Pataudi had vision

Erapalli Prasanna rolled his radiant eyes, and then a mild smile crossed his lips. Happy memories were drifting in.

S. DINAKAR

Pataudi, apart from providing his men with self-belief and a sense of pride, brought an element of freshness to the role with his bold ways.-Pic. RAJEEV BHATT

Erapalli Prasanna rolled his radiant eyes, and then a mild smile crossed his lips. Happy memories were drifting in.

He was remembering someone with whom he could make things happen on the cricketing arena - captain extraordinaire Tiger Pataudi.

Even as he spoke, Prasanna said something that was significant — "He (Pataudi) could think about my field placements, before I could ask him something."

Words that reflected Pataudi's `vision', quite the most important quality in any skipper. Prasanna was among the shrewdest of bowlers, and for a captain to stay a step ahead of such a canny customer, was remarkable in itself.

An attacking skipper who created opportunities, and an off-spinner of great repute. The chemistry was just right here.

No wonder, Prasanna scalped a mind-boggling 49 batsmen in eight Tests on the back to back tours of Australia and New Zealand in 1967-68. With Pataudi pulling the strings.

That was a momentous campaign in Indian cricket history, for when India defeated New Zealand 3-1, the country had registered its first overseas Test series triumph, a path-breaking victory in several respects.

It is the performances away from home that reveal a side's true mettle, and it was hardly surprising that when the Indians finally made the `breakthrough' in '68, the highly rated Pataudi was in charge.

Captaincy can be demanding, exhausting, and the pressures of the job can drive lesser mortals to despair. Pataudi, apart from providing his men with self belief and a sense of pride, brought in a whiff of freshness to the role with his bold ways. While cricket has remained the same, the dynamics of the game have changed with the passing of eras, and comparisons can be unfair. The needs can be different too, having a direct bearing on the role of a captain.

For instance, from the 90s, the harmful excess of limited overs cricket along with the television boom, fuelled by market forces, has led to a shifting of priorities, while the explosion in the print and electronic media has meant the captain is under scrutiny like never before.

While, the captain was the sole boss before the 80s, with the manager chipping in with the occasional inputs, he now has to work in tandem with a coach, who might enjoy wide-ranging powers, the physio and the fitness trainer. Not to speak of the sports psychologist, in case he is attached to the team.

In the early 30s, when the majestic C. K. Nayadu wore the captain's hat, to the 40s and the 50s, when Lala Amarnath and Vijay Hazare, illustrious cricketers of contrasting temper, held the reins, Indian cricket struggled to create an identity of its own.

Pataudi was the first long-standing Indian captain, leading the country in 40 Tests, winning nine and losing nineteen. Figures that do not tell the entire story.

The Indian side did not always wear a settled look those days, and that was also a phase when the side was attempting to `catch up' with the traditional superpowers of the game — Australia, England and the West Indies. And it can be said that the gulf narrowed under Pataudi's tenure.

A brilliant middle-order batsman, who made light of losing vision in one eye, and a tigerish fielder at covers, Pataudi could lift his players, and he could transform the course of matches. He was both a captain, and a leader of men, blending cricketing intelligence with man-management skills.

Even in his last series, when his best days as a batsman were clearly behind him, Pataudi showed he could alter a match with one smart move. Indeed, his decision to bring back leg-spinner Bhagwat Chandrasekar, who had proved expensive earlier, during the decisive stage of the third Test against the powerful West Indies in the 1974-75 series, proved a masterstroke.

Pataudi's fling of the dice worked, and Chandra ran through the West Indies, as India, that had been crushed in the first two Tests, found a lifeline at the Eden Gardens. In a dramatic turn of events, with Pataudi marshalling his recourses superbly, India managed to level the scores 2-2 in Madras, before the West Indies clinched the decider in Bombay.

Ajit Wadekar (four wins and an equal number of defeats in 16 Tests), made captain of the Indian team under rather controversial circumstances, following selection panel chief Vijay Merchant's casting vote, skippered India to two of its most memorable away series wins — over the West Indies and England in '71.

His methods, more conservative in nature, were different from that of Pataudi, and for all his successes on foreign soil, his captaincy lacked the flair of Pataudi.

From the mid-70s, six Indian captains have been given lengthy tenures — Bishan Singh Bedi, Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Mohammed Azharuddin, Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly. Gavaskar and Ganguly will have to be the pick here.

Gavakar captained the country in the most crucial phase of its cricketing history, when the great spinners were fading away from the scene and pace made an entry in the form of Kapil Dev.

Zaheer Abbas & Co. had put the Indian spinners to sword on the tour of Pakistan in 78, and Gavaskar had a huge task ahead of him, among them was changing the mind-set of the Indians, so used to watching spin after a handful of overs from the pacemen.

Gavaskar nursed Kapil extremely well in the initial stages of his career, providing the Haryana youngster confidence, giving him right spells at the right time. Indeed, in the late 70s, the face of the Indian attack underwent a drastic change.

He took on the big, fast men at the top of the order without once flinching, meeting the ball with the purest of techniques and the broadest of blades. The message to his men was clear — we will not give in without a fight.

Gavaskar has been accused by some of being overly defensive, however, if you look at the composition of the Indian attack in those times, he had little choice. There was a match-winning paceman in Kapil Dev, but then, he was also doubling up as a stock bowler. Dilip Doshi was a competent left-arm spinner, but he was not the kind to run through sides. Playing the `waiting game' was a well thought out option. And he believed if four bowlers couldn't perform the job, the fifth would not either.

Gavaskar brought in an element of solidity to the Indian approach, and the great man finished with a fairly impressive Test record — nine wins and eight defeats in 47 Tests.

Away from home, he captained India to a famous victory in Melbourne, '81, when the side came back from the dead; Kapil, despite a pulled hamstring, bowled heroically in the Australian second innings.

Gavaskar himself had lost his cool during that Test after being adjudged leg-before to Dennis Lillee in the second innings, at a time when India was desperately trying to stay alive. The captain came to the brink of pulling India out of the match, and in hindsight, the incident might have actually stoked the combative instinct in the Indians. Teams are known to rally around their skipper in times like these.

Gavsakar's first overseas Test win had come in Auckland '76, when he was standing in for Bedi, a game where the great Prasanna revelled on a `green top.' Among Gavaskar's most cherished victories was when he shrewdly plotted the downfall of Asif Iqbal's star-studded Pakistanis in India, '79. And his captaincy in the World Championship of Cricket down under in '85 was spot on, as India, turning in a dominant display, won the title.

The area where Gavaskar scored over his predecessor Bedi (six wins and 11 defeats in 22 Tests) is that he did not leave his flanks exposed while going on the offensive. Under Bedi, India posted what was then a world record winning total in the Port of Spain Test of '76, but the Sardar did his cause little good by tending to overbowl in the latter stages of his career, when his powers were clearly on the decline.

Kapil Dev's feat of inspiring India to a World Cup triumph '83, where his Devils stunned the field, will always provide him a special place among all Indian skippers. And it was under his captaincy that India last achieved a Test series win outside the sub-continent, 2-0 victory over England in '86.

Kapil's Test record as captain, four wins, a tie, and seven defeats in 34 matches, hardly presents him in favourable light though. He was too instinctive and impulsive in his ways, that appeared more suited for limited overs cricket, rather than Tests, where planning (Gavaskar's forte) and execution are a must. His chief asset was his ability to set an example with his own performances, on the other hand, when things did not roll for him, he allowed the game to drift.

Himself a wristy, free-stroking batsman, Mohammed Azharuddin was a captain who understood the needs of the bowlers and often got the best out them, with a relaxed rather than a `hands on' approach. With 14 wins and an equal number of reverses in 47 Tests, Azhar has a creditable record, and though his reputation has been tainted by the match-fixing scandal, it would be unfair to completely disregard his achievements.

The pace-spin pair of Javagal Srinath and Anil Kumble blossomed under Azhar and the Indians enjoyed heady success at home from the '92-93 season — the 3-0 drubbing of Graham Gooch's England in 1992-93 and the 2-1 win over Mark Taylor's Australians in 1997-98 were notable results. On the flip side, Azhar has just one `away' Test win to his credit — the series clinching victory in the Colombo Test of the 1993-94 season.

This is where, Sourav Ganguly, a bold, aggressive captain, scores. The Bengal cricketer has 13 wins and 10 defeats in 32 Tests, and five of the victories have come away from home — Dhaka (2000), Bulawayo (2001), Kandy (2001), Port of Spain (2002), and Leeds (2002). Importantly, three of the results have been achieved outside the sub-continent.

There has been a definite improvement in India's `away' record under Ganguly, and when the side fought back to level the series in England last year, the indications were that the team was on the right track. Here is a captain who will back his men through thick and thin, and if Harbhajan Singh, Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, Mohammed Kaif and Ashish Nehra are successful cricketers today, a large chunk of the credit should go to their skipper.

Ahead of that eventful home series against Australia in 2001, Ganguly put his foot down over the inclusion of off-spinner Harbhajan, and just look at the impact the Sardar had on the series.

Ganguly is not the kind to be intimidated by reputations, and when provoked by Steve Waugh, he took the Aussie great on in `a war of words' that preceded the series. In fact, Ganguly played the mind game so well — making Waugh wait and sweat before the toss — that it was the Aussies who were at the receiving end for a change.

Unlike Tendulkar (four wins in 25 Tests and without an away victory), who gave the distinct impression of being overburdened and not enjoying his job, Ganguly relishes captaincy. He is a natural born leader too, having captained various sides, right from his schools days.

The man plays his cricket with plenty of passion — on occasions he allows his emotions to get the better of him though — and much of it rubs off on the team. Indeed, for most part of the last 16 months, the Indians have gone about their job with much commitment and heart, displaying the spirit and the desire to claw their way back from the brink.

This was so evident in the World Cup, where India's run till the final was quite sensational. The captain has got his priorities right, is not parochial, and has set his sights on building a strong Indian pace attack, a must for the country to be successful on a regular basis outside the sub-continent.

Of course, he has had his lows, and the New Zealand tour ahead of the World Cup would not be the one he would like to remember. Even here, more than any fault in his captaincy, it was his batting that left many disappointed. The southpaw has a tendency to play away from the body, which can be fatal on seaming pitches. One of the challenges facing him before the coming season would be to tighten up his game, around the off-stump area.

He has been firm in his decision making, and has stuck to his guns, even while dealing with a personality as huge as Tendulkar, over the question of opening the innings in limited overs cricket. Ganguly, who has dropped himself down the order on occasions to counter quality spinners, has made it clear more than once that the team was bigger than any individual. It was only during the World Cup in Southern Africa, when the team-management felt Tendulkar could be more useful at the top of the order, that the Indian superstar got his opening slot back.

Comparisons can be hazardous, and arguments can be made, for and against, however if one were to select the top three Indian captains, they would have to be Pataudi, Gavaskar and Ganguly, in that order.