The India selectors will need to pool their wisdom to find the right replacement for the country's most successful captain, Virat Kohli. Although, hours after Kohli made his decision public, word from BCCI was that Rohit Sharma being the designated vice-captain is the automatic choice to take over. Sharma is also India's white-ball captain and if a decision to that effect is taken he would replace Kohli as India's all-format leader.
But there is also a view within the selection committee that the choice isn't that straightforward. There are concerns around Sharma's fitness and he will turn 35 in April. A day before India was to leave for South Africa, Sharma pulled his hamstring during training and could not travel. Sharma's hamstring muscles have let him down in the past and as he was advised by the National Cricket Academy fitness team to spend time strengthening them, he was left out of the upcoming ODI series in South Africa. "He has also been advised to lose some weight as an injury preventive measure," said a BCCI source.
Sharma's workload across formats, given India's packed schedule, is a concern but the lack of options could go in his favour. Another BCCI source said KL Rahul might not be ready yet and hence should remain vice-captain. Rahul was the deputy in Tests against South Africa and led the team in the Johannesburg Test after Kohli pulled out due to back spasms. Rahul has led Punjab Kings for two years in IPL, a competition Sharma has bossed with five titles for Mumbai Indians, the most by any captain.
The bitterness between BCCI and Kohli following his removal as ODI captain has meant, no involvement from him in choosing a successor. Ajinkya Rahane, who led the team admirably in Kohli's absence from time to time and captained India to victory in the memorable triumph in Australia in 2020-21, is woefully out of form. It's poor planning that the selectors have no obvious succession plan in place for a captain who has been in charge for 68 Test matches across seven years. But it's not new.
Kohli too had taken over from MS Dhoni in much the same way in the middle of a tour in late 2014. But at the time, everyone knew that Kohli, 25 was the captain-in-waiting. Sharma's opportunity has come so late that no one is quite sure if he can be a long-term appointment.
"You don't go to dig well, when you are thirsty," said Dilip Vengsarkar former chairman of selectors. "You should have had someone ready to take over. Before MS Dhoni was appointed captain, he got a year to learn under Anil Kumble. Rohit isn't the youngest. I leave it to the selectors to decide."
MSK Prasad who was the chief selector for the longest time when Kohli was the captain was also unsure whether an obvious choice was available. "My view is that the BCCI should convince Kohli to continue for now. In the past Rahane had led the team admirably, but he doesn't have runs," he said.
Of late, there have been several changes in India's leadership group. Other than Rahul's elevation as deputy to Sharma in white-ball cricket, Jasprit Bumrah has been appointed as the vice-captain for the South Africa one-dayers.
But Rahul is the man chief selector Chetan Sharma had spoken glowingly. "We are looking at grooming KL Rahul. He is an all-format player and he got a good experience of captaincy. He has proved his leadership quality," he had said. But even the selection committee head would not have known the time to varnish would vanish because of strained relations between the board and one of India's most charismatic captains. India's next Test fixture is against Sri Lanka at home, starting February 25. It should also be Kohli's 100th Test.