India's Rohit Sharma
Rohit Sharma is an automatic choice to lead the India T20 team, when Virat Kohli steps down. Image Credit: AFP

Who will take over from Virat Kohli as captain of India’s T20 squad? Well, that’s a no-brainer, you’d say. Rohit Sharma has been waiting in the wings for years. He’s led India in Kohli’s absence and has been immensely successful. So it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Hit-Man, as he’s called, takes over the reins soon after the World Cup in the UAE.

But what if the Indian cricket board opts for a younger captain? Maybe with the next World Cup in mind. Perhaps, they would want to groom someone for the long haul. That could happen, although it’s unlikely. If that remote possibility becomes a reality, who can be the contenders?

Three names spring to my mind easily: Shreyas Iyer, K.L. Rahul and Rishabh Pant. Each of them has given a good account of themselves in the Indian Premier League. Iyer’s elevation to Delhi Capitals’ captaincy in 2018 was a huge surprise; he was a proven talent with the bat, but his leadership skills were an unknown quantity.

Shreyas Iyer
Shreyas Iyer has had some good performances for India in white-ball cricket, but he’s yet to cement his place in the national squad. Image Credit: AFP

When Iyer took over from Gautam Gambhir, the team was called the Delhi Daredevils. In two years, he transformed them into a competitive side that in 2019 entered the playoffs for the first time in seven years. The following year, Delhi made the final in the UAE only to lose to the Mumbai Indians. Much of that swift change in fortunes stemmed from Iyer’s quiet but firm leadership.

While Iyer’s contribution to Delhi Capitals has been very significant, he hasn’t been able to hold down a regular spot in the national squad. Even for this year’s World Cup, Iyer is among the reserves, but that’s more due to lack of matches after recovering from a shoulder injury. Until he secures a permanent berth in the Indian team, Iyer’s captaincy aspirations would remain dim.

KL Rahul
K.L. Rahul’s captaincy has received widespread praise after he resurrected Punjab King’s fortunes in the second half of IPL 2020 in the UAE. Image Credit: BCCI

K.L. Rahul’s leadership has been one of the standout features of Punjab Kings, known as Kings XI Punjab until 2020. That was the year Rahul was thrust into the helm. He topped the batting charts, but his team struggled in the first half of the tournament. His leadership skills were under scrutiny.

What transpired in the second half of IPL 13 was a remarkable rally by Punjab, inspired by Rahul’s batting and captaincy. Punjab missed the playoffs, but Rahul’s ability to breathe new life into the team received allround praise.

At 23, Rishabh Pant is the youngest of the three aspirants. The Indian wicketkeeper never really nurtured captaincy ambitions, at least not in the near term. In that sense, he’s an accidental captain. Delhi Capitals’ leadership was thrust on Pant when Iyer missed the early part of IPL 2021.

Rishabh Pant bats
Rishabh Pant has led the Delhi Capitals with a maturity far beyond his 23 years. Image Credit: AP

How did Pant fare as captain? Delhi are at the top of the IPL leaderboard with 12 points from eight matches, including six wins. That sure is an excellent report card on Pant’s captaincy. As a newbie, he did make some tactical mistakes, but none huge enough to sink his team’s chances.

More importantly, he’s learned from those mistakes. The manner in which he led Delhi deserves plaudits. Always a chatterbox behind the stumps, Pant often ran up the bowlers to discuss the field, tactics or offer encouragement. Behind that disarming smile lies a fierce competitor. We know that. But he’s shown that he’s no slouch when it comes to captaincy. That’s why Delhi reposed faith in his leadership ability even after Iyer’s return.

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So which of the three will make a good India captain? Pant is still wet behind his ears, and Iyer needs to cement his place first before being considered captaincy material. That makes Rahul the ideal choice.

But he would have to wait because Rohit Sharma is an automatic choice. Sharma’s batting has always been sublime, and his captaincy has been a feature of Mumbai Indians’ five IPL wins. And he’s translated those successes in international arenas as well. Arguably the best batsman in white-ball cricket, Sharma had led India in 19 T20 Internationals with abundant success.

So it would be unjust to look beyond Sharma, even though he’s 34. And that’s unlikely to happen, but Rahul could be appointed Sharma’s deputy. That would allow him to gain enough experience to take over from Sharma, when the Hit-Man calls it a day.