8 teams, 60 matches and 7 ‘Indian’ skippers (discounting Duminy and Miller) constituted the recently concluded 9th edition of the Indian Premier League. This featured 2 new teams, unfamiliar captains (Raina, Vijay), seasoned IPL leaders (Gambhir, Rohit, Dhoni), a motivational veteran (Zaheer Khan) and Indian cricket’s man of the moment - Virat Kohli captaining a powerful side. Right through pre-tournament previews till the beginning of the finals, Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH) wasn’t the most fancied team in the competition. The team was led by the only non-Indian skipper - David Warner, who didn’t have any prior experience of leading Australia. The middle order appeared fragile and injuries to experienced Indian international players (Nehra and Yuvraj) added to the perceptual woes.
Quietly and probably facilitated by the lack of attention, SRH managed to string in consistent wins and stay in the hunt for the title. The template of SRH was designed to ensure penetration with the new ball and control at the death, and not rely heavily on the batting. The playoffs summed up the story of SRH for the season - the trio of Warner, Mustafizur and Bhuvneshwar Kumar functioning as the lynchpin, while others standing up at crucial moments.
While Kohli hogged all the limelight for scoring 973 runs at an average 81, the applause for Warner’s tally of 848 runs at 61 was probably overshadowed by the appreciation of his leadership. SRH’s story in so many ways is reminiscent to that of Rajasthan Royals in 2008 and Deccan Chargers in 2009: an experienced Australian player with relatively less captaincy experience helming a successful campaign and leading from the front! While the jury is out on who was the best skipper in the tournament, the above pattern subtly invokes the good-old clichéd debate of whether a captain is as good as his team or his/her leadership skills make a team of individuals punch above their weight!
Ravi Shastri has been working closely with the Indian team management for most of the last 2 seasons and hence whatever he says commands attention. Just after the conclusion of IPL-2016, he voiced his preference for Virat Kohli leading India in all 3 formats and letting MS Dhoni enjoy his last few years without the additional burden. India hasn’t won a major title since 2013, despite finishing in the last 4 on two occasions. Dhoni-led Chennai Super Kings (CSK) lost the final of IPL-2015 and Rising Pune Supergiants (RPS) had a shoddy debut season under him. Kohli was anointed as the skipper of the test side in 2015, after Dhoni retired from the format and since then India has a win-loss record of 5-1 (not including the Adelaide test of December 2014 as Kohli was the temporary skipper then). Kohli became the skipper of Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) in 2013 and discounting a blip in 2014, RCB have had two top-4 finishes in the last 2 seasons.
2nd November 2008 is the last day when Dhoni played an international match under somebody else; this loosely infers to having spent more time leading teams since starting off than the other way! Given the kind of personality that he is you can never judge his thoughts/plans on face value. The Champions Trophy in 2017 is a year away and the 50-over World Cup roughly 3 years from now in 2019. The recent IPL season suggests that Dhoni still is India’s best bet as the keeper/batsman in the side. Wicketkeepers generally don’t have a shelf life as long as batsmen and hence you’d bank upon a 27-year old rather than a 34-year old as a long-term investment.
The other side of the story makes this apparently linear problem slightly complex. Sachin Tendulkar didn’t have an illustrious stint as the skipper of India, but when he stepped aside he indicated about poor string of results affecting his form as batsman. Kohli is by some distance India’s best batsman at the moment, and by making him a 12-month skipper could be jeopardising form. Test cricket tends to keep a check on moments of adrenaline rush as the final goal is always a long distance away. Limited overs cricket tends to bring such reactions to the surface and can have a negative impact on the fielding sides; needless to say who among the two (Dhoni and Kohli) is the non-preferred choice in this regard.
India has plenty of bilateral tournaments in the next 10 months, predominantly featuring test cricket. We have seen Virat Kohli the batsman be tested across conditions but haven’t seen much of Virat Kohli the Indian skipper yet. Perhaps by the time the 2016-17 season ends we might an answer or a definitive clue on who would be leading India for the 2019 World Cup. Until then we might resume to the argument on the influence captains have in the final outcome!