TL; DR: They should leave Kohli out, and they should keep their options open when it comes to Rohit Sharma
Note: This article contains a discussion of what a good selection decision might be. Other conclusions (including ones which involve Kohli) are reasonable as long as they provide a reasonable argument that the resulting squad will be efficient for competing in a 20 over match. “Do you remember Melbourne” is not a reasonable argument1. If the reader is inclined to think that it is, then the reader should proceed forewarned that they are likely to be disappointed here.
The Indian selectors face an unenviable problem for the 2024 T20 World Cup. It is a problem no selection committee in the history of the game has faced. Selectors have had to drop popular players before. They’ve even had to end long, distinguished careers against the wishes of the player. They’ve had to sack captains before. But what they face when it comes to selecting the Indian squad for the 2024 World Cup is of a different order of magnitude as it involves not just a popular player, but an iconic one. What’s more, it involves genuinely relevant non-cricketing aspects.
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The World Cup travels to America for the first time, and Virat Kohli is arguably the biggest name in the history of the game - the game’s first real global icon. Other players have had spectacular profiles in the cricket world. Bradman, Sobers, Imran, Tendulkar, and even Botham were household names. But with the internet and the interest global brands have in cricketers today, Kohli has a profile which no cricketer before him has had. His absence from the first American World Cup is a commercial problem as much as it is a Cricket problem. And this is before we consider that T20 and Cricket are different sports.
For a large section of the cricket watching public, Kohli’s a top T20 player. His T20 figures suggest he is an average T20 player unless his T20 figures are interpreted the way ODI or Test figures are interpreted - privileging averages and accumulation. In T20, bowling sides rarely try to get a batter out. There’s a single available every ball to fields set to defend boundaries. So, the batter in T20 has to take chances. This means risking dismissal. A high average in T20 (unlike in Tests or ODIs) does not imply that a player is consistent. A high T20 batting average, unless accompanied by a very high scoring rate (for a player average 40, a strike rate better of 170 would qualify), implies that a batter is not taking enough chances. In current T20 cricket, Virat Kohli, Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan demonstrate this problem in spades. Every other T20 international side has either removed or demoted anchors from the top of their order.
Consider the records of three players - Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli and Suryakumar Yadav - in T20 and T20Is in the 2020s. These are shown for the first and second innings in the table and charts below. They show a few things in addition to the point about Kohli’s difficulties with acceleration (he’s 5 runs behind Rohit Sharma on average batting first after 30 balls faced because he takes fewer risks - he survived to his 30th ball in 41% of his innings, compared to 31% for Rohit Sharma).
At the outset, its worth noting that both Kohli and Rohit Sharma are average T20 players. The difference between them is that Rohit Sharma at least tries to play efficiently by taking chances (despite opening the batting - openers are often forced to be watchful against the first over or so if the new ball is moving appreciably as it sometimes does. In a 120 ball innings, that 5-10% of the innings.). He gets out earlier more often than Kohli. This is limits the damage to the team’s score and leaves more deliveries for the rest of the batting to try and exploit. Kohli and Rohit are compared here to SKY, who is currently the best T20 player in the world.
Readers can study the table and charts for themselves. Here, the following two points are addressed:
Kohli in the first innings vs Kohli in chases: The general perception is that Kohli is superb in run chases, but less good batting first. The record shows that Kohli plays exactly the same way batting first or second. The difference is that when chasing, he’s often batting against moderate scores (in the 8 runs per over range, rather than the 9-10 runs per over range).
Taking chances too early would be unacceptably risky: All three players are roughly equally risk-prone over their first 10-15 deliveries (they survive upto that point in about 55-60% of innings). It is after the 14th ball (when batting first), that Rohit Sharma and Suryakumar Yadav take chances, while Kohli doesn’t. So the idea that if Kohli takes chances early, IND will suffer, is a bit of non-starter.
So what should the selectors do with Kohli?
If they want to send a team which has the best chance of winning the World Cup, then Kohli cannot be in it. At the very least, Kohli cannot be batting in the top 5 batting positions.
What should they do with Rohit Sharma?
It has more or less been decided that Rohit Sharma will captain IND at the 2024 T20 World Cup. So the question of whether he will play is mostly settled. Currently, their view seems to be that he will open the batting. This should not, and need not be settled right now.
Rohit Sharma has changed the way he bats at the top of the order in ODI cricket. If, for example, he’s able to reproduce his innings from the ODI World Cup Semi Final and Final in the T20 edition in June 2024, any team in the world would take that. At the very least, unlike Kohli, he has demonstrated that he can play differently (take chances more often earlier in his innings).
Nevertheless, unlike in, say, 2016 or 2021, the Indian selectors currently have several options in the top order. So there is more competition for the top 3 slots than there was in previous World Cups. The selectors and the Indian team management should assess who the top order should be after a large chunk of the IPL has been played. They don’t yet know about Rishabh Pant’s availability. Absent Pant, the only the other left-hander they have in the top order is Yashasvi Jaiswal.
A left hander in the top 5 is essential, preferably in the top 3. This is because a lot of opponents will use slow-left-arm orthodox bowlers against the right-handers. Ishan Kishan currently has the best record against SLAs* among the contenders for the Indian T20 top order. Perhaps this is why he is considered a prospect for the top order even though other contenders have an overall game which is at least as good as his. Kishan is also useful because he (unlike Kohli who has batted outside the top 4 only twice in T20Is and not at all in the IPL since September 2010) can be used as a floater. Jaiswal’s progress against left-arm spin (something to watch in the 2024 IPL) might open other opportunities for IND.
IND should consider using Rohit Sharma below number 4 should they find better prospects for the top three positions. As of now, only one spot ought to be settled - Suryakumar Yadav should bat at four.
Will the Indian selectors do any of this? Left to their own devices, they probably will. But dropping Kohli is a bigger (and more controversial however reasonable and merited in T20 terms it might be) decision than any taken by the Indian selectors since Kapil Dev was dropped for the Eden Gardens Test against England in 1984. That was for only one Test. This is for a whole World Cup. The commercial implications alone (a lot of very unhappy TV executives will have to be assuaged) mean that Roger Binny, Jay Shah and the Board itself will probably be involved.
Picking Kohli would be the safer (and significantly more popular) choice in every way other than to make it more likely that IND will win T20 World Cup. That the IND selectors and management are considering it speaks well of them.
*IND bats v SLAs in the 2020s (ave/sr) in T20s and T20Is: Virat Kohli (63/104), Shubman Gill (49/129), KL Rahul (38/115), Ishan Kishan (60/155), Ruturaj Gaikwad (77/150), Sanji Samson (28/148), Shreyas Iyer (51/115), Suryakumar Yadav (32/121), Rohit Sharma (41/121), Hardik Pandya (25/93), Rinku Singh (32/145), Tilak Varma (39/126), Jitesh Sharma (22/153), Rishabh Pant (18/139).
It is not reasonable because all the record for all players in all matches is available. That’s significantly (and measurably) better evidence than any one match. “Do you remember Melbourne?” is as unreasonable as “Do you remember Perth?. The reasonable approach is to remember Melbourne, Perth and every other international T20 match.