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Jerky decisions

While handing over the reins of red-ball cricket to the ‘experienced’ Rohit is in stark contrast with the ideas of split captaincy and grooming younger leaders, the abrupt exclusion of a bunch of time-tested stalwarts is another concerning issue for Indian Test cricket

Jerky decisions

The big debate around split captaincy in Indian cricket and if it's right to have one leader in all formats, has been brought back to life. By naming Rohit Sharma as the Test captain for the home series against Sri Lanka, the Board of Control for Cricket in India has shown its vision remains myopic.

Since the time Virat Kohli said goodbye to Test captaincy after the loss to South Africa in the away series, fans were waiting with bated breath to see if there would be a change in thinking. Rohit, the clear choice as leader in white ball cricket, will be 35 in April.

The Mumbaikar is in rich form, perhaps the only one in recent times who is not being questioned about lack of runs from his blade in all forms of cricket. Yet, for the BCCI to name him as Test captain is surprising.

Just a few months ago, Sourav Ganguly, the BCCI President who stays in the news for some right and mostly wrong reasons, had talked of reducing the workload of Kohli as captain. If that be the sole criteria, then Rohit, too, did not deserve to be burdened with captaincy of red-ball cricket.

There are a few explanations which have been given, some on record and some off the record, as to how Rohit will be the mentor and groom the next Test captain. Sounds nice on paper but Tests really are not going to be the flavour for Team India in 2022.

All talk now is of series at home — against West Indies and Sri Lanka. There are two Tests against Lanka and the all-important one against England in an unfinished series. The bigger picture, so to say, is the ten-team Indian Premier League, the ICC World T20 in Australia this October/November and the ICC World Cup in 2023 in India.

Keeping this workload in mind, it would have made sense to groom a new Test captain. Since the time MS Dhoni led in all formats and then started shedding captaincy load one by one, there has been intense debate on split captaincy. The same topic came up for debate last year as well, just before the ICC World T20 in the United Arab Emirates. What happened after that was mayhem, with Kohli losing a few "battles" and then settling in a new role in life, playing just as a batsman. How long he can keep going as a pure batsman will be interesting to see, though he has shown the same zeal on the field in recent matches.

Nobody can doubt the pedigree of Rohit Sharma. What goes against him is age and fitness levels. When the 2020 IPL was held in the UAE, Rohit looked unfit, and pictures of his paunch made for an ugly sight. He has had problems with fitness, been in and out of the team. Problems have ranged from hamstring to the back. Yet, he keeps coming back, showing there is nothing wrong with his batting.

To be sure, it is not Rohit's fault that he has been named the Test captain. Nobody will say no to the leadership role in Indian cricket. But looking at the picture ahead in 2022 and 2023, it would have been logical to entrust Rohit just with leadership in white-ball cricket.

Whether it is the selection committee or the BCCI President Ganguly, a former captain himself — who makes these big decisions is unclear. The churning in Indian cricket which began a few months ago, is similar to milk kept on the gas stove. It reaches boiling point, then let to simmer, before you can again see the bubbles due to raising the temperature. Surely, Indian cricket does not need this treatment where the captain being chosen and players being picked and dropped are subjected to test by fire.

Clearly, there were three choices before the BCCI in addition to Rohit as Test captain — KL Rahul, Rishabh Pant and Jasprit Bumrah. The BCCI's reluctance in going with youth and then talking of new leaders being groomed in Tests needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. If that really had been the scenario, they could have made Pant or Bumrah the Test captain and given them time to mature.

It will be interesting to see in the new Test cycle how much Rohit is able to perform and keep his body in shape. He is not getting any younger and would love to showcase his leadership skills in the two big ICC events. What happens in Tests cannot be made secondary, though that is the impression being given by the BCCI.

If Test captaincy is a contentious topic, the wholesale changes in the team selection are also daring, or jarring. By telling wicket-keeper Wriddhiman Saha, 37, his time is up was a bold move. Saha still has the best pair of hands and you cannot

nudge him to retire. If reports are true that coach Rahul Dravid had a word with him, that is good. But, to tell a player to retire is wrong.

Retirement is purely personal. At the best, the selectors can tell a player he is not being picked. Saha is not a case in isolation, though he has been in the news for other reasons as well, and used social media in a bold manner. To put out messages based on conversations he had with Dravid and Ganguly was not the right thing to do. His Test career is over but if he wants to be part of the IPL and be with the Gujarat franchise, he needs to be more circumspect.

In addition to Saha being dropped, the exclusion of speedster Ishant Sharma and two durable middle order batsmen, Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara, was also quite sensational. The common thread is all these players are in their 30s.

At 33, Ishant Sharma has been the brave face of Indian fast bowling, having played 105 Tests and captured 311 wickets. His is a story of speed, perseverance and success. For any Indian fast bowler to last over 100 Tests is a huge achievement. Ishant has been explosive in his career, though signs of lack of form and lack of backing from the team management during the South Africa tour was obvious.

The Delhi fast bowler has been asked to go back to Ranji Trophy, which he has accepted. Knowing Ishant the fighter, he may like to preserve himself, play Ranji and serve notice of his wicket-taking ability. After all, the way players in Indian cricket are going in and out of the three teams due to fitness issues is increasing by the day.

Gone are the days when you had a Kapil Dev or MS Dhoni who defined fitness and longevity. Ishant knows if he can put his heart and soul into the act again, he has a comeback chance.

Does the same hope hold for Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara?

Rahane has been a very important player and leader for the Indian team. Had he been scoring runs, he would have been the obvious successor to Kohli in Tests. His dry run has made it impossible for him to be part of the Test team. The 33-year-old has returned to Ranji Trophy, though to make a comeback into the Test team will not be that easy. There are some pundits who say his international career is over. Maybe, people need to show kindness to the man who has led whenever needed, and his 4,931 runs in 82 Tests is no mean achievement.

Last but not the least, comes Cheteshwar Pujara, who has also been struggling to breathe like a fish out of water. He has been called Test "discard" and "veteran." As one who scored 6,713 runs in 95 Tests, Pujara deserves respect. He may not resemble the modern image of an Indian cricketer. But you cannot take it away from him that in his heyday Pujara was a classy batsman worth his weight in gold.

All of a sudden, for the four stalwarts to be sidelined/dropped is a bit hard to digest. Will these players retire? Certainly not, as they don't feel their shelf life is over. Is Indian Test cricket ready to roar minus Ishant, Rahane and Pujara, time will tell.

Perhaps, the single Test against England later this summer will offer enough pointers.

Views expressed are personal

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