A leader in the true sense

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

Sourav Ganguly — aggressive on the field, relaxed off it.

"SOME people lead by pulling and some people lead by pushing". This gem comes from `Tiger' Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, arguably the best captain produced by India. "People like (Ray) Illingworth or (Mike) Brearley would lead by pushing people. People like Richie Benaud would lead by pulling people along. You have to be one or the other to get the best out of the team. You need a bit of luck also,'' was Pataudi's assessment. He was a bit of both — pulling and pushing.

Leading an Indian side is a job which comes with lot of perks apart from the power of sitting in judgement over the fate of the rest. In the case of Sourav Ganguly, he has been lucky enough to get support from all quarters — players, selectors and the administrators. And not always because he was the best man suited for the job. It must, however, be said that from slightly hesitant beginning he has grown more confident now and promises to be a leader of men.

At the outset, Ganguly earned the job by default. Sachin Tendulkar showed no interest and wanted to concentrate on his cricket than worry about others. Experience had left Tendulkar bitter. Ajay Jadeja and Mohammed Azharuddin fell from grace and Rahul Dravid, a far better thinker of the game than Ganguly, lost the race for captaincy. It is also unfortunate that Anil Kumble was never considered for the job. The Karnataka leg-spinner had all the ingredients to make a good captain.

Tiger Pataudi, following the nasty injury to Nari Contractor in the West Indies, was pitchforked when he did not even know Indian cricket so well. As he says "it could've been an advantage because I was not involved in any domestic politics of Indian cricket. I was an outsider.'' But Pataudi had good friends, like Jaisimha, who told him how to go about it. "No pitfalls really,'' remembers Pataudi, who was removed from the post in 1971 by a casting vote. As long as Pataudi was captain, he led with authority and distinction, marshalling a weak team against strong oppositions. In Bishan Singh Bedi's words, "Tiger was the best Indian captain ever. He taught us to be together, believe in ourselves and to win.''

Ajit Wadekar led for three years and made history during that short period, winning Test series in the West Indies and England. He was termed lucky but the fact remained that he did influence the course of the team when he was at the helm. Bishan Singh Bedi was a players' man, taking on the Board on behalf of his mates. He was a firm believer in traditions and never compromised. If he made foes in the process, it was a price he paid for selflessly siding with the players.

Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Dilip Vengsarkar, Azharuddin, Tendulkar, all different in their attitude and approach. But all led India with distinction. Azharuddin was the most successful if not always the most popular. Kapil was a transparent captain, standing by his players. The World Cup triumph was his significant contribution as a leader. He made the players believe in themselves. So did Gavaskar, who taught the players the importance of self-respect. He was branded a defensive captain when all he did was protect the image of the team. Vengsarkar did not get much opportunity to show his potential as a captain while Ravi Shastri, who could have been an outstanding choice, became a victim of the Board's politics and led in just one Test — winning against the mighty West Indies.

Tendulkar was a disappointment. Not because he did not succeed. Because he gave up the job when he ought not to have. He had the best cricketing brain but Indian cricket did not benefit much from it. He did not get the kind of support he would have wanted to from various quarters, including the players and the selectors. He was possibly peeved at having to deal with dishonest men around him and by relinquishing the post he only confirmed the fears that he had not enjoyed the job at all.

Captaincy is what every player dreams of. For a captain to do well and earn respect, he has to be accepted as a person doing a straightforward and honest job. If that happens, by and large the team accepts you. As it was in the case of Wadekar. As it is in the case of Ganguly. Of course there will be people who would think they should have been the captain. The problems have not changed very much in Indian cricket. The advantage that Ganguly has over many of his predecessors is that today the captain gets to know his players much better because they play so much more often.

To be cricket captain of India can be extremely demanding. People come from different parts of such a large country and there is always this regional bias, which is quite natural. As Pataudi said "a captain has to be able to organise and he can do that by being accepted as a person who is playing for India and for the team, rather than Delhi or Bengal... .Country has to be put ahead of the rest.'' Ganguly till date has done precisely that.

To Ganguly's credit he has backed players from outside his state. It is another matter he hardly had any talent worth backing in Bengal or even in the zone. But he has remained above petty politics in backing players like Yuveraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh, Mohammad Kaif, Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra. It is also true that commercial interests have also guided the backing and selection of certain players. A trend which was missing when Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev led the team. But Ganguly cannot be faulted on this account.

There is no doubt that Ganguly has a sound tactical or strategic sense. He is fundamentally correct, what with the backing of men like Dravid and coach John Wright. They help him avoid mistakes too often. He has gained from experience and from watching other people, if not from reading as captains like Steve Waugh and Shaun Pollock. A lot often depends on the temperament of the captain too and Ganguly is near-flawless in this regard.

What does Pataudi have to say on Ganguly? Tiger was candid "to be honest I haven't seen a great deal of cricket. Specially Test matches. This is where the captaincy comes out. One-day cricket is also important but it is the longer version of the game that brings out the soundness of a captain. My first impression of Sourav is that he's a very emotional person and he lets his emotions be seen. Nothing wrong with that. Some people don't do it. But he's controlling his emotions much better now. It's a good thing because the captain must not show too much happiness or sadness when things go right or wrong. He's supposed to be in control of the team as well as emotions. It's good that Sourav is not cowed down by the job or by the opposition or any other players. He's aggressive and leads from the front. He's obviously very sound otherwise he won't be there for so long. He's in control. You can see on the field that Sourav Ganguly is the captain. By far he's done pretty well.''

A feature of Ganguly's captaincy has been his success in picking his own men. The past captains did not have this privilege. Gavaskar would sometimes have his say. There are two ways about this phenomenon. If a person is not good enough to play for the team he would never get into the team. Does not matter whether he is your man or not. That is the reason why Ganguly never backed Deep Dasgupta. "You should be able to make them into your men. As long as you are doing it for the team, for the country, fine. But please don't back people who are not worth it,'' feels Pataudi. Well, Ganguly can never be accused of backing the wrong man. He understands from experience that talent has to be developed by the captain and he has done it well in the case of quite a few youngsters.

A captain has to have the talent to develop a player and Ganguly has that. He first establishes the talent and then guides him whenever he can. He may not be able to keep a tab on him all the time but backs him nevertheless.

It helps if a player remains natural. As in Ganguly's case. A captain can be demonstrative and there is nothing wrong about it, feel many past captains. But some captains show their petulance on the field and Ganguly has done that on many occasions. He should guard against showing too much emotions on the field for the sake of the television cameras. Such gestures are missing when he leads in domestic cricket, whenever he gets to that.

As Pataudi says "as a captain you may congratulate your players in public but shouldn't show annoyance. It can be unfair to the player who feels bad anyway. Wait till he gets to the dressing room. It is okay in say Pakistan where they have had this feudal attitude. They have always dealt with people in such a manner. But India is a democratic country. Everyone has a voice. The aim as captain should be only to get the best out of your team.

Gavaskar believes Ganguly is the best Indian captain ever. "He's the best Indian captain that I've seen. He has the passion for the job. No captain in the past has shown this kind of passion for the job. It can sometimes make him go overboard but there's nothing wrong with it. You must have the passion to do your job and I think Sourav is pretty well focussed."

Elaborating further, Gavaskar notes "I find nothing objectionable about his behaviour. His passion is infectious. It rubs on the team as well. What matters is his desire to see the team do well. I will say that his passion is his strongest point."

Kapil Dev, who played by instinct and led with a similar attitude, would not like to categorise Ganguly. "I've watched him closely and must say that he's a very emotional person. He takes his cricket very seriously and I like the way he leads the side. He wants to set example and that's what makes a good captain. What if Sourav is emotional. Let him do so as long as he does his job well. After all, he's doing it in the interest of the team and with the backing of the players. Why should anyone object if his emotional approach brings the best out of the players. I would only say that he need not make it public too often. I can understand there are times when one tends to get angry but as a captain you have to be careful. You have to lead by example. I think Sourav has still a lot to learn as a captain and I would wish him well. He needs the backing of all of us.''

Former Test opener and coach Aunshuman Gaekwad shared Kapil's views. "He's emotional no doubt but I think Sourav's improved a lot. He looks far more mature from the time I saw him lead the side in Toronto. Those were early days but he's taken the initiative. It's good that he's aggressive. I find him a different person as he leads by example. He's turning out to be a good captain."

Even as praise comes in from various quarters, one must point out that Ganguly also has flaws in the manner in which he leads. Sometimes bordering on arrogance. His handling of the seniors has not always been healthy. Ganguly certainly did not treat Anil Kumble, Javagal Srinath, Sunil Joshi, Murali Kartik, Sarandeep Singh with the same passion as Yuveraj or Harbhajan.

Ganguly has strong likes and dislikes and cannot really differentiate between well-wishers and sycophants. There were times when he did not act as a leader. Like during the match in Delhi against Australia when he stayed at a five-star hotel when the rest of the team was lodged at a hotel close to Ferozeshah Kotla. Ganguly certainly did not present a decent sight when he waved his shirt and mouthed obscenities from the Lord's balcony. It was shockingly poor behaviour even if he was trying to pay Andrew Flintoff back by the same coin.

Then there are stories of Ganguly being too demanding, putting pressure on his bowlers to deliver. It could be seen as part of the job, these hazards not really showing him in poor light but a minus point no doubt. He might benefit if he accepts the limitations of his bowlers than keep them on their toes. In the process, there is every possibility of the bowlers losing their composure. Aggression sounds very fine but only if it is directed at the opposition.

What goes in favour of Ganguly is his honesty. It is one trait which has remained the strongest point of his character and former skipper Dilip Vengsarkar confirms it. "Sourav is very, very honest. He's very faithful to his colleagues and I know he's very forthright in his views too. It's a big plus if the captain can remain transparent. A player in the team should know where he stands in the eyes of his captain and Sourav ensures that he gives the right message at the right time to his colleagues. I won't say much on how good he's tactically because that depends on the quality of the opposition. When I was the captain, I led against the West Indies which was the best team in the world. So how could anyone judge how good I was tactically. But Sourav has improved a lot. He knows how to groom his players and handles them very well. I've always found him a nice person to deal with.''

Nice person to deal with no doubt. Ganguly has always been faithful to his players no doubt. And as far as media is concerned, he has been the best captain for the simple reason he does not believe in hiding his opinion and is easily accessible . As a captain, Ganguly understands the needs of the media and is always willing to accommodate as many requests as he can. That is precisely why Ganguly has emerged the most popular of the Indian captains. He has managed to bring the team together. And if he appears to be the most influential captain of all time, the credit for that should go to the National selectors, who have accommodated his requests in the interest of Indian cricket.

Popular, yes. Better than many, yes. But certainly not the best yet. He will have to achieve more to earn that honour. Winning a Test series overseas and the World Cup could well be a helpful step in that direction. A triumph for the team could mean so much to the `players' captain,' Sourav Ganguly too.