The current India side is too dependent on key individuals and need more options if they are to win in England next summer
Virat Kohli and India must find more squad depth for a successful World Cup 2019 challenge
A criticism Virat Kohli faces as India’s cricket captain is that he hardly leads the same side out two games in a row.
As the most crucial member of the team management that also includes the head coach and vice-captain, it is the captain’s prerogative to decide the playing XI.
But with Kohli in charge, it is anyone’s guess as to who makes the XI ahead of any given game – irrespective of the format.
This is not to say his proclivity to chop and change is the act of a madman without a method.
Kohli believes in picking horses for courses. Just as crucially, he is determined to manage player workload given the amount of cricket being played year on year.
His captaincy record suggests it is working: India have won 21 of the 35 Tests and 39 of the 51 one-day internationals he has led them in.
India have triumphed in eight consecutive Test series and stayed unbeaten in a national record 19 matches.
They have enjoyed an unprecedented run of seven consecutive bilateral ODI series victories, which came an end in England last week. And the 29-year-old batsman has equalled the consecutive ODI match win record – nine – set by predecessors MS Dhoni and Rahul Dravid.
Yet, with the 50-over ODI World Cup less than a year away, Kohli's selection policy is beginning to fray around the edges.
India’s limited-overs success has been predicated on two simple formulas: one, scoring quick runs – and big runs – by a top order comprising Shikhar Dhawan, vice-captain Rohit Sharma and Kohli himself; and two, bowling aggressively with the intention to take wickets by an attack that includes seamers Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah, and wrist spinners Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal.
However, the problem is India have become excessively reliant on these individuals, with few others contributing consistently towards the team’s cause beyond the occasional cameo.
When the big names flop, like they did during the ODI series against England, India lose.
For this, the blame lies squarely with Tinkerman Kohli.
If he can take credit for dropping the experienced spin duo of Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja in favour of Kuldeep and Chahal, he must be held responsible for leaving several players – particularly batsmen – terribly unsettled. It is why India have such a weak middle order.
One player whose selection remains a mystery is Lokesh Rahul.
The fact that Rahul has the potential to be the next great batsman across formats, after Kohli and the recently-retired AB de Villiers, is not a national secret.
But when it comes to limited-overs cricket, Kohli just cannot decide where to play his former Royal Challengers Bangalore teammate.
Since making his ODI debut a little more than two years ago, the right-hander has played in just 12 matches. He opened in the first six games before batting at numbers 3, 4 and 5 in the next six. It is understandable that Kohli does not want to dislodge the top three.
But with India struggling to find a reliable No 4 batsman, is it not a lose-lose situation to leave a player of Rahul's unquestioned class on the bench, especially when you already have him in the squad?
Former India captains have scratched their heads over this issue.
“Eyes closed, I will have Rahul at four,” Sourav Ganguly wrote in his column for The Times of India this week. “Your top four have to be the best players and you got to persist with them. Go and speak to Rahul and say ‘we will give you 15 games, just go and play’.
“They [the team management] are not giving enough opportunities at the moment. Rahul got the fantastic hundred at Manchester [in a Twenty20 game against England] and now he was dropped. You won’t be able to produce players like that.”
Dilip Vengsarkar also chimed in.
“If you are going to play musical chairs then the confidence of the top players will take a beating,” he said. “It doesn't augur well for the future. He [Rahul] has been unsettled, which is not good for a quality batsman.”
Perhaps with some justification, the former No 4 batsman is also annoyed by the absence of Ajinkya Rahane – another batsman whose place in the limited-overs side has never been resolved. “If Ajinkya cannot fit in the ODI squad then there is something more to it than meets the eye,” Vengsarkar said.
While Rahane has often thrown his wicket away and struggled to up the ante when required of him in the ODIs, it does not help anyone’s cause that he is never guaranteed a game, let alone a position, even though he is Kohli’s deputy in the Test side.
Kohli comes across as a straight-shooter at news conferences, but sometimes his thinking seems muddled.
For instance, why he felt the need to pick Bhuvneshwar for the ODI decider at Headingley last week when the fast bowler was still nursing a sore lower back is perplexing, given that a supremely match-fit Umesh Yadav was available.
But it seems, at least on the surface anyway, that Kohli likes chaos. He likes to keep his players on their toes, although one can point to a double-standard in that Dhawan and Rohit will always get a game, and they will always open the batting.
Another strike against Kohli is that he is a micro-manager.
Indeed his own batting has improved considerably since he was handed the arduous task of leading India, as the following milestones suggest: fastest to 10 Test centuries among Indian captains; most double hundreds as India’s Test captain; fastest to 1,000 runs as ODI captain; first cricketer to score three centuries in his first three innings as Test captain; second Test captain to score centuries in his first two Test innings after Australia’s Greg Chappell.
This is all well and good, but the fact that he has made himself indispensable to the team is a matter of grave concern. What happens when he gets injured? He already has problems with his back.
It is, therefore, of paramount importance to Team India that Kohli begins to invest more time, energy and trust in a larger group of players – one that includes Rahul – as they begin their final phase of preparations for the World Cup.