Leading from the front

ENCOMIUMS flowed — deservingly perhaps — for the masterly captain's innings that Sourav Ganguly crafted against Australia in the first Test at Brisbane.

ENCOMIUMS flowed — deservingly perhaps — for the masterly captain's innings that Sourav Ganguly crafted against Australia in the first Test at Brisbane. The value and timing of that innings prompted the former Australian captain, Greg Chappell, to write admiringly: "The fact that he could ignore the impending doom and gloom and fashion one of the best captain's knocks seen in this country in my memory is a credit to his talent and strength of character." It might not have been as classical as the two successive centuries he notched up at Lord's and Trent Bridge in 1996 to establish himself in the team then, but was compiled under trying circumstances in the role of a leader in Brisbane.

Coming as the century did at a time when critics were wondering whether Ganguly really deserved a place as a player in the Test team, it set aside the gloomy predictions for the Indians in Australia. His batsmanship underscored the fighting qualities of a skipper willing and able to lead from the front.

It is often said that the prestige associated with being the Indian cricket captain is next only to that of being the country's Prime Minister. Given the expectations to perform and foster the image of the nation, there is a trace of truism in this comparison. The unenviable task of captains such as Ganguly can well be imagined. The pressure is tremendous and even a genius such as Sachin Tendulkar was unwilling to handle it in 1999-2000. He flirted with it briefly, but gave up, realising the task would eventually shackle the charm of his batting talents.

Ganguly represents, in essence and spirit, a hard-boiled modern cricket captain; fierce, authoritative, adept, analytical, articulate and ready to face challenges without inhibitions. Sensitive to the point of even being branded as haughty, effusive and egoistic, Ganguly has always striven to convey his ability of being able to come to grips with the demands of the situation.

In the web of pulls and pressures that are dominant features of Indian cricket, the issue of captaincy has always produced strong emotions, talks of prejudice and intrigue. In the pre-partition days the role was the preserve of the royalty such as the Maharajah of Porbandar or the Maharajkumar of Vizianagaram regardless of their calibre. Then the focus shifted to aristocracy such as the Nawab of Pataudi (Sr) although his merit as a cricketer was unimpeachable.

When the mantle fell on commoners such as C. K. Nayudu and Lala Amarnath, who led India in the first post-independent series in Australia against Don Bradman, the issue consistently prompted a negative reaction. Frequent changes were the order of the day as the selectors pitched on a new name series after series. So much so, even a dynamic and thinking leader such as Lala suffered from want of time to prove himself as an intelligent and ingenuous decision-maker. Vijay Hazare, who led India to its first-ever victory over England in Madras in 1952-53, commanded more reverence for his all-round competence than as an efficient skipper. The incorrigible selection procedures and blatant interference by the administration led to a tragic situation in 1958-59 when the national team had to be led by four different captains against the West Indies.

Nari Contractor showed the makings of a successful captain in the early 60s but a nasty head injury from a brute of a delivery by Charlie Griffith in the West Indies catapulted the rookie Nawab of Pataudi (Jr) to the top in 1962. Although there were a handful of seniors in the field, Pataudi's proficiency and charisma, not to speak of his upbringing in the English County atmosphere, carried the day in his favour. The need for a decent tenure for a skipper to chalk out a definite plan of action was realised by then. Pataudi had a fairly long stint, punctuated by some notable successes, before a casting vote by Vijay Merchant as Chairman of the Selection Committee ended his reign, triggering another bout of controversy and accusations of intrigue, regionalism and favouritism.

So complex is the study of captains and their role that it is not easy to evaluate anyone appreciatively. Not until the advent of Sunil Gavaskar, who took over from Bishan Bedi, did a captain invite the focus he should. Gavaskar led with a measure of confidence, although history will portray his leadership in 47 matches as defensive because 30 among them were drawn. Even Gavaskar's tenure ended on a bitter note in Pakistan when Kapil Dev, projected as a more dashing and dynamic leader, gained charge. A batsman in the classical mould, Md. Azharuddin may have courted more triumphs but was not reckoned as an enterprising leader. His image, too, was tarnished by allegations of match-fixing.

When studied against the background of the gallery of personalities in the seven decades of Tests, Sourav Ganguly deserves to be placed on a high pedestal as one who showed the gumption to take on the best on equal terms.