Team arrives in South Africa under shadow of captaincy saga

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Mumbai The image of India’s Test skipper Virat Kohli, wearing spectacles, a face mask and a shield, and immersed in his smartphone after the team landed at the OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, greeted millions of cricket fans on BCCI’s social media handles on Thursday evening.

Kohli will lead India’s quest for their first-ever series win in South Africa, though it may not be surprising if he was scrolling for news from back home, having left BCCI officials in a fix with his comments in the pre-departure media conference on Wednesday.

Kohli refuting BCCI president Sourav Ganguly’s comments that he asked him not to step down as T20 skipper, and then detailing that he was only told of his removal as ODI skipper by chief selector Chetan Sharma 90 minutes before the meeting to pick the Test squad, has sparked a raging controversy.

Ganguly, when asked about Kohli’s comments and the divergence in their narratives — or “discrepancy”, as former captain Sunil Gavaskar called it — responded on Thursday with a cryptic and terse comment: “I have no comments. We will deal with it appropriately. Leave it to the BCCI,” he told TV journalists in Kolkata.

Even without the foreboding that Ganguly’s comment carried, Kohli will be under intense scrutiny in the series.

The final Test in Cape Town is set to be his 100th, and his average in South Africa is better than his impressive career average of 50.65 (5 Tests, 553 runs at 55.80, two hundreds). But the Indian skipper averages 28.4 across 10 Tests in 2021 and his last century came in November, 2019, 14 Test matches ago.

Apart from having to regain his best form, he will also have to contend with the struggles of Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane, the senior batsmen low on confidence but included to make their experience of the conditions to count.

With Kohli saying on Wednesday that Ganguly’s comments over the manner of his removal as ODI captain were “inaccurate”, he has taken on the BCCI president directly, and there were rumours on Thursday that BCCI could respond — either a rebuttal through a statement, or through a press conference by chief selector Chetan Sharma. There was also some talk that Kohli could be asked to “show cause”.

Some senior cricket officials, however, said that they had advised against it because targeting Kohli when he is leading India on an important tour would reflect poorly on BCCI.

India cricket legend Kapil Dev said the saga was were ill-timed.

“I would say Board president is Board president, but yes the Indian cricket team captain is also a big thing. But talking badly about each other in public, I don’t think it is a good thing, whether it is Sourav or Kohli… You must control the situation, it’ll be better if you think about the country,” he said.

The current controversy was sparked when BCCI announced Rohit Sharma as ODI skipper as a footnote in its statement announcing the Test team for South Africa. Following widespread criticism of BCCI not showing respect to a great cricketer, it thanked Kohli on its Twitter handle. Ganguly then told the media that he had tried to persuade Kohli from quitting as T20 skipper and said having two separate captains for white-ball teams was untenable. Amid speculation that Kohli has fallen out favour with the BCCI and did not get along with Rohit Sharma, the Test skipper said he had an excellent relationship with his teammate and that Ganguly’s comments he had tried to stop him from quitting T20 captaincy was “inaccurate”. Kohli also said he was told about the ODI captaincy change by Chetan Sharma only 90 minutes before the selection meeting to pick the Test squad.

India will go into the Test series without Rohit Sharma, their most successful batsman in the summer tour of England where his blunting of the bowling as opener was key to India taking a 2-1 series lead with a game to play. While Sharma, nursing a hamstring injury, could recover to lead in his first full ODI series that follows, Kohli dismissed some media reports that he had sought a break and that he was available for the series.

India play Tests in Centurion (Dec 26-30), Johannesburg (Jan 3-7) and Cape Town (Jan 11-15). The ODIs will be played in Paarl (Jan 19, 21) and at Cape Town (Jan 23).

And, as far as press conferences go, Kohli is likely to address the media on Christmas Day before the Centurion Test, when the topics covered will not be restricted to the 22 yards.

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