Leading from the front

Different eras have seen different captains with different methods. However, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, Sourav Ganguly and Mahendra Singh Dhoni stand out as India skippers for compelling reasons. Over to Vijay Lokapally.

An administrator once put pressure on the state selectors to include a certain youngster in the team. The selectors appointed him as the captain which baffled the administrator. They then explained to the administrator that the only way they could accommodate the young lad in the squad was by naming him the captain. That was the only slot he could have occupied since he neither qualified as a batsman nor a bowler.

Jokes apart, in no other sport does a captain wield immense power as in cricket. Once the team enters the field, the captain is solely responsible for the conduct of his players. In modern cricket, a captain is slapped with monetary fine or match suspension if the team misbehaves or does not adhere to the rules of the game. He also has a say in picking the team. On the field, the captain alone can decide who does what.

A captain has to lead by example. Some are born leaders, and some grow up to be good leaders. Some captains lead by thought and some by instinct.

“Many times I went by what my heart said,” Kapil Dev would declare.

“I was influenced by my mind, sometimes by my heart,” was Sachin Tendulkar's take.

“Luck too was a factor,” stated Ajit Wadekar.

Well, different methods that helped captains of different eras.

However, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, Sourav Ganguly and Mahendra Singh Dhoni stand out as India skippers for compelling reasons. No comparisons though, for it would be unfair to them.

Pataudi, educated abroad, had a charisma that was unmatched. Ganguly, the ‘Prince Charming' of Kolkata who earned his slot on sheer weight of his performance, was one of a kind. Dhoni, a player from a small town, is a modern day personification of a fierce competitor like Greg Chappell. No wonder the Aussie rates Dhoni highly as a captain.

We have some mind-boggling anecdotes involving India captains. In the 1958-59 home series against the West Indies, India had four captains in five Tests — Polly Umrigar, Ghulam Ahmed, Vinoo Mankad and Hemu Adhikari in that order.

S. Venkataraghavan, who was handed the reins of the team for the Delhi Test against the West Indies in 1974-75, was dropped for the next three Tests as Pataudi was entrusted with the responsibility of leading India.

After the 1979 tour of England, Venkataraghavan heard of his sacking as captain through an announcement from the cockpit on the flight back home. Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev played musical chairs for India's captaincy — they were sacked, reinstated, sacked, reinstated!

Captaincy can have far reaching effects. It can take an individual high in the esteem of his colleagues. It can also pull him down, along with his team. A lot depends on how the team fares. It is universally accepted that a captain is only as good as his team. But this argument is put forward only when the captain is at the receiving end. Funnily, all his shortcomings are brushed aside if the team fares well.

In the 2007 World T20 Championship final against Pakistan, when Dhoni tossed the ball to Joginder Sharma to bowl the last over, everybody, including his team-mates were apprehensive for the experienced Harbhajan Singh had one more over to bowl. Joginder got the wicket of Misbah-ul-Haq, India won the trophy and Dhoni was hailed as a genius, a super hero.

However, the same Dhoni seemed prone to human errors when he influenced the selection of R. P. Singh for the 2011 England tour. R. P. Singh proved to be an embarrassment and the captain had clearly blundered. As Greg Chappell states in his book Fierce Focus, “The responsibility for running the direction of the game falls on the captain.”

As one who led India to victory in the inaugural World T20 Championship and the 2011 World Cup, Dhoni, who also piloted the team to No. 1 in Test rankings, is the most successful cricket captain in the country. Circumstances led to Dhoni being made India skipper. It was a time when Sachin Tendulkar declined the job after Rahul Dravid had chucked it away for several reasons. Anil Kumble then took over the reins for a brief while and after his retirement, Dhoni was handed India's captaincy while Virender Sehwag was strangely ignored. In hindsight, it was not a bad decision.

When Ganguly took over the team, Indian cricket was just coming out of the match-fixing crisis. It was a dark period, a difficult one too. “Please support the team. It is as much your team as mine,” Ganguly had said to this correspondent in Nairobi during the 2000 ICC Knock-out tournament where India lost the final to New Zealand.

Ganguly took early control of the team — he requested his juniors to give their 100 percent, dictated to them, cajoled them and glared at them when they fell short. But he also backed them. He would take on anyone for the benefit of his players. Ganguly brought a kind of aggression to captaincy that was unknown to Indian cricket and this gave him a new image. An image that wasn't exactly of a rebel or a warrior, but of a man who was keen to perform and extract performances. He was very vocal in public and again this was something Indian cricket had not known. The players could look up to him in times of despair and, barring a few exceptions, he believed in giving them a long run. The best quality of Ganguly as captain was that he discouraged regionalism and had no favourites from his state or zone.

Things also worked in Ganguly's favour. He had an ideal coach in John Wright. He also had Tendulkar by his side in difficult situations. And he could fall back on the three grand performers, Sehwag, Dravid and V. V. S. Laxman. It was a made-to-order batting line-up, the best middle-order in the world. Their consistency, aided by some sensational contributions from Anil Kumble and Harbhajan, gave Ganguly the title of ‘Players' Captain'.

Dhoni, on the other hand, has been fortunate to a large extent. The Jharkhand wonder had a tremendous combination of seniors and youngsters in his team. Plus, he produced some gems with the bat when the team needed them. As in the World Cup final against Sri Lanka for instance, when he promoted himself in the batting order and shut out the opposition with a daring display of shots in the company of Yuvraj Singh.

Of late, however, Dhoni's leadership has come under the scanner, scrutinised by all and sundry. His captaincy graph fell following India's drubbing in the Test series against England and Australia. Dhoni's appeal seems to be fading away. His decisions are being frequently questioned while the critics have been flaying the Indian skipper for his indifference even as the team is being slammed.

Dhoni's tactics and personal form have only compounded his problems. However, credit to him for the way he continued to introspect after the Test losses in England and Australia. Like a true leader, he took the blame on himself for the defeats, accepted his mistakes and specifically identified poor performers. Essentially, he spoke his mind. Dhoni is a successful captain, if not the best.

Pataudi, by far, remains the most popular and respected of Indian cricket captains. His regal background allowed him certain privileges, but he was a man completely at ease with the commoner. He had his own way of inspiring his colleagues and convincing the authorities. He did not have the best of combinations in the world, but Pataudi gave his team the confidence of becoming one. He had limited resources but never complained. Appointed captain at the age of 21, Pataudi upheld the traditions of the game and remained a charming cricketer. He played the captain's role with rare dignity.

In his autobiography, Tiger's Tale, Pataudi makes a comical reference to India's fast bowling. “Has a reserve wicketkeeper, with no record outside as a bowler, ever opened the bowling in a Test match?” he asks. And in the next sentence he informs that it was Budhi Kunderan who did so in the Birmingham Test in 1967, a match that also saw India play its famous spin quartet of Bishan Singh Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna, B. S. Chandrasekhar and Venkataraghavan together.

Pataudi spoke of the need to unearth fast bowlers but he kept his faith in his slow bowlers.

“He taught us to win,” said Bedi, a former India captain who was known for his art on the field and camaraderie off it.

The former India left-arm spinner steadfastly stood up for the rights and comforts of the players when he was in charge. Just as Kapil would, years later.

Kapil was a captain who loved playing under pressure. “It brought the best out of me,” he said. It was not easy for Kapil to lead seniors such as Venkataraghavan, Mohinder Amarnath, Gavaskar, Aunshuman Gaekwad and Syed Kirmani. Pataudi must have felt the same when asked to lead the Indian team that had senior players such as Polly Umrigar, Bapu Nadkarni, Chandu Borde, Vijay Manjrekar, M. L. Jaisimha, Ramakant Desai, Salim Durani, Rusi Surti, Farokh Engineer and Dilip Sardesai.

Pataudi led in 40 of the 46 Tests that he played in. He nurtured his spinners and gave them respect. He gave them the field that they needed and stood behind them solidly. His attitude to captaincy reflected his personality. “You can lead a side in several different ways. You can do it by being aloof, and this is probably the easiest because when people don't know you too well, they tend to treat you with respect, or you can lead by being ‘one of the boys', a sociable captain. You can be a tough fellow, or a nice fellow; an inspiring performer, or a shrewd tactician. But, however you do it, you must command the players' respect,” he writes in Tiger's Tale.

Pataudi was respected and adored. He was accepted by one and all as the best Indian captain.

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