Captaincy never seemed to shrink Virat Kohli, rather he had grown with it. Through largely good times, and the intermittent bad, leading a team never seemed to burden him. Shades of silver did intrude into his once jet-black tidily-trimmed beard. But captaincy, if his on-field passion was a reflection, if the chosen words in press conferences were to hold a mirror, dwelled comfortably on him.
For him it seemed an instinct than duty, predestined the moment he broke into the first-class cricket—and he could show a proud record to the team of doubters, even if ICC silverwares eluded him, the caveat that arguably ended in Rohit Sharma displacing him as the white-ball captain.
But it was inevitable that while being a leader, lead batsman, talisman and an ambassador of the game, something had to give, one day. It was white-ball captaincy in the end, and though he would miss it undoubtedly, it might be the small price he might have to pay for reviving his anomalous batting form. To restore the gold standards he had set for himself, he had to sacrifice something or the other, and forsaking T20 captaincy was the first step towards the pursuit of batting absolution. And now comes his removal as ODI-captain.
In that sense, the relieving of captaincy duties could unburden him, and liberate the batting colossus in him. It’s what his team wants. It’s not that captaincy might have impacted his batting. In the early to middle stages of his tenure, the extra responsibility has only uplifted his batting. But it has reached a stage where the team needs Kohli the batsman rather than Kohli the captain.
For, Kohli the batsman was an irresistible force, and he is no longer invulnerable. The century-guzzling virtuoso has gone century-less for two and a half years, for 57 innings. From the start of 2020, he has averaged 26.04 in Tests—a ghastly number for someone of his calibre, and it has stretched beyond a phase of aberration and bloated into a genuine worry. Though his corresponding numbers in ODI and T20Is inhabited the upper reaches of 40 (46 in ODIs and 49 in T20). So, in essence, captaincy had little adverse bearing on his form in white-ball cricket. So, his removal should be seen as the quest to rediscover a batting phenomenon rather than firing a struggling captain. It could, in turn, channelise his collective energy into Test cricket.
There have been abundant instances of cricketers rekindling their old form after shedding captaincy roles. For instance, Sachin Tendulkar, for whom captaincy seemed an unbudging millstone around his neck. Twice, he assumed captaincy, and though he sustained his high batting standards, his level of batting scaled a few notches after he was freed of the captaincy chores. His stature was that he could have continued leading his side, but there came a time when it became a burden, which could have insidiously crept into his batting.
So had other peers of the vaunted fab four. Sourav Ganguly, who like Kohli had a preternatural disposition to be a fine leader of men, enjoyed a second wind after he was controversially dislodged as captain. Some of his finest Test knocks arrived in his post-captaincy days. Rahul Dravid, despite winning series in West Indies and England, quit captaincy so that he could focus entirely on his batting and thereby prolong his career. So had Brian Lara.
It’s the first, and the most natural, measure captains tread when their form with the primary vocation diminishes. They would seek to leave behind leadership cares and float in their batting bubble. If Joe Root fails to pile a mountain of runs in this Ashes, he too would be deliberate on relinquishing captaincy. So might Kane Williamson and Babar Azam, should a similar fate befall them. Because, preeminently, they are high-class batsmen, and their batting should not be clutched by additional responsibilities. Batting itself is a tough art, so is managing men. When you combine both, even the best of both worlds tend to suffocate.
One has to consider the age of Kohli as well as the peculiar age he lives in. He is 33, and though supremely fit, entering the last stage of his career and when workload management starts to wink in. “I felt this was the right time to manage my workload. It’s been six or seven years of heavy workload and there is a lot of pressure,” he had said while announcing his decision to part ways with T20 captaincy.
It’s even more a concern in these times of bio-bubble and sequestered existence, where there is no life beyond the stadium and hotel. Even the best of them would feel mentally knackered, and stale. So, he should be let to focus on what he does best, not sacrificing strength. Maybe, a better captain could be made. Rohit Sharma is a proven captain himself. Even if he stutters at times, there is experience of his colleagues and coach Rahul Dravid, beside the expertise of the backroom staff, to lean on. Lack of leadership can be papered over, but not the lack of quality batsmanship.
The juncture Indian cricket finds itself is that it needs Kohli the batsman more than ever before. Some of his trusted colleagues are plateauing, the country’s middle-order no longer as stable as it once was. It needs him to crackle those condition-defying centuries in Tests, shepherd those odd-defying chases in ODIs, and be the ruthless controller of T20 games. To be well and truly the best batsman in the world, as he was ordained to be. To scale the peaks that are waiting to be scaled; to break the records that are waiting to be broken. Kohli the captain was enjoyable, but Kohli the batsman is just more enjoyable.