Watching Rohit run the Mumbai Indians from the middle wicket should have been a ticketed event. The Jio Cinema Bird Eye camera, which flew around the arena like a drone, captured his bare soul like never before. Riding a weak bowling lineup that seemed to lack experience and skill, Rohit found himself in a tough spot.
He tried to dig deep to bring in some ideas; at times he sighed and lowered his head to his knees. Often he would turn away from the bowler, stare into the distance, and scratch his perpetual 7-day stubble. But Rohit never gave up; he shrugged his shoulders with worry and went to the bowler with advice and suggestions. It was a thrilling sight. It also opened a portal into what was probably one of the most difficult periods of his captaincy, especially when combined with his unsuccessful outings on the field.
Now that he is leading India’s campaign at the World Test Championship and then the ODI World Cup, his captaincy days are extremely important. Things are shaping up pretty delicately. A disappointing WTC final could tip the cart against him and increase the pressure on the ODI World Cup. In the world of Indian cricket, nothing is what it seems – that cliché remains forever fresh, and as hard as it may be for some to imagine that he is under pressure as captain, the truth is that he is.
And even more than him, Rahul Dravid as coach is probably already in hot water. Rohit’s fate is understandably, albeit harshly, tied to Dravid’s yoke. If they lose in the coming months, the whispers against one of them, or perhaps both, will grow louder. As team leadership, will Rohit and Dravid be seen as one; or will the powers that be take sides?
When he became captain of the Indians and Dravid became coach, it was expected that he would do the same thing he did with the Mumbai Indians: pick up the team, instill confidence in the youth, eliminate uncertainty in new players and, even more so, that old ones like Rahane and Pujara would have their own vision for the style of play.
Surprisingly, team selection before the T20 World Cup was not accurate. Kohli’s spark of genius in two balls from Pakistani pacer Haris Rauf sparked a nationalistic surge of hope, but it was an unhealthy campaign. The problems were many. Uniformity at the top of the batting order, inexplicable faith in death-over specialist Harshal Patel in alien conditions, lack of confidence in Mohammadu Shami, the injury to Jasprit Bamra, the failure to replace Aksar Patel with the attacking adventure of lego spinner Yuzvendra Chahal, the failure to find a clear role for Rishabh Pant.
Not many risks were taken by the leadership of this team. It was clothed in the form of consistency in team selection, but it’s only a flimsy cover. Deepak Hooda hovered at the top for a while, and when he scored a hundred, he was pushed down.
Exit neon lights flashed on Pujara and Rahane’s fate before the board and selectors stepped in. First Pujara got a chance at life, now Rahane. Pujara made a career out of fending off insecurities about his place, the number of strikes, and his focus on results. Rahane has yet to do as well as Pujara, but not many do. According to most neutral observers, Vriddhiman Saha could have easily entered the WTC as the second wicket, but in the past the door before him was so firmly closed that even outside forces were unwilling to open it.
How much credit to Dravid, how much credit to Rohit – the world may not know, since they are a hyphenated pair in the perception struggle.
MI is harder to manage than CSK
Rohit led the team to an unforgettable but hardly surprising triumph against Australia on home field. Then the IPL happened.
As unstable as his batting form was and his bowling attack weak, Rohit, captain of the IPL, came to the fore again. Taking this team to the qualifiers was an achievement. Much has been said about how Chennai Super Kings have managed their resources well, and they certainly have, but this was a much better team than Mumbai.
Dhoni’s marvelous MC led to a great game.But they had the necessary skills for him to do what he does. Pacer Tushar Deshpande could swing the ball very well, Matish Patiran’s sling was raw but uniquely powerful, and so on and so forth. Rohit had people who couldn’t even come close to boasting that kind of potential and skill, and that was reflected in the number of goals conceded. But he was able to hold his head up and keep the team afloat.
Writer Adam Gopnik once remarked: The experience of a charismatic mentor transforms us…from citizens to subjects, people who for a time have the illusion that they are privileged, members of the court. At this point in his life, Dhoni had such an impact on his young comradesThe teammates, who were willing to prove themselves in the shadow of their charismatic leader.
Rohit is at the point in his captaincy where he appears thoughtful, deliberate, aware of what a leader can do, sensitive to the needs of youth, shrewd in his planning, a firm believer in preparation and yet trusting his instincts on the field. The time has come when the vision he displays in the IPL must be mirrored in India, the courage he displays in the IPL must be accompanied by calculated risk-taking in India – does he have the sense of ownership he displays with Mumbai Indians in India? That’s where Dravid should help him and give him that space.
His strategy on the field has always been very good. Four years ago, when he won his fourth IPL crown in his seventh year as captain, Rohit carefully planned the fall of Andre Russell. Nobody has tried short body shots from behind the wicket… Lasith Malinga never goes behind the wicket and when he does, his arm is out of the pitch, Rohit shared with Mumbai Mirror. We thought about all that. It took Malinga out of his comfort zone and the tactic worked. In the game against CSK, he fielded off-spinner Jayant Yadav specifically for Suresh Raina. That one was ready to go, even if it was just one over. Rohit – the IPL captain – takes such a calculated risk.
It was Ricky Ponting in 2013 with the Mumbai Indians team that pushed him to need to plan. Rohit recounted how Ponting told him, Here’s what I did, it worked for me, try it for you, too, or if you want to do something else, we can do it. I realized it helped my game, too. My batting game was improving. It wasn’t just helping the bowlers, for me it was about understanding the game. I learned so much about the game through planning. It really helped my game.
He sweated a lot during that pre-match planning, but on the field the decision to give overs to bowlers is made instinctively. The flow of the game decides for him. In this IPL, he tried his best to stop the flow of the run, often giving his bowlers just one over, swapping them around, trying his best to create a problem. In the end, given the limitations, it was a decent finish. He should do it again in India.
Even his batting was dictated by Rohit-Captain, though one could argue whether that was wise. Knowing that his team has hitters lower in rank and in uniformme, he almost obsessively tried to set an example at the top, acting aggressively. His frequent gatherings on the lanes to the seamstresses were unreasonable and ineffective, but he did not change his approach. One could argue that had he not been captain, he would have batted differently. Be that as it may, India don’t need Rohit as a T20 batsman, and nothing in the IPL indicated that his batting had become so pear-shaped that it might affect his Test play. It will.
Australia at WTC is an opportunity for Rohit. It will all depend on how he takes it internally. At Mumbai Indians, his captaincy has blossomed because he has never approached it from a pressure position. He never had to do that because he was positive all the time as a result. Now, in India, he came from a different place. He’s not as firmly in the saddle as he is when he plays for a franchise. India needs Rohit to repeat his captaincy in the IPL; so does he.