Look beyond the needless razzmatazz of the Indian Premier League and you will see a few benefits, real ones. The first is obviously the humongous sums of money that this Twenty20 tournament generates, that not only augurs well for the BCCI, but also trickles down to the domestic and former cricketers. The other big advantage is of course the grand stage this six-week long extravaganza provides to the young, upcoming talent, enabling them to catch the attention of selectors, media, fans, et al. Beyond all of this, there is another huge benefit that is achieved through the IPL, one that is only becoming apparent now.
It has become increasingly clear that Indian cricket must be earnest in its search for an alternative to MS Dhoni. On the one hand, he has led team India to a 4-0 white-wash against Australia, yet the 2-1 defeat to England prior balances that out. No one has forgotten the 8-0 debacle yet and a plethora of upcoming overseas tours will only add to wonderment about Dhoni's leadership. Consider this said with a pinch of salt then, that there may not be an immediate need of an alternative, yet it could become an urgent one in the not too distant future.
Even so, the powers that be, the selectors, the Board president or anyone else who has a say in this matter (not necessarily in that order), have failed to groom a singular option. The erstwhile selection committee usually refrained from selecting a vice-captain. And when they did, it was a game of musical chairs between Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, sometimes Suresh Raina, and later Virat Kohli. The new selection committee hasn't made any formal announcements about this important post either. And, given the great downturn in respective forms of Sehwag and Gambhir, only Kohli is left standing.
But there is a school of thought that Kohli as Indian captain might not be the best of options. He is too hot-headed, and the recent near-clash with long time India - and Delhi - team-mate Gambhir is evidence of that. In that light, this is where the ascertained advantage of the IPL comes in. Incumbents for the top job have not been given enough opportunities to showcase their wares as options for the future and they haven't played enough domestic cricket in recent times to have led therein. As a result, this 'inane' stretch of T20 matches becomes a high-profile - and the only - testing ground. Therefore, as full-time captain of Royal Challengers Bangalore, Kohli has the opportunity to assert his leadership qualities on everyone who is watching.
Leading a side, any side, brings with it a plethora of challenges. A captain needs to strategise before the match and take action/initiative during the game. He has to chalk out ways to win, thinking on his feet all the time (even more so in T20 cricket) and devise how best to use his players in order to do so. Then, if he has time, he has to think about his own performances as well.
After ten days of action in this 2013 season of the IPL, Royal Challengers Bangalore are at the top end of the table. Chris Gayle and Virat's own form have propelled them to this position. But their weaknesses are quite evident and will show up as the league phase stretches out over the next four weeks. They have a paucity of quality batsmen, rely too heavily on Gayle and if he doesn't fire, it is upto either Virat or AB de Villiers. Also, they have too many bowlers to choose from, and the four overseas players' restriction makes selection matters muddy.
It will be intriguing to see how Virat is able to meet this challenge. He has done well enough so far, and has gone on to admit that he asked for the high number of bowlers in the squad. What he does with the resources at his disposal will go a long way in judging how Bangalore's season progresses from here!
Perhaps one last question remains. Since the IPL is never given importance in selection matters, why should captaincy herein matter? The answer is two-fold. The first part, about the opportunity it provides, is afore-mentioned. The greatest example in its support is how Gautam Gambhir led Kolkata Knight Riders to victory last season. Just how many times have you seen him deploy three close-in fielders for Sunil Narine? Quite a few!
The second part of the answer lies in the Indian team's fortunes at the T20 World Cup(s). Since 2007, in three editions, the Men in Blue have failed to reach the knock-out stage. Now, there is hardly a better limited-overs cricketer in the world today than Dhoni, but that is on his batting might alone. And yet, who knows what turn his overall captaincy will have taken by then, especially after tours to South Africa and New Zealand.
If Virat does well now, it will give the daring new selectors under Sandeep Patil a good option for the next T20 World Cup edition in Bangladesh, in twelve months' time.