and Virat Kohli were often called pompous for stating their lofty desire. India had never really been the best red-ball team in all conditions, never been a side that could rely on the quicks, but the management flew down to South Africa four years ago with a plan.
Though they went on to lose the series 1-2, their 63-run win at Johannesburg on a tough wicket was a precursor for things to come. Four years hence, the Indian team, with conquests galore, are all set to fly to the Rainbow Nation to complete their ‘Mission World Domination’ in a bid to finish writing a chapter few expected them to see out at the outset.
Only, this chapter contains an additional few pages, pages an average reader would want to burn for the distraction they have caused just as the climax is round the corner.
Unnecessary plot deviations ft. BCCI
It all began with question marks over Kohli’s future as India captain following Mumbai Indians’ fifth IPL title, all won under Rohit Sharma’s captaincy, last year. Kohli, who led RCB from 2013 until the end of the 2021 season, had failed to emulate the same success in the competition, and Rohit’s rise, in the same duration, further increased the pressure on him. Kohli’s inability to win India an ICC trophy also did him no favours.
The flame was doused by BCCI Secretary Jay Shah in September, just ahead of the T20 World Cup, as he stood behind Kohli. “There is no such proposal and the team is led by Virat and we are backing him,” he had said in an interview. The skipper, though, tendered his resignation from T20Is ahead of the tournament, and Shah left us wondering by saying, “I have been in discussions with Virat and the leadership team for the last six months and the decision has been thought through.” Kohli, however, was to stay on as the ODI skipper, making his intention of leading India in the 2023 World Cup at home, clear.
A BCCI official later added that Kohli’s decision to step down was not voluntary, with the board increasing the pressure on him for his failure to win an ICC event, something that Kohli hinted at in his press conference on Wednesday. BCCI President Sourav Ganguly later clarified that the decision was Kohli’s own after he “personally requested” him to not give up the T20 role. However, Kohli later contradicted Ganguly, saying, “There was no prior communication with me at all since I announced the T20I captaincy decision up until December 8.”
Let’s skip to that fateful day, when a much-anticipated squad release for the Test series against South Africa escalated into a murky saga that seems to have no end in sight anytime soon. As we scrolled down the 18-member list of players who would tour South Africa, an almost out-of-place sentence made the cut. “The All-India Senior Selection Committee also decided to name Mr. Rohit Sharma as the Captain of the ODI & T20I teams going forward.” Hours after the bomb was dropped, a rather unsavoury report in the PTI suggested that the board had offered a 48-hour deadline to Kohli to step down as the white-ball skipper, or else he would have had to face the axe. In short, walk or be sacked. With Kohli not resigning, the BCCI made their authority known, removing the captain with a one-liner as anger prevailed over the treatment of the board towards their star player.
The news of Kohli being sacked — considered rumours — were indeed true, with Kohli later verifying, “The chief selector discussed with me the Test team to which we both agreed, and before ending the call I was told that the five selectors had decided that I would not be the ODI captain, to which I replied: “Ok, fine”.” There were no press conferences to tell us why, no courtesy ‘thank yous’ and ‘welcomes’ as one of India’s most successful ODI skippers was asked to walk away silently.
Sources suggest that Ganguly was not in the know of what was going on, but a head-scratching remark from him later hinted otherwise. “A good team doesn’t have too many leaders. That’s probably the reason (for Kohli’s ouster) and that’s what it is.” Was the big step taken without him being in the loop, just like Shah had stated that a proposal to change captains wasn’t on the cards back in September?
Go back to 2019 for further clarity. During the World Cup in England, reports emerged of a rift between Rohit and Kohli, when the former was left seething after the lack of a reliable No.4 in the side. It had contributed to India’s ouster from the event, and Rohit, who had scored 648 runs, felt let down by the support group for the failure to solve India’s woes ahead of the tournament.
The recent captaincy shuffle further elevates those rumours of a rift. Kohli has strongly denied any rift exists, but its only because of the murky picture that he has had to do so.
Back to the happenings of the last 48 hours. Rohit has been ruled out of the Test series due to a hamstring injury, or a hand injury depending who you ask, a piece of news that had already been confirmed by journalists almost an hour before the BCCI confirmed the same. Some of these journalists say, with an almost-suspicious certainty, that Rohit’s injury will take three weeks to heal, and that he should return for the ODIs. Others suggested that Kohli might opt out from the ODIs that follow to celebrate the first birthday of his daughter, which falls on January 11. However, that date falls in the third Test match, set to be Kohli’s 100th in the format. The timing of the two incidents is only a fodder for innocent minds.
BCCI treasurer Arun Dhumal went on Times Now to state that Kohli would not be going to South Africa for the ODIs, but the player stated he had not made such claims. “I am available for selection and I was always keen to play. These questions should be asked to the people writing about this and writing lies and not to me because my communication with BCCI has not happened that I want to rest.”
It only causes us to wonder if there indeed is any communication at all in Indian cricket, including between members of the board who come up with conflicting statements almost within hours of each other.
We will never know, and we won’t be told either. The truth is that Indian cricket is at a low point off the field. A win in South Africa that will successfully complete a memorable Test cycle might fool you into thinking otherwise, but the cracks are apparent, with news of rifts between star players, contradictions, and murmurs in the air. With a panel of administrators who prefer remaining hush than clearing the air, leaking unreliable news to sources rather than fronting up and providing clarity, rumour mills will not stop anytime soon as the sport takes a beating in a year where the unprecedented Test successes should have been celebrated instead.