Whither Sourav?

IT is often said that the stature of the captain of the Indian cricket team is next only to that of the Prime Minister. This underlines the degree of focus on the leader of the national squad. Assessed from any angle, the role of a cricket captain, not only in India but the world over, is a high profile one; and, naturally enough, he remains under the microscope day in and day out. Small wonder therefore, that a debate is raging over the performance of Sourav Ganguly, both as leader and as a player, after the Aussies have left our shores with a 2-1 series win.

That Sourav's physical fitness, or the lack of it, is engendering doubts over his tenure as captain cannot be brushed aside. For some sections, any talk of replacing the charismatic skipper with an enviable record is an act of sacrilege. But in practical terms, the issue, at least in the form of a debate, cannot be postponed forever. Sourav missed two Tests against the Aussies recently declaring himself unfit hours before the start at Nagpur and then again at Mumbai. The skipper did not even bother to be in Mumbai with the team, which eventually registered a dramatic victory on a brute of a pitch.

There is no dispute that Sourav is the most successful of the Indian captains. Since taking over the mantle in 2000 after Sachin Tendulkar refused to shoulder the responsbility and decided to concentrate on batting, Sourav has had a remarkable run, winning 15 out of 40 Tests, overhauling the 14 by Azharuddin. Remarkable, too, has been the feat of recording seven victories abroad against the one by Azhar. What more, he also led India to the final of the 2003 World Cup after a lapse of two decades after Kapil led the team to a trophy triumph in England.

Whether Rahul Dravid is a serious contender to the position, especially after the critics have hailed the qualities of his leadership in the Mumbai Test, evokes mixed reactions. Actually, there is nothing to suggest that Sourav is finding the cares of captaincy a strain and a drain on his role as a player. But there is increasing evidence of frustration creeping in as revealed by his statements in Nagpur about the playing surface and by the decision to fly back home from Mumbai.

The entries and exits of captains in the eventful history of Indian cricket have always stimulated a debate. Tragically, the nominations, on most instances, were biased and whimsical. Time was when the issue rested with the cricket-loving royalty and those who sponsored tours abroad, or played host to visiting teams. The Maharajah of Porbandar, The Maharajkumar of Vizianagaram (Vizzy) and the Yuvaraja of Patiala are a few who deserve mention. In this lot, Yadavendrasinhji of Patiala was probably the only cricketer who deserved his place in the team, though not as a captain.

This is not to suggest that all those who captained lacked dynamism. C. K. Nayudu was admired and respected. Lala Amarnath showed commendable leadership qualities even against the great Don Bradman during the first Indian tour of Australia. Vijay Hazare gained eminence by recording the first ever home Test win — against England — in 1952. But, undeniably, there were inimical forces that created appalling situations. The West Indies tour of India in 1958-59 saw four captains for five matches! Pataudi (Jr), who led in 40 Tests, was removed through the unusual use of the casting vote by the Chairman, Vijay Merchant, to elevate the inexperienced Ajit Wadekar. That Pataudi came back to lead is another fascinating aspect. In 1974-75 Venkataraghavan was appointed captain for the Delhi Test against the West Indies, but removed from the squad for the next Test for no palpable reason.

Instances such as these damaged the image of the Board, and more so of the selectors. Not until the 80s did the situation improve. Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev had a fairly long tenure thanks to their flair and ability to perform with a measure of consistency. Despite being an introvert, Azharuddin succeeded enormously through his brilliance. But, unfortunately, Azharuddin had to leave the scene in humiliation as did a majority of his predecessors.

Forecasting what lies ahead of Sourav is hazardous. It must, however, be understood that the Indian captaincy is not always a bed of roses. The denominator is success, and nothing else.