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Should KL Rahul be India’s next long-term white ball captain?

by Divy Tripathi 5 minute read

With Virat Kohli stepping down as India’s T20I captain, there is plenty of speculation about who will succeed him as the captain of the national side. Divy Tripathi looks into the ups and downs of KL Rahul becoming India’s next long-term limited overs captain.

A major turn in KL Rahul’s career after 2018, which saw him struggle on three successive tours to South Africa, England and Australia, was his appointment as the Kings XI Punjab (now Punjab Kings) skipper in December 2019.

Despite his poor form in Tests and ODIs during that period, his appointment was based on the success he had as a Punjab Kings player in the 2018 and 2019 IPL seasons. Anil Kumble, the Punjab Kings head coach, said at the time, “In the last two years that he has been a part of Kings XI, he has been the best performer for us. He commands the respect of the rest of the players…And I felt, not just from a Kings XI perspective, but from KL Rahul’s individual growth as well, this is the right time for him to take up this leadership position, because I feel that this role will help him grow as a person… grow as a leader.”

Since 2019, KL Rahul has shown considerable improvement across formats with the bat, the latest example of which was his exceptional performance in swinging conditions in England. But besides that he has also taken up any challenge that has come his way. He has shuffled up and down the order through his ODI career (nearly half of his innings in ODI cricket are as an opener, while the rest are in the middle order), has taken up gloves when asked to and curbed down on his natural instincts to serve the needs of the side.

Considering his improving returns as a batsman as well as his evolution as a team player, giving the India leadership to KL Rahul might seem like a tempting idea.

The team management has immense faith in his abilities as a player. Remember, he was backed to the hilt in 2018 and 2019 during a period of poor form and was even taken to the West Indies tour before finally being axed from the side. KL Rahul’s skills as a batsman in the limited overs format are well-known, and the management have always tried to find ways to fit the batsman into the playing XI.

Another factor is his age and experience. He has leadership experience with Punjab Kings and, at the age of 29, could serve India for a while if appointed as skipper. He has also shown that he is of a flexible mind, looking to bat through the innings on a number of occasions to best serve his team.

But then the question of age brings up another query. Kohli has clearly stated that he would continue to lead in ODIs, and after the T20 World Cup, there will be a clamour Rohit Sharma, who has had immense success as Mumbai Indians captain, to lead the side. If both these scenarios transpire, then it’s plausible that KL Rahul might only get a shot at becoming India’s long-term white-ball skipper in his early 30s. All of a sudden, he would look like another stop-gap, rather than a player who could lead for half a decade or more.

Then, there might be better options among younger players such as Shreyas Iyer and Rishabh Pant. Another factor that goes against Rahul’s candidature is his record as a captain. While Punjab Kings aren’t the strongest team in the competition, they also haven’t used their resources to the best of their capabilities.

In the 2020 IPL, the line-up couldn’t quite settle itself because of too many changes. Some players were discarded only after a few games, with Karun Nair earning a run of only four games, and K Gowtham just two. This season, they have gone the other way continuing with the likes of Nicholas Pooran and Deepak Hooda, who might have done well with a break.

Rahul himself has decided to play the role of the sheet anchor for the team. However, he seems to have misread the conditions and batted too slowly on occasions. This was evident in an arguably match-losing 54-ball 69 on a flat deck against Rajasthan Royals in IPL 2020. Responsibility has not always seemed to bring out the best in his batting.

His prospects are also threatened by performances of some of his rivals. Shreyas Iyer took over Delhi Capitals, who were underperforming despite possessing a talented pool of players, and turned them into a strong force in the IPL. Rishabh Pant also has favourable results as DC captain this season.

Rahul is appealing in many ways as an India captaincy option. He’s mature, sure of his place in the side, and has plenty of experience behind him. But there’s no perfect candidate. All he can do is perform with the bat in the next few months and displays an improvement as captain in the UAE leg of the IPL 2021, and hope he outranks the other choices.

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