As Indian cricket goes through a period of transition and one of its toughest phases, commentator and former batsman Sanjay Manjrekar shares his thoughts in a wide-ranging interview with Shivani Gupta of CNN-News18 on the Virat Kohli controversy, possible options for captaincy, roles of the previous coach Ravi Shastri and his successor Rahul Dravid, and what lies ahead for the team.
Indian cricket is at a crossroads of the kind we haven’t seen for a few years.
It’s not like India hasn’t faced such defeats before. But these were crushing defeats against the weakest South African team ever; this is like a crisis. This team has shown improved performance overseas. But India is at a crossroads. However, these are not problems that can’t be sorted out.
Was it too early for Virat to quit captaincy? The results show that captaincy alone wasn’t the issue.
Did Virat quit too early? I don’t think so. His own batting form had something to do with it. He had had a long run and he fulfilled the responsibility admirably. In this series, India had no choice but to go with KL Rahul in the absence of Rohit; so that was a problem.
Ravi Shastri says that Kohli had a couple of years more as Test captain. Do you disagree with him?
No, he did have a couple of years, especially in Tests where his spirit was key. His playing XI selection hasn’t been good, a legacy that is left behind by previous management. So he did have a couple of years, but his form was a problem. He generally bounces back quickly, but he has found that difficult. He didn’t want that added pressure. Plus the landscape around him, scenario around him had changed. He wants everything going for him, but that has changed. That was an added challenge, which he didn’t want to take on while focusing on his batting.
This saga between him and BCCI clearly played into his decision?
When he quit the T20 captaincy, he was surprised that the ODI captaincy was taken away from him. Test captaincy…we didn’t see coming. But the coach changed. His stint started with Kumble, he had a short stint…with Shastri. Anil is a hard-nosed cricketer and Virat wanted Shastri. We heard that the relationship was no longer tenable between him and Anil. For Virat, it’s important that he has people who support him. He knew Dravid had to be convinced, he wasn’t going to be like Shastri. And the BCCI regime too, where captaincy was taken away from him, showed that he wasn’t going to have unconditional support, which he seemed to have earlier.
Fans want India to win world cups; it’s no longer about series or rankings. So he must have seen he’s struggling a bit. RCB captaincy had a role to play. He felt on his own there is no harm in quitting the T20 captaincy, but he was sure he would have continued in ODIs and Tests. But what has happened after that is clearly because of the scene around him changing, him getting a vibe that he wasn’t going to be able to sustain.
Shastri says a few people would not have been able to digest his success had he continued. Who do you think he’s talking about?
I don’t have an idea. I was a huge admirer of Ravi Shastri. I played under him, he gave players support, a great fighter, senior. This Shastri 2.0 I don’t understand. What he says in public is expected, I don’t react to it. I don’t want to be disrespectful. He doesn’t make very intelligent comments, you can see the agenda behind it. It’s not an accurate cricketing observation.
Did the BCCI want to break the clique between Virat and Ravi that was possibly getting too big for Indian cricket?
It wasn’t politics, it was Virat’s team. When Dhoni was captain, it was his team, he had all the support. If Virat had got India results in ICC tournaments, you could see Virat is the boss, and Ravi Shastri was maintaining the best atmosphere around him. But results were a problem, even if he had won a couple of IPL titles. IPL is why Rohit Sharma is in contention. It could be a cricketing reason to give Virat someone who could question him on tactics, especially on team selection. It was clear Ravi Shastri was never going to challenge Virat; he may say they had debates. That’s where tactics become sound when you can debate them.
Is the team lacking intensity and aggression without Virat as captain?
It’s unfair to judge KL Rahul so soon, he was impressive in the second Test. This energy and spirit is the Virat Kohli thing. But what did the spirit do for RCB, or on important days for India in big ICC tournaments? MS Dhoni didn’t have the same energy on the field but he had great results. So Virat didn’t win or lose only because of this. I judge a leader by the playing XI; that was a major issue with Virat. I don’t have a problem with the way KL Rahul is. I would rather have low energy, but great results.
His aggression also often went against him, as we witnessed in the stump microphone episode.
His batting form had dipped and other pressures of feeling threatened in his position…It becomes desperation to win. What you saw in the stump mic thing is desperation. It was a serious misdemeanour and I was surprised no action was taken. To insinuate that the host broadcaster is helping the home team was a serious allegation, it was completely out of line.
What do you think is going wrong with the Indian team generally? For example, if we take the one-day series?
In Tests – even in England – Rohit Sharma covered up India’s issues. India have had a problem with their Test batting for a while. If you look at the top 5, thankfully Rohit and KL Rahul came good in England and they’ve been doing pretty well. But if you look at number 3 Pujara, Virat and Ajinkya Rahane have been out of form. When you have 3, 4, 5 down on confidence and out of form, that is bound to hurt you at some point in time. The bowling has been alright. That is one reason. That is where team selection comes into play. Where you have a crisis around the corner, where you don’t make any changes.
Now if you make changes, it doesn’t make sense because now the block remains. So good captains, leaders and management see things coming and that is what India paid the price for. In South Africa, there was much warning on Pujara and Rahane’s current form and Ravichandran Ashwin as a spinner overseas. All those factors were ignored. Even in the one-day series, they went with seniors; that is just beyond me. I don’t think that suddenly India cricket is in poor hands. There is talent. I just feel India paid a heavy price for not just seeing the obvious.
So you want Rahul Dravid to play a more active role? Is that what you are suggesting? He is not really bringing his inputs as much as he should?
See, we are speculating from outside. For example, we don’t know how much of a role Rahul Dravid has had in selecting the players. Whether it is the captain who insisted on the playing XI or whether it was Rahul Dravid trying to convince that this is the way to go ahead. Always there’s one selector also who is part of thinking and selecting the playing XI as well. So you have no idea, but I know Rahul Dravid. He is a very dignified person. And he is not somebody who would stifle the captain so much, especially to begin with. But forget Rahul Dravid. I think a point of a coach is going to be a massive decision where even the selectors aren’t allowed to take it and it’s the cricket board that takes that call.
The contract is highly lucrative, so might as well give the coach a lot of power. What is the point of having someone like Rahul Dravid’s stature if his inputs are going to be in the pavilion while the match is on? And after the match, if he had some issues in the playing XI or some tactics, then it’s of no use having a player of this stature. The captain is going to be the guy making all the important decisions at the time, so I don’t think the coach’s role is that important. It seems like that in cricket it is not much. So why do we go to such lengths to appoint a cricket coach? So going forward if there’s going to be a new captain, the coach has to have an important role.
Let me come to the issue of captaincy now, Rohit Sharma has clearly been selected as the man to take the team forward in the shorter format. Is he also the right choice for Test cricket?
If Ajinkya Rahane was getting runs, he would have been the obvious choice after Virat Kohli. Rahane has been very good on the field. He has a great record whenever he has captained. Virat Kohli left Australia after India got out for 36. The next Test match was captained by Rahane and won and India went on to win the series. He’s got an excellent record, but you can’t have somebody for captaincy when he’s a liability is as a player. So he goes out; the only deserving candidate in all three forms is Rohit Sharma. He is pretty good in T20s. We have seen in the IPL, naturally.
In one-dayers, he has captained on occasions, looks the part, and Test matches, after that performance in England, is the most deserving candidate. Let’s not look too far ahead. Let’s look at one year; there’s no comfortable choice India has. All the other choices have a lot of issues around. A couple of Test matches in one year. There’s got to be a lot of T20 cricket and ODIs. So take one year at a time and appoint somebody who is most deserving, and if there is some issue then you start looking at another leader. Let’s not pre-empt, because I don’t think there are other exciting options at the moment. Maybe after a year or two, you might find someone.
The other names are Jasprit Bumrah and Rishabh Pant. What do you make of the candidature of both of these young men: super talented, future of Indian cricket?
See I am not going to be looking beyond Rohit Sharma at the moment. Because there is no harm in appointing Rohit Sharma if there is not a fitness issue. For example, the next international cricket event is the West Indies coming here. They are playing T20s and one-dayers. Rohit Sharma is fit, you make him the captain there. After that suddenly Rohit Sharma is unfit for a couple of Test matches, then you start looking for a Test captain. Bumrah, Rishabh Pant are candidates…or somebody you have in mind. It was very smart of the selectors to appoint him the vice-captain to get him into that.
Everything you see about Bumrah tells you that he is a very sharp and balanced cricketer. But you have no idea how he is going to be as captain. So maybe start giving him some captaincy at the domestic level. And Pant has already captained in IPL so he’s somebody to look to in the future. But at the moment it’s just a bit too risky and just going into unknown territory when you have somebody like Rohit Sharma who ticks all the boxes. Let’s not preempt. Seeing Virat Kohli we felt it was a burden because he did that job for a number of years. Until you know his batting form came down and other things happened…he started thinking it was too much of a burden. But the thing with Virat was more results than burden.
What about the places of Pujara and Rahane as far as the Test team is concerned. You did mention before the third Test that this was probably Rahane’s last chance. Why do you say that and where do you place both now?
If I am saying that it is Rahane’s last match, people should not wonder why I am saying that. I am sure you say the same thing privately, and the others. It’s not about runs but also how someone looks in the field. It’s from 2017 that Ajinkya Rahane somewhere has shown that he is a little unsure. You can see it in the way he bats, the way he gets out. That’s another thing that gives an indication about a player’s game. For example, Virat Kohli is not getting a hundred but he is still putting out 70s and there is great value in having Virat Kohli before he discovers form. So Rahane for me is clearly somebody that has a shelf life that is over.
And the other thing is when you see senior players, you are cutting the rope for younger players. Javagal Srinath in his prime was sitting out of the playing XI because the selectors were giving a longer rope to some senior players. It’s also important that selectors have to keep everyone in Indian cricket who is in contention in mind. So I’ll be surprised if Ajinkya Rahane gets picked for obvious reasons; selectors should look at someone beyond him. Pujara is interesting, he’s coming close to 100 Test matches. It will need a very unemotional selector to leave him out. And I personally have more time for Pujara than Rahane. This is from observing the way they bat. No other reason. I feel there is something left in Pujara, but Rahane, if I would have been the selector, would have been out of my plans two years back.
Do we have enough talent to take India forward for the next 4-5 years in the absence of these two?
It’s a great time to bring in new players because there is nothing to lose. The senior players aren’t delivering. It’s not like they are getting hundreds and you decide to give youngsters a chance. The seniors are playing but not getting runs and also it’s very easy to make changes when India is losing. That was a crushing defeat. That (South Africa) is a team that India should have beaten 3-0 in the Test matches. So these guys are out of form. It’s a great time to try new players. Remember the fab 4 Indian cricket had. I know I used to say what’s going to happen to Indian cricket when they are going to retire suddenly one after the other. Indian cricket performance actually improved overseas. Now you have better bowling. So this is something that is just a perceived threat. Indian cricket moves on and the health of Indian cricket is good in the sense it’s a popular sport like in Pakistan. Despite all the problems, every kid wants to play cricket. So as long as this desire is there for kids to play cricket you will keep getting talent.
Let me come back to the question of Virat Kohli. What do you hope to see from him? Because his future is going to be indelibly linked with Indian cricket.
Not sure that we should be so dramatic that his future will dictate Indian cricket. But as far as the fighting is concerned, I see that more in Virat Kohli the batsman because of the way he has handled leadership challenges. As I have mentioned in my article, Sunil Gavaskar was threatened in one-dayers as captain but he kept it to himself. Went on to lead India in Australia in a world cup. The centenary tournament. India went on to win; it was like a world cup win for India and on the last day he collected the trophy. He said this is a wonderful gift on my last day as captain. So that is the captain who waited till the tournament finished, whereas Virat Kohli announced his decision to quit as captain before the tournament. So that wasn’t something you expect from a leader.
Coming back to Virat the batsman, one of the all-time greats. Let’s not forget that he is going through a tough phase. He’s had a small patch where he was out of form when he was in England in 2014 when he averaged only 13. But against Australia, he got 4 hundreds. So he used to come back to form. This little phase has lasted a bit longer.
I think his mind is still out there. See the zest with which he plays and bats. There is a technical issue that I have talked about. I don’t know whether you see Instagram but there was a little picture that I have put of Virat Kohli of 2011 where he was batting and played shots on the backfoot and now he is more a front foot player. So he is making life more difficult for himself. Especially when you are low in confidence you need technical skills. So if he can sort that out, I think you don’t have to worry about Virat Kohli the batter. He still in this state adds value to the team. So in the next couple of years, we’ll know how Virat Kohli the batter handles himself. This is something that is inevitable and has happened to all great players. Tendulkar averaged 25 in his last 25 Test matches. It happens to everyone. The fascinating things we keep looking for in sports.
Finally, where will you rank Virat Kohli in terms of all-time great Indian captains?
MS Dhoni is clearly one of India’s greatest captains. I judge captains generally on international cricket and also on ICC events. Because that’s when you are really tested. When you are playing bilateral cricket, you are going to the office and coming back. There is not much pressure there. But ICC events, that is where Dhoni has been tremendous. Kapil Dev, Sunil Gavaskar, Saurav Ganguly and Virat Kohli. When you look at Kohli, there are a lot of things to like about him because he is somebody who led by example. The Wanderers Test match before this series, when they played on a treacherous pitch. India lost the series 2-0 but Kohli set an example as captain. He said that we want to win this despite a pitch that could have killed somebody. That kept India’s morale high. That is what you get with Virat Kohli, the never-say-die attitude.
In the World Test Championship final India lost. But till the last minute India through Virat Kohli was still fighting to salvage the game. But finally, you’ve got to talk about the results. The results were not coming. So when we talk about all-time greats, it would be very unfair to not count Dhoni in that. Kapil Dev at a time when there was an inferiority complex at the world level. Saurav Ganguly after the match-fixing era gave India some overseas wins. Sunil Gavaskar also. So these are all great leaders. You live in an age where there are a lot of platforms, so the hype is more. But Indian cricket didn’t start 10 years back. These are guys that I believe have been better captains than Virat Kohli who has been very good in his own right.