KL Rahul is one lucky cricketer. He had dropped out as a Test opener after a string of failures in England and Australia. In August last year, he was only a third choice to be Rohit Sharma’s partner on the England tour. Then Shubman Gill got injured, and his replacement, Mayank Agarwal, suffered a concussion during net practice on the eve of the first Test. In came Rahul, made a fifty and a century, and ended up being the second-highest run-getter in the squad after Sharma.
Just five months later, he has already led India in a Test match in South Africa, and finds himself at the helm in the ODI series starting today, 19 January, as Sharma is absent with a hamstring injury. Now, with Virat Kohli relinquishing the Test captaincy on top of being removed as ODI captain and giving up the T20 captaincy, Rahul is the likely candidate for vice-captain in all three formats for India under Rohit Sharma. And given the recurring knee and hamstring injuries sidelining Sharma, who turns 35 in April, we’re looking at Rahul as the future long-term captain of India.
Undoubtedly, Rahul has become India’s main run-getter along with Sharma, as Kohli struggles to emerge from a prolonged slump with the bat. Rahul’s match-winning century in the first Test in South Africa, followed by a fifty in the next Test as captain, was as much a testimony to his mental strength as his eye-catching batsmanship because it required admirable patience to ride out the Proteas’ new ball attack in their backyard. That does make him a tempting prospect as captain.
But not all good batsmen make good captains, as Sachin Tendulkar’s record shows. Rahul has in fact had a very poor run as captain so far. Punjab Kings ended up near the bottom of the table two years running in the Indian Premier League (IPL) after Rahul took charge in the 2020 season. He won only 11 out of the 27 games he captained, despite continuing to be a prolific scorer at the top of the order along with his Karnataka mate, Mayank Agarwal. Frequent shifts in the playing eleven and batting order unsettled the team. In this, he was similar to Kohli, who lost more games than he won for Royal Challengers Bangalore.
The IPL is a good yardstick for measuring every aspect of limited overs cricket because all the teams are well-matched with strong lineups of international players. Rohit Sharma has the best captaincy record with five titles for Mumbai Indians. It’s this showcasing of his leadership in the IPL, along with his success as a Test opener overseas last year, that prompted the administrators to move on from the Kohli era after India’s failures in the T20 World Cup and the Test series in South Africa.
Interestingly, the man who made Sharma the captain of Mumbai Indians in 2013—former Australia captain Ricky Ponting—picked another winner last year, in his capacity as coach of Delhi Capitals, when he asked young Rishabh Pant to take over the captaincy from the injured Shreyas Iyer. Pant did so well that he continued as captain even after the return of Iyer in the second leg of the interrupted season. Delhi Capitals topped the league table, but a couple of wrong decisions under pressure in the playoffs denied Pant the chance to become the youngest captain to win the IPL. Nevertheless, he lost only six games out of 16 as captain, giving him almost exactly the same win ratio as the IPL’s two most successful captains, Rohit Sharma and MS Dhoni.
As a batsman, Pant has let himself down time and again with reckless shots, although his wicket-keeping has improved by leaps and bounds. The selectors probably don’t quite know what to expect from him. So they went with the ‘safe’ choice of Rahul as vice-captain for the South Africa tour, when incumbent vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane’s place in the Test playing 11 became questionable and Kohli was relieved of the ODI captaincy.
But Pant has shown what he can do when he defends stoutly and picks his shots judiciously. His 89 not out in Brisbane early last year to take India to their greatest Test victory, and the unbeaten century in the last innings of the final Test in South Africa last week, indicate that he doesn’t shy away from responsibility. This is especially true when the situation demands a calculated approach with higher odds of success. Captaincy of Delhi Capitals also brought out that responsible, mature side of his game and persona. If he continues to do much better than Rahul as an IPL captain, his case for being the future captain of India in all formats will keep getting stronger.
The ODI series in South Africa is therefore an important marker for Rahul to show better results as a captain. His debut as Test captain in Johannesburg ended in failure. He can perhaps be excused for probably not having much of a say in the choice of playing 11 as Kohli withdrew with a back spasm at the 11th hour. But he did fail to maintain pressure on South Africa in the last innings as the home team got to a target of 240 comfortably on a dicey wicket. Too many easy runs were on offer. And he didn’t do himself a favour by joining Kohli in an unseemly stump mic attack on the host broadcaster after a dubious DRS LBW overturn in the last Test. Earlier, he was suspended and sent back from Australia with Hardik Pandya after participating in a prurient and sexist conversation on a TV show.
So the selectors’ choice of the ‘future captain’ of India will be well and truly under the scanner in the ODI show starting today. Whether he delivers results or not could influence the choice of vice-captain going forward.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.