Cricket is clearly the only team sport where the captain’s role begins, not ends, with the toss. That’s when he graduates from being a skipper to a leader.
There is no armband to indicate he is the first among equals, no (Capt.) at the back of his shirt that singles him out from the rest. But, and especially when a team is on the field, it’s not hard to figure out who the man in charge is.
He’s generally the one who is waving his arms around like a traffic policeman — which in a way he is, directing personnel to the exact spot where he and/or his bowler want him stationed. He is the one tasked with thinking on his feet, remembering and then altering carefully worked game-plans when situations so demand, swapping bowlers around, ensuring that his boys’ energy levels don’t drop, and that there is intent and enthusiasm in their body language and approach. Not without reason is a captain fined twice as much as any other member of the side in the event of a slow over-rate. It’s the establishment’s way of recognising that a team takes its cue from the skipper, that the man in charge is the one responsible not just for the outcome but also for the conduct of his 10 on-field mates and the four or five outside the park.
In football, say, or hockey, the captain merges into the background once play gets underway. He is just another player, because the pace and contours of both sport don’t necessarily call for strategic on-field decision-making. The tactical responsibilities rest with the manager or the coach. A cricket captain has nowhere to hide. Occasionally, he will receive a tip or two from some of his senior colleagues. From time to time, the coach will slip him some advice through a reserve player. But the buck stops with him. Which means, beyond a point, he is thinking not just for or about himself, but the entire squad, collectively and individually.
No format tests a captain’s sharpness, his quickness of thinking, his street-smartness and his instantaneous ability to weigh up risk versus reward more unforgivingly than the 20-over game where a 10-minute passage driven by one muscular performance can inexorably shape the destination of a contest. It’s in the rapidity and the adroitness with which an individual reacts to adversity under extreme pressure that one’s true character bobbles to the surface.
Just as the identity of one’s friends provides a window to the kind of person one is, the character of a team is often reflective of the nature of the person at the helm. And while that’s something cricket and its followers have come to take for granted historically, the gamut of leadership has assumed an entirely new hue since the proliferation of franchise-driven Twenty20 leagues that bring the best players in the world — from different countries and vastly unique cultures — under one common, colourful umbrella.
Man management off the field, and clarity of decision-making on it, are definite musts for the captain of a franchise to leave his mark. The Indian Premier League, easily the most high-profile ‘domestic’ Twenty20 league in the world, attracts a conglomeration of the bold and the beautiful, the exciting and the effervescent, the established and the emerging. For nigh on 10 months, a majority of these players go head-to-head in international, country versus country combat. To then occupy the same dressing-room, and take the field as team-mates, isn’t an easy proposition — or, at least, it wouldn’t have been easy to start with. “I find it easier to sledge my sister than a fellow South African in the IPL,” Dale Steyn once told me. Clearly, one of the requirements of an IPL captain in the nascent stages of the tournament was to get the top players up for battle against their countrymen.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni is clearly the captain of captains so far as the IPL goes, and not just because of his envious record in terms of sheer numbers. Chennai Super Kings are the clearest example of a captain’s character rubbing off on his team. For all their glorious successes, the three-time champions are an under-stated bunch, leaving the glitz and the glamour for the others to covet and going about their job with a minimum of fuss. Their calmness, like India’s when Dhoni was in command, emanates from the steady, unwavering hand steering the ship. Dhoni and panic have been mutually exclusive since he broke into public consciousness in the early 2000s; even in the most pressure-packed scenarios, the yellow brigade has managed to retain its composure, one of the primary reasons why it has ended up on the right side of thrillers more often than any other outfit.
The man who fired the first leadership salvo in the IPL is the best cricketer never to have led Australia in Test cricket. Rajasthan Royals were among the least fashionable teams when the IPL kicked off in 2008, but within eight weeks of the start of the most electric ride in franchise cricket, they had ripped the formbook to shreds. Shane Warne’s ebullience rubbed off on his colleagues; he talked up hitherto unheralded domestic players, referring to one as the Goa Cannon (Swapnil Asnodkar), hailing another as the Rockstar (Ravindra Jadeja). His free spirit appealed to his mates, they embraced the fearlessness as well as the cheekiness that Warne wore proudly on his sleeve. That the Royals are today more stoic than flamboyant is a legacy of the Rahul Dravid era that has now been passed down to Ajinkya Rahane.
Mumbai’s transition from the Sachin Tendulkar age to the Rohit Sharma school of leadership — via Harbhajan Singh and Ricky Ponting, briefly — throws up a fascinating case study. Tendulkar was towards the end of his illustrious career and new to the T20 game, therefore understandably more stately than frenetic. So were Mumbai at the start despite the mercurial presence of Sanath Jayasuriya. Once Rohit, symbolic of modern-day India that is fearless and aggressive and unafraid to lay its passion bare, slipped into the hot seat, they have shed conservatism without compromising on substance, just like Kolkata Knight Riders did when the baton passed from Sourav Ganguly to the ultra-aggressive Gautam Gambhir.
Virat Kohli has been Royal Challengers Bangalore’s talisman, but while he has led from the front and scored mountains of runs, he hasn’t been able to inspire his ultra-talented superstars — Chris Gayle, A. B. de Villiers, Shane Watson and Yuvraj Singh among them — to championship-winning heights like he has his colleagues in the Indian team. Kohli’s competitiveness hasn’t always been mirrored by his men, who have been timid and hesitant at the crunch. How RCB, with their mesmeric and enviable firepower, still don’t have a title against their name will remain one of the great mysteries of the IPL.
With the World Cup imminent, it is not unrealistic to expect a slight let-up in intensity when Season 12 kicks off on March 23. However, with established and familiar captains in the mix, pre-established strategies — with minor tweaks — should remain the norm and team dynamics are unlikely to alter too much. While a captain is only as good as his team, it’s equally true that teams will continue to be shaped by the cues emanating from their driven leaders — whether it is win at all cost, or whether it is managing the cost in pursuit of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
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