Especially in cricket, where the role of the captain extends beyond just turning up for the toss, most teams assume the character of their leader. Never was that more obvious than at the 2023 World Cup, when India fed off Rohit Sharma to establish themselves as an entertaining yet self-controlled outfit.
The brand of cricket India portrayed throughout the tournament, except in the doomed final against Australia, fired the imagination of the nation to such an extent that even in heartbreaking defeat on Sunday night, there were not even token recriminations. The country rallied behind the team like never before, driving it forwards and onwards and upwards and living out their dreams for six and a half weeks. It wasn’t just the fact that India won ten matches in a row that delighted them; the dominance of those victories, the adrenaline-pumping exploits of their pacers, the powerhouse batting of the captain himself and the continued effervescence at No. 3 of Virat Kohli combined for a heady concoction that should form the template for future Indian white-ball teams.
Not too long from now, once he is fully recovered from the ankle injury that forced him out of the World Cup after four games, Hardik Pandya will take over as India’s next white-ball captain. Pandya is his own man, yet there is a lot of Rohit to him too. Having cut his teeth at the international level under Mahendra Singh Dhoni and in the IPL under Rohit for Mumbai Indians, Pandya has evolved as a cricketer and a human being. Like Rohit, he doesn’t have a negative bone in his body; also like his former MI leader, Pandya is the quintessential team man. While he will bring his own style and verve and dash to the teams under his command, he is best positioned to espouse the cause of attacking cricket Rohit has infused within the set-up, leading by example in setting the tone with his bruising knocks at the top of the order.
Neither Rohit nor Kohli, the Player of the Tournament for his three hundreds and 765 runs, had anything to prove to anyone, apart perhaps to themselves, if that. They won’t be around for much longer, most certainly not for the next 50-over World Cup in four years’ time. Who after them from this squad then to assume the senior statesmen role, apart from Pandya? That question was answered emphatically by KL Rahul, himself no stranger to the big league considering that his India debut came in 2014, and Shreyas Iyer, exceptional when he is good but still a little too laidback for many people’s comfort.
Rahul has previously led India in all formats but a loss of form and confidence in Tests and T20Is led to him being replaced as Rohit’s deputy in all three international sides. Rahul, though, hasn’t allowed his travails in the other two versions to affect his standing as one of the top 50-over players in the world. At No. 5, he has slipped into the role of the finisher with consummate ease, and while it’s open to debate if he will continue to slot in as the wicketkeeper too, he has a big role to play in ensuring that the imminent transition phase is seamless.
Shubman Gill, certainly one for the present and the future, had a mixed bag, though his performances must be viewed against the prism of a physical setback just before the start of the tournament. That he recovered as quickly as he did from dengue and made himself available from the third match is testament to the resilience of youth; he did admit that his original reserves of muscle mass had taken a beating. Gill can be excused the odd lapses in concentration in his first World Cup aged 24, but along with Rahul and Iyer, he and Ishan Kishan will have a big say in India’s fortunes in time to come.
India’s bowling was astonishingly penetrative but an almost entirely whole new group will need to be assembled with the next major 50-over bash in mind, the 2025 Champions Trophy scheduled for Pakistan, and the World Cup beyond that. That will be a big ask of whoever the next coach is – Rahul Dravid’s tenure officially ended on Sunday night and the Bengalurean is unlikely to re-apply for another term. Two years might appear a long time away but not when the period of rebuilding is imminent, so it’s imperative to build on the gains from the last seven weeks and start working towards the next big challenge.
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