On Wednesday, Paarl witnessed one of the weirdest days in Indian cricket history. It was the official passing of the baton – the first time since 2014 that Virat Kohli stepped onto the playing field without a leadership role in any format. 2016 was the last time when he didn’t lead India in any white-ball format either. Clearly, this was a day of change, the proverbial changing of the guard, and the end of an era as well as the starting point of another.
Only, it didn’t feel so. There was a distinct lack of energy as the Men in Blue took the field after losing the toss. When Kohli was captain, he was always in the mix for obvious reasons – marshalling his troops, making fielding changes, talking to bowlers, manning the circle, just talking up and so on. Three overs went by – it was eerily quiet. By the fourth over, you started to miss that infectious energy already.
It wasn’t before the 12th over that Kohli was actually spotted on-screen as the ball went to him directly. South Africa had already made a fine start by then. Were the two events related? Perhaps, or perhaps not – India has had a long-standing problem of not taking early wickets. It has impacted their ability to force breakthroughs in the middle overs as well. Would captain Kohli have rallied his troops better than stand-in captain KL Rahul? Maybe. It is tough to say.
This brings us to the changes that have taken place or were supposed to have taken place. Whenever there is a regime change, a new captain comes in, a new coaching structure is put in place, and the fans get to see something different on the field. Kohli’s demotion, Dravid coming onto the scene, Rohit Sharma anointed white-ball captain and Rahul his deputy, all of this ought to have brought some meaningful change-about from the last time India played white-ball cricket.
And yet, there was this lingering feeling that the changeover wasn’t complete yet. Kohli stepping down was not the end-point of this process; instead, it was just the start. Dravid taking over the coaching reigns alone cannot bring about discernable change, and Rahul leading in this series seems like the bus has stopped at only the mid-point in this journey. If India missed Kohli’s infectious leadership energy, they also missed purpose on the field. In that, they missed Rohit more than anything else.
It could have been a scene out of some mega-hit sitcom. When one of the main characters steps back into a side role, you need the next lead actor to step up. Indian cricket needed its new captain to arrive on the scene with a bang, take the game with the scruff of its neck and inject new purpose into the unit regarding what they want to achieve over the next 18 months. Instead, we will have to wait for that episode to come through in this saga, as Rohit’s injury layoff has meant that this captaincy transition will take longer than anticipated.
It puts into sharp focus the “two Rahuls”. Rohit’s absence cannot be an excuse, for Indian cricket is a behemoth. It is such a big wheel that even an important cog’s unavailability cannot impede its run. Stand-in skipper KL Rahul and coach Rahul Dravid are now part of the think-tank, whether Rohit is available or not, and their presence alone should warrant continuity or a similar form-factor. In that aspect at least, they were found wanting.
At this juncture, let us forget the external variables and examine what transpired in the game. Never mind Kohli’s infectious energy, for Rahul is a different, quieter player. Whenever afforded the chance, he would lead in a different manner for the captain’s demeanour rubs off on the team. But, herein comes the obvious question. What was he even thinking? From team selection to executing strategies on the field, there was a sharp disconnect from the past.
Sure, there can be a warranted explanation for this. Kohli, Rohit and Rahul were all in England when India last played ODI cricket in Sri Lanka. Ishan Kishan and Suryakumar Yadav were part of those teams and even if those matches were trial runs for the 2021 T20 World Cup, the duo showed enough mettle to be in contention for the future. SKY, in particular, was chosen to marshal the middle-order in Hardik Pandya’s absence, specifically if India played only five bowlers.
This, perhaps, was the weirdest aspect of India’s outing in Paarl. Venkatesh Iyer was handed an ODI debut, and the explanation given was experimentation with a prospective all-round player. Yet, he was not afforded a single over. Did he suddenly become not good enough to bowl on a slower wicket? Did the stand-in captain forget Iyer was on the field, even when Temba Bavuma and Rassie van der Dussen were piling on the runs?
— BCCI (@BCCI) January 19, 2022
Aiden Markram was dismissed in the 18th over. The next wicket fell in the 49th over. For 31 overs, as Yuzvendra Chahal struggled to make an impact, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Shardul Thakur were taken for runs, even as Jasprit Bumrah failed to provide any wickets, India didn’t exercise their sixth bowling option despite Iyer’s availability. Add to it the fact that they deliberately weakened their middle order by benching SKY, and it amounted to hara-kiri.
India’s top-order scoring runs thereafter seemed par for course. The more things change, the more they stay the same, often said. Kohli and Shikhar Dhawan scoring runs and providing a platform for the chase was as obvious as the sun rising. It was also obvious that India’s success would depend on what happened thereafter. Would Kohli or Dhawan complete the chase, or would it come down to India’s unreliable middle order?
It came down to the latter, and the outcome – on a slow pitch – was sealed. India’s middle-order problems date back to 2017, when the world was still a normal place. The way things are going there is every chance of the COVID-19 pandemic ending before India finds a viable middle-order solution? Shreyas Iyer at number five? Rishabh Pant at four? Left-right-left-right, when the situation demands stability? No finisher, a debutant playing ahead of SKY? Was there any surprise India lost this game? They were never in it to begin with, and especially after the Proteas put 296 on the board.
In summation then, South Africa deserve full credit for the win as they have now outplayed the visitors for three weeks straight. But if India – under Rahul Dravid and Rohit Sharma, whenever he is fully fit – wants to turn around its white-ball fortunes, there is a whole lot of work needing to be done.
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