Dual captaincy: Common sense must decide

The Test captain, by definition, sees a five-day game in large sweeps with the potential for planning and changing plans over a longer period than in the limited- over formats. The T20 captain has to think on his feet, jettison plans abruptly, retain intensity over the entire innings. Tactically these are not vastly different, although some captains may be temperamentally more attuned to one style than the other.

Virat Kohli and Mahendra Singh Dhoni... captaining teams over different formats.   -  AP

Split captaincy was in vogue even in the times of Kapil Dev and Sunil Gavaskar.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

Ian Chappell has a lovely story about his father. Don’t throw away anything, he told the son — if you wait long enough it will come back into fashion. The Kohli-Dhoni captaincy split, being seen now as innovative in some quarters, is a return to an earlier fashion. In any case, other countries have split captaincies too — England unveiled the three-captain formula some years ago, and South Africa followed suit.

Sunil Gavaskar, India’s best batsman in the early years of the one-day game, was uncomfortable with the format (although he made a crucial 90 in Berbice, where India beat world champions West Indies for the first time, just weeks before their World Cup win). India innovated by default, as it were, for while Gavaskar led the Test side, the one-day team was handled by a younger, more energetic Kapil Dev. The Gavaskar-Kapil captaincy split worked well for India. Gavaskar, too valuable as a player despite his reluctance, continued at the top of the order.

In the 70s, India were reluctant one-day cricketers just as in the first decade of this century they were reluctant T20 cricketers. What changed the mindset were the World Cup victories in the respective formats. Suddenly India could not have enough of the shorter formats. India’s first ODI captain Ajit Wadekar said, “We saw the one-day game merely as an extension of Test cricket. We didn’t take the game seriously. And we had no idea of tactics as a result. We had no idea of selecting specific teams for one-dayers.”

For so long and so successfully did Mahendra Singh Dhoni lead India in all three formats of the game that it was assumed that his successor too would do the same. Chances are, of course, that Virat Kohli will soon lead in all the formats, partly because he is guaranteed to play, partly because he enjoys the role and mainly because he is a good captain who is still evolving.

The question is not whether a team should have one or two or even three captains, but whether one captain is good enough (and happy) to lead in one, two or three formats. It is international cricket’s least important question. For India at the moment, if Dhoni retains his form and motivation, there is no reason why he can’t captain at the 2019 World Cup. He would be 37 then, younger than Sachin Tendulkar was when he played in 2011.

The important thing to remember here is that there cannot be a set rule. Football coaches are fond of saying that a system should be adopted taking into consideration the talent and the temperament of the players. The attacking defender or the concept of total football worked for Germany and the Netherlands respectively because they had the players with the requisite skill. The players must dictate the system; the system cannot be forced upon them. You cannot have a procrustean approach to sport — that’s the golden rule.

Thus with captaincy across the formats. If you have a specialist one-day or T20 captain who thinks on his feet and enjoys leading in these formats but is reluctant (or not as accomplished) to take on Test captaincy, then common sense must decide. There is a logic to placing a captain where he is most effective rather than forcing the job upon him for other reasons.

Traditionally, most teams (including India) have had a bunch of one-day captains at any given time, but only one or two Test captains. In the current team, Suresh Raina and Ajinkya Rahane have led in ODIs. In the past, Gautam Gambhir, Ajay Jadeja, Mohinder Amarnath, Syed Kirmani have also captained India, but only in the shorter format.

The biggest objection to having a single captain across three formats is the workload. Former captains from Mike Atherton to Sourav Ganguly have made a case for split captaincy based on this. A couple of years ago, Ganguly, speaking of Dhoni said, “I fear we may lose him as a player if we continue like this,” meaning, continue to ask Dhoni to lead in three formats.

Earlier this year, before the Ashes series, Atherton said, “England’s schedule is inhumane and it would be impossible for one man to captain across all formats.

“The separation is a good thing; (Alastair) Cook can rest and focus on The Ashes, while when the Ashes starts, (Eoin) Morgan can go away and think about England’s next one-day series.”

What is not a good argument against split captaincy is the typically Indian one: that it confuses the players who have to deal with different captaincy styles and temperaments and might lead to two power centres in the team.

This is an insult to the players who are professional, know their job, and in any case have a strong support system to fall back on. Loyalty alone cannot be the criterion to do well in a team, although it was well rewarded in Indian teams of the past. On a tour of England, Baqa Jilani was awarded a Test cap for the one service he rendered his captain Vizianagaram: he came down to the breakfast table and insulted C. K. Nayudu, the former captain! The more important question is: Is a different set of skills required to lead in the different formats?

The Test captain, by definition, sees a five-day game in large sweeps with the potential for planning and changing plans over a longer period than in the limited- over formats. The T20 captain has to think on his feet, jettison plans abruptly, retain intensity over the entire innings. Tactically these are not vastly different, although some captains may be temperamentally more attuned to one style than the other.

The skill set remains the same: tactical awareness, ability to get the best out of the players, acknowledgement that sometimes well-laid plans might have to be replaced by spontaneous on-the-spot decisions, the gift of fooling the opposition into thinking a particular way, the ability to capitalise on weaknesses in the opposition and neutralise the strengths.

India’s current horses-for-courses policy is as logical as its earlier captain-for-all-occasions one. Would Dhoni have played all formats for longer if he didn’t have such a huge workload? That’s difficult to say. Should we put Kohli through the same gruelling schedule as Dhoni?

That is what Indian cricket should be asking itself as the national team prepares for an engagement with South Africa involving Tests, ODIs and T20.