Warne and Dhoni are interesting case-studies

Cricket is unique in how it privileges the captain. Its duration and its susceptibility to changing conditions ensure it can’t be remote-controlled from outside. But Twenty20 short-circuits both these attributes. By S. Ram Mahesh.

John Buchanan may have his detractors, several of them formidable, intelligent men capable of withering critique, but he can’t ever be accused of being dreary. His endeavour is noble: he constantly pushes the limits of absurdity, for plodding reason rarely approaches genius. But the trouble is he’s too out there. Often in such endeavours, there’s a tendency to try a lot so something sticks.

The multiple-captain theory was just that — an intriguing model of leadership that wasn’t radical, but worth considering, even if only as a purely academic exercise. It certainly didn’t deserve the scorn it copped. But amidst all the fuss, it did one very useful thing: it trained the focus on captaincy in Twenty20 cricket. What good is that, you ask. It helps us better understand a format that for long has been restricted by its perception as a spot of hit and giggle. This isn’t to say Twenty20 cricket is a complex, many-layered thing capable of grand drama — it quite simply isn’t — but it certainly isn’t as anodyne as some would like to believe.

Cricket is unique in how it privileges the captain. Its duration and its susceptibility to changing conditions ensure it can’t be remote-controlled from outside. But Twenty20 short-circuits both these attributes. Even with the infernally annoying strategic time-out, it still gets done rather rapidly, and in so doing scarcely experiences the caprices of the elements. Barring dew, which might set in one innings and not the other (and even this is a rare occurrence), conditions remain the same across the game.

A case may be made that the captain has therefore less of role in this version; only, the fact that it’s so fluid and sensitive to turns of flow (an over can prove irreversible) necessitates a different sort of captaincy. A leader of studied deliberation, of rigorous pre-match planning, or one given to elaborate set-ups isn’t out of place — for cricket, whatever its format, allows everyone space — but a captain who reacts intuitively and spontaneously often does better.

Little wonder that Shane Warne and M. S. Dhoni are held up as the poster-boys of the IPL. Both are interesting case-studies, for although they are perceived as attacking leaders — and they are, in varying degrees, Warne more so than Dhoni — they have made curiously defensive moves during the course of the tournament.

Dhoni is a wonderfully intuitive leader at his best, capable of refreshingly street-smart thinking that isn’t as divorced from the basics as it seems. But, paradoxically, he also seems given to peculiar patterns, which often tends to the senselessly defensive. In New Zealand (sure it was a Test, but the example holds), he decided to try and strangle batsmen already intent on batting time. A similar ploy had worked in the fourth Test at Nagpur against Australia, but the context was entirely different.

Dhoni, however, attacked relentlessly in an IPL game against the Royal Challengers, using Muttiah Muralitharan as a weapon (a departure from his run-containing role) with men in catching positions, and just fell short of victory. He was forced to attack in this case. This brought out his best, which begs the question why he can’t do so more often. What Dhoni does marvellously well is retain his equipoise in tumult — not for him the hand-flapping recriminations of lesser men — and his team seem calmed by his balance.

Much of captaincy is assessment, even what happens on-field. How a cricketer views another — in terms, broadly speaking, of talent and temperament — is limited by the human eye and conditioning.

Some spot talent no one else does; some show an intimate understanding of character. Warne has shown glimpses of both. He might appear to captain unconventionally, but often his decisions are based on solid cricket principles and a readiness to attack.

Warne’s handling of Kamran Khan early in IPL-2 is a case in point. First he bowled the left-armer for only an over in a trial match — a decision that surprised several experts, for the tendency is to allow a newcomer time to find his feet. But Warne had judged that Kamran would respond adequately when needed, and so he saw no reason to expose the slinger’s singular talents. Kamran did just that against the Kolkata Knight Riders, scalping Sourav Ganguly at a crucial juncture during the game.

Warne then forced Kamran to step up in the Super Over, to find that space beyond incessant thought that releases a performer from the mind’s confines. Warne’s standing in the game, roughly that of an all-knowing god, will have convinced Kamran of his own quality.

Richie Benaud wrote that a captain must always appear to have a trick up his sleeve even if he really didn’t. Bluff has been a Warne speciality; what isn’t as widely known is it’s underpinned on his ability to accurately assess how a cricketer will respond.

One last point in closing. Imran Khan once told Ian Chappell that it was better being a bowling captain, for much of captaincy happened on the field. All you did when your side batted was sit with your feet up, when not actually batting, and pass the odd message to the men in the middle.

Twenty20 has turned that on its head: changes in batting order can make the difference between victory and defeat, not just as a means to surprise the opposition, which pretty much every captain has done in IPL-2, but as a tactical ploy, in deploying the heavy-hitters according to the situation of the game.