T20 World Cup - A last hurrah for Rohit and Kohli?

When India takes to the field for their first T20 World Cup match against Ireland in New York, captain Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli will likely open the batting for them. The veterans have been stalwarts of the Indian national team for well over a decade.

Rohit began his international career in 2004, whilst Kohli debuted for the national side four years later. They are also the only members of the current India squad who have experienced winning a major ICC trophy.

However, time waits for no man, and neither is getting any younger. Rohit is 37 years old, Kohli two years younger, and both have spent most of their careers in the intense spotlight of Indian cricket. Could this be their last appearance in a major tournament?

Stellar international careers

Both men have enjoyed stellar international careers. Rohit has played 59 tests, 262 ODIs, and 151 T20Is for India and has scored 18,820 international runs, which ranks him 15th on the all-time list and third amongst those still playing the game. He has notched up 48 international centuries and a further 101 fifties.

Kohli's record is even more impressive. One hundred thirteen tests, 292 ODIs and 117 T20Is to his name, and 26,733 international runs. He is ranked fourth on the all-time list and is the top run scorer amongst those still actively playing by some distance. He also captained India in 68 tests, a record, winning 40 of them.  Last year, he surpassed Sachin Tendulkar's record for the most centuries scored in ODIs, while no player has scored more runs in T20I cricket (Sharma is third, with Pakistan's Babar Azam sandwiched between the pair).

Trophy drought

For all their success as individuals, team success has been harder to come for India with the pair of them in the team. 

Rohit was part of the side that won the inaugural World Cup in 2007, while four years later, Kohli lifted the ODI version on home soil in India.

In 2013, both were part of the squad that won the Champions Trophy, but India has failed to win a major ICC international event since then. There has been success in the Asia Cup, but that competition does not feature international heavyweights like Australia, England, and South Africa.

In recent years, India has gained the reputation of choking when it comes to the biggest events. That has seen them lose back-to-back World Test Championship finals to New Zealand and Australia and suffer the crushing disappointment of a World Cup final defeat in front of their home fans in Ahmedabad last November.

Are the pair part of the problem?

For all their skill and talent, some believe Rohit and Kohli may be part of the reason why India has struggled to match its individual talent with trophy success in recent years. The World Cup final was illustrative of this. 

Batting first, Sharma and Kohli played their part, making 47 and 60, respectively, as India posted 240 from their 50 overs. However, the issue was the pace at which they scored their runs, especially Kohli. It took him 63 balls to score his runs, which is conservative as far as modern-day cricket is concerned.

And Australian Travis Head showed the pair what it means to play without fear. His innings of 137 effectively took the match and the Cup away from India.

Indian Premier League

This issue was again highlighted by the recent season of the Indian Premier League (IPL). Again, both men have excellent records in the competition. Sharma is third on the all-time list, topped by Kohli, who remains the only man to have scored 8,000 runs in the tournament.

This time, he topped the list of leading run scorers for the second time and won the Orange cap for his efforts.n Despite this, he attracted widespread criticism for his scoring rate, especially in the middle overs against the slower bowlers. 

After he made his eighth IPL century – another record - batting for the Royal Challengers Bengaluru –against the Rajasthan Royals, all the attention afterwards was focused on his strike rate. It was the joint slowest hundred in IPL history. The fact that Jos Buttler, playing in the exact match, reached three figures in 13 balls less illustrated the issue.

Kohli has always insisted that scoring rates do not bother him, but his attitude increasingly needs to align with modern sensibilities. Meanwhile, Sharma had a disappointing IPL season and seemed to spend most of his time fomenting rebellion behind the scenes after he was stripped of the captaincy of the Mumbai Indians in favour of Hardik Pandya.

The T20 World Cup

Both players had chosen to take a break from T20I cricket after the 2022 World Cup, which ended in more disappointment. Again, India cruised through the tournament's group stages and reached the semi-finals in Adelaide, where they played England.

India batted first, making 168/6, but England chased that down in 16 overs without losing a single wicket. However, both men were recalled to the T20I series against Afghanistan in January this year, and soon afterwards, it was confirmed that Sharma would yet again lead the team into this year's T20 tournament.

When the squad was announced, there were few surprises either, with the nucleus of the team, which was made up of the squad, including Kohli, that had contested the last World Cup. Sharma confirmed the mindset of the Indian selectors when he confirmed that most players would have been selected, regardless of how they performed in the Indian Premier League.

A fear of failure?

Arguably, India's biggest problem in international tournaments is that the burden of expectation on them is so significant that there is a collective fear of failure. Nowhere else does cricket enjoy its status in India, where hundreds of millions follow the sport.

That burden of expectation can be inhibiting, however, and encourages players to play within themselves and not take risks. Rohit and Sharma are perhaps the embodiments of this.

It also needs to be appreciated that both players are in the spotlight constantly, especially Kohli, who is part of a celebrity couple with his actress wife, Anushka Sharma. Although they both earn vast amounts of money through their central contracts, IPL salaries, and celebrity endorsements, the price of that is a lack of privacy.

Kohli recently addressed that, hinting that, once he retired, he intended to disappear for a long time, with suggestions that he might be planning to relocate his family out of India altogether.

The final throw of the dice?

India begins the T20 World Cup as favourites, although that may not be a tag that they like.

Nevertheless, they are widely expected to reach the semi-finals at least. Anything less than that, and the inquests will be long and bitter. Even if they get to the final but fail to bring home the trophy, there will be those who insist that it is not good enough and that it is time to tear up the blueprint and start again.

Rather than allow that, Rohit and Kohli might decide to quit on their terms and step away from international cricket. There is only so long one can carry the hopes of a nation on one's shoulders. Better pass the responsibility on to younger men.

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