There is more to it than a mere inaugural game of the Indian Premier League’s (IPL) 2021 edition when the formidable Mumbai Indians (MI) and the perennial under-achiever Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) meet on April 9.
More than anything else, the blockbuster contest is once again set to divide the loyalties of Indian cricket fans between Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli. Both the skippers enjoy an enviable army of fans on social media.
Doubtless, Kohli as a batsman and as the captain of Team India (especially in Test cricket) is one of the best performers of all time. Rohit is yet to captain in Test cricket and as a batsman, even his most ardent fan will concede that he needs to achieve a lot if he is to be spoken in the same breath as Kohli.
However, for nearly two months every year since 2013, it is Rohit who has hogged the limelight as a batsman, and even more importantly, as an astute captain who wins IPL trophies as a matter of habit.
Coincidentally, both Kohli and Sharma got the IPL captaincy in the same year (2013) under contrasting circumstances for their respective teams. Kohli was always seen as a natural leader and someone who had to lead the RCB. On the other hand, Sharma was thrust into the leadership role mid-way in that season after regular captain Ricky Ponting’s sustained struggle with the bat.
Since then, the journey of the two high-profile captains of the IPL couldn’t have been more different.
If Rohit’s inspirational leadership helped MI become the champions for the first time in 2013, as he now looks well-prepared for an unprecedented hat-trick of title wins in the IPL, Kohli is still looking for his maiden title in the annual T20 extravaganza.
Except for one year in 2016, when RCB made it to the final, nothing seems to have changed for Kohli in the last eight seasons. Last year, when defending champions Mumbai won the trophy convincingly one more time, Kohli’s RCB finished a none-too-happy fourth on the points table. RCB’s campaign was over when Sunrisers Hyderabad defeated them in the Eliminator. That was the first time that the RCB had made the playoffs since 2016.
Former India captain Gautam Gambhir didn’t mince words after RCB's exit last year: “I have nothing against Virat Kohli but somewhere down the line, he needs to put his hand up and say, 'yes, I am responsible, I am accountable'.”
Since there are not too many voices who can afford to be critical of Kohli at the present time, Gambhir’s blunt views on ESPNcricinfo.com was something a lot of former players shared in private conversations.
``Dhoni has won three [IPL] titles, Rohit Sharma has won four titles, and that's the reason they’ve captained for such a long time because they’ve delivered. I’m sure if Rohit Sharma wouldn't have delivered for eight years, he would have been removed as well. There should not be different yardsticks for different people,” said Gambir.
Forget winning the championship, Kohli’s team hasn’t made it to the play-off in the five out of eight seasons, and last year they were lucky to make it after losing five games in a row! In fact, out of RCB’s seven wins in the season, four came largely due to the genius of AB de Villiers.
Kohli’s RCB is often a one-man or two-men show; Rohit’s MI is all about multi-stars in the team.
If Rohit’s crystal-clear thinking in team-building and optimum utilization of resources is similar to that of legendary MS Dhoni, the RCB captain takes decisions that are baffling, to say the least.
The latest was the release of Chris Morris, the South African all-rounder whom they had bought for Rs 10 crore. And yet, the RCB went after Morris for nearly as much money while bidding at the 2021 auctions!
And Morris was not just outstanding at the death and very economical, he had transformed the team when he made it to the playing XI in the second half of the 2020 season. Mumbai, which has a great bowling attack, wanted to bolster it further by some smart strategic moves when they added speedster Adam Milne and Marco Jansen along with one of the most successful leg spinners in IPL, Piyush Chawla.
Over the years, Kohli has shown on numerous occasions that he lacks the patience of sticking with combinations, while Rohit, like Dhoni, often opts for stability in the team. If Kohli keeps making frequent changes in the playing XI, Rohit tries to use a settled combination for as long as possible. So much so that last year, Mumbai were the only team to make just five changes in the squad across 18 games.
Another huge difference in both schools of captaincy is compartmentalizing the batting roles for their teams. If RCB is still heavily reliant on Kohli’s bat, MI can afford to have an ordinary season from Rohit since they have enough firepower within their ranks.
If Rohit could gamble on using Hardik Pandya and Kieron Pollard purely as batsmen in many matches, Kohli’s hesitancy in including England all-rounder Moeen Ali in the XI despite Morris being unfit, was bizarre.
Kohli didn’t see any value in Ali and RCB released him before the last auction, even though the English all-rounder has got a better balls per boundary percentage (4.8) in the middle overs (Overs 7-15) than Kohli (12.2) since IPL 2019.
Unsurprisingly, Ali was a hot cake at the auction and was promptly grabbed by Chennai this season.
Historically, Mumbai always have had an advantage over Bangalore in the head to head encounters (17-10 for MI) but in the last four years, Kohli has managed just two wins against Rohit in eight matches. Of those wins came in the Super-over encounter in 2020.
Can Kohli’s RCB make a winning start against Rohit’s MI on Friday and can then dream of winning its first ever IPL trophy? Rohit’s MI will certainly be free from any such burden of expectations from the past.