Captains in the last leg

The ongoing World Cup is very significant for captains such as Smith, Ponting, Vettori and Sangakkara. Smith and Vettori have decided to step down after the event and they would like to go out on a high, while the captaincy future of Ponting and Sangakkara will depend largely on their teams' showing.

The 2011 World Cup will be the last event in which Smith, Ponting, Vettori and Sangakkara will figure as captains and the major competition could well be their swansong. While Smith and Vettori have decided to step down, Ponting and Sangakkara are likely to get the chop if they fail to deliver.

It is rather interesting to see Smith relinquishing his post at a time when he is doing well, while in the case of Vettori, it is understandable because the Kiwis have been having a torrid time in the last few months. Ponting's situation is entirely different as the defeat in the Ashes has triggered hoarse cries for his ouster as captain. However, whether Michael Clarke, the next in line for the job, is ready to take over and deliver is not clear yet.

Ponting survived earlier when Australia lost the Ashes in England in 2005 but with the Punter getting older, the Australian selection committee is looking at the future in the event the Aussies don't retain the World Cup. There is every possibility that Ponting might take a bow on a high if the Aussies happen to win a record fourth successive title.

Like Ponting, Sangakkara may be axed as captain if Sri Lanka doesn't acquit itself well in the World Cup but he may retain the job if Sri Lanka makes it to the semi-final. Sangakkara will be hoping to take his team all the way through like any other captain leading a fancied side, but the fortune of any side will depend largely on the tactical abilities of the captain, especially in the Sub-Continent. The reason I say this is because reading the different pitches in the Sub-Continent right and then making decisions based on it will be the key factor.

The pitches in West Indies in 2007 were more or less of the same nature as they were in South Africa in 2003, but in this edition, the teams will be playing in three different countries. The general characteristics will be the same, but the extent of assistance that the spinners are likely to obtain will vary immensely. This was endorsed by the spinner-friendly surfaces during the warm-up matches and even in the first game of the championship between India and Bangladesh. As a result, not only should the captains read the pitches right, they also have to get their playing combination right. More importantly, the captains have to handle their spinners really well for them to make an impact as they will have a role to play.

Vettori will be delighted to see the pitches offering assistance, but at the same time he will be wondering whether his batsmen are capable enough to cope against some good spinners. The drubbing in Bangladesh will still rankle and quite obviously the Kiwis were annihilated because of their inability to adapt to turning tracks. The Kiwi captain is highly experienced and can hold his own even on flat pitches but given the strength of his batting line-up, he would rather that the pitches don't help the spinners.

His Trans-Tasman counterpart will be concerned about the lack of quality spinners in his ranks and with Krejza showing inadequate temperament and skill sets, he may have to turn to his deputy Clarke, to roll over his arm on a regular basis. This is where the ability of a captain will be tested as he needs to somehow get his main bowler Krejza to deliver.

Along these lines, Smith is better off in that he has more than decent spinning options and the fact that his spinners have figured in the IPL and succeeded will provide additional comfort. The South African spinners can look forward to success as their fast bowlers would give them the opportunities to bowl against batsmen who are forced into a corner.

The Sri Lankan skipper is really blessed with the likes of Muralitharan, Herath and Mendis in his side. The legendary Muralitharan is in a league of his own still and if Mendis can revive the magic and mystery that he displayed on his arrival into the international arena, Sangakkara can end up emulating Arjuna Ranatunga. However, Sangakkara needs to be clear on who should partner Muralitharan because sometimes a problem of plenty can really be a handicap of sorts. It will be interesting to see which spinner enjoys the confidence of Sangakkara, but all the same, either of them will have the advantage of bowling in tandem with the highest wicket-taker which can help their cause.

Regardless of the resources or the lack of them, the captains will be really tested in terms of their decision-making skills and the pressure will really mount once the tournament gets into the knock-out stage. Talking of the knock-out phase, Smith has an additional problem of having to make his side remain in the present and not think about the past. The infamous “chokers” tag has plagued the South Africans and it is about time a side like South Africa that plays its cricket hard gets rid of it. Staying in the present is the mantra that is easily advocated but whether the South Africans can follow it implicitly will decide their fate.