Ever since the 2007 T20 World Cup that saw MS Dhoni lead a young side to victory, India have had no worries regarding leadership. There was a brief phase in the middle when India were struggling in the longer version of the game and the selectors were said to be contemplating a change in guard, but in retrospect it is clear that that would have been a calamitous mistake.
The Indian team needed a leader like Dhoni after the debacle of the 2007 ODI World Cup where India were evicted from the group stages. He was young, he had cemented his place in his side, he had a good cricketing mind and there was an aura of self-belief about him.
Six years on, MS Dhoni has achieved a lot in the game and his time is still not done. He will lead India in the 2015 World Cup if all goes to plan, but it is about time India starts thinking about grooming the next leader.
Till a few months ago Gautam Gambhir would have been the next in line, but the steep decline in his form has meant that he has lost his place in the side. Moreover, his performance as a leader in the latest edition of the Indian Premier League was embarrassing. He is too expressive with his emotions and vulnerable to losing his cool, which are both strong deterrents to a long and successful reign as Indian captain given the kind of influence the sport has on fans in India.
Instead, the Indian selectors would want to replicate the model, as closely as they can, which they developed with Dhoni at the helm.
Virat Kohli has been chosen for the job, and he is currently captaining the side in the West Indies as Dhoni was ruled out of the series after suffering an injury in the first game against the West Indies. Kohli was in charge of the team when West Indies chased down India’s total in the same game and captained the side full-time in the huge loss against Sri Lanka.
Two consecutive defeats are no indication of the leadership potential that he has but it might say something about the fact that he was perhaps caught on the wrong foot by the sudden responsibility. It was only a week ago that he was dancing Gangnam-style after winning the Champions Trophy in a gesture that prominently brought out the child in him. This is not to say that he is naive and not ready, but perhaps the process of nurturing has only just begun.
The fact that Virat Kohli has been India’s most consistent batsman in the last year and a half augurs well for this process. He has established himself in the side at a very young age, he has prior experience of leading the Indian side at the U-19 level and has a good cricketing brain as we witnessed at the Indian Premier League when he led the Royal Challengers Bangalore.
Kohli has the potential to check a very important box as he can lead from the front with his bat, and while nothing is as good as a wicket-keeper-captain who is in the visual all the time, a top-order batsman can make a big impact on the morale of the team.
Kohli spoke about the possibility of captaining India last year when he was having a dream run with the bat. He said, “I am not thinking about it (captaincy) right now. If and when it comes, I’ll be ready for it. As of now, I’d rather concentrate on my game. I love playing under pressure. In fact, if there’s no pressure then I’m not in the perfect zone. Frankly, I love taking responsibility. It brings out the best in me.”
He had asked for the pressure, and he has a lot of that on his plate right now.
The two defeats will pull Kohli out of any feeling of complacency that he may have harboured lately. The same set of players that looked like world-beaters a week ago can crumble under the absence of leadership. Kohli must revisit some of the things he did at the U-19 World Cup, and while that was a totally different platform and nothing like international cricket, he can bring back the attitude of authority that he had at the event.
When a bowler is being given a hiding he often looks towards his leader, and Kohli must come up with the body language that suggests composure and encouragement. The fact that MS Dhoni is still present in that dressing room can be a double-edged sword. Dhoni will help him make the plans off the field and he can share his experience, but neither of that must deter Kohli from taking charge of the boys on the field.
An argument will often be raised about Kohli’s vulnerability to exhibiting emotions on the field but, in this author’s opinion, the 24-year-old has never crossed the line. While he might not be the ice-cool campaigner that Dhoni is, he has the potential to become a great leader in the mould of a Ricky Ponting or a Sourav Ganguly.
He has that enthusiasm for the game, the same appetite for success and importantly, he has time on his side. With MS Dhoni leading the side for another two years, he can learn the tricks of the trade and bulk up his batting resume so he can answer the call when it comes for real.