It is the poisoned chalice craved by everyone but successfully sipped by a select few. Captaincy in cricket is a unique assignment in the world of sports. Nowhere else will you find the designated skipper given such control of all aspects of the game including tactics, man-management and decision-making. With one of India’s most successful captains MS Dhoni hanging up his boots, it seemed the right moment to delve into the intricacies of the role and its impact on the game was here.
Compare it with the most popular sport in the world, and you will discover that the role of the captain is starkly different, with tactical calls being made by the manager/head coach.
When the team hits the point of no return, it is the manager who gets the sack in football. When it comes to cricket, the axe inevitably falls on the captain.
Sometimes, the cross is too difficult to bear for otherwise great talents of the game. His form plummets, the team hits a downhill trajectory. The world is suddenly a dark, dark place.
Striking examples of such instances are dime a dozen in the annals of the sport. Ian Botham once quit the captaincy within a year to hand it back to the previous incumbent Mike Brearley. Like magic, Botham rediscovered his form and England claimed the Ashes.
Closer home, Sachin Tendulkar was a more reluctant captain and took the team into the realm of mediocrity, quitting the captaincy after a dissatisfying tour of Australia. Tendulkar’s era as India captain was starkly different from his gargantuan exploits with the willow. There were a few bright spots but a lot of darkness.
Tendulkar’s personality seemed a bit too inward-looking to successfully manage a complex team formed by a curious admixture of culture, language, and indeed economic and social status.
Should statistics be the only marker of a successful cricket captain? Are numbers and results the only determinants? Or are more complex and layered analysis required?
While one cannot argue against the win percentage and tournament success, the art of captaincy transcends the world of mathematics to enter more subjective realms.
Consider the case of Brearley, deemed by many to be one of the best captains the world of cricket has produced. Brearley is trained in psychoanalysis and often touted to have had a degree in people.
His man-management skills and shrewd tactical sense were exemplary. And, despite coming into the England set-up at an advanced age, Brearley was the England skipper in most of the 39 Tests he played.
Indeed, one may argue that Brearley was picked in the team as a specialist captain and would not have been persisted with had he not been leading the side. He never hit a Test century and had a modest average of around 22 in his career. Yet, captain Brearley’s legacy lives on.
The aura of a legendary skipper transcends mere numbers as already stated. Somebody like a Tiger Pataudi won only eight Tests but is definitely one of the best captains the Indian team has had. Pataudi, in contrast to Brearley, took over the job at a very young age and forged the team unity from which successive generations benefitted. He also changed the mindset of the team, moulding it according to his own mental makeup, making India more attack-minded and less circumspect.
Team in his image
As pointed out in the instance of Sachin Tendulkar, the best player in the team is not always the right person to lead it. Often, the captain is the most inspiring and unifying force in the side.
Douglas Jardine, who used Harold Larwood to engineer the tactics known as bodyline, an infamous and dangerous strategy in the age before helmets, didn’t find unanimous acceptance for his methods to tackle the prowess of Don Bradman, Bill Woodfull and Co., but his wards were united in their support of him.
Sourav Ganguly, who took over the reins in a tumultuous time for Indian cricket battered by the match-fixing scandal, showed great ability in building a team and backing talent.
Ganguly’s inherent aggressiveness rubbed off on the team and the players could once again hold their heads high on the world stage. The team began winning abroad and managed to do well in ICC tournaments.
MS Dhoni inherited this rejuvenated lot and managed to create a cohesive unit full of youngsters that Ganguly had backed such as Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh and Asish Nehra and packed with veritable superstars such as Sachin Tendulkar and up-and-comers like Virat Kohli to the summit of the game.
Though both great players in their own right, Ganguly and Dhoni’s biggest achievement was to unify the team according to their personalities and get the best out of the players.
Often, both took calculated gambles that paid off. However, they are starkly different personalities and the teams they led were also subtly different. Ganguly’s boys were full of zest, Dhoni, the proverbial captain cool, led a team with understated swagger.
Virat Kohli, with a 70 per cent win record trumping his illustrious predecessors, has done his best work in creating a deadly pace attack, the best that has ever worn the India jersey. Combined with the batting prowess that he and his compatriots possess, Kohli has created a behemoth that can overcome the few tactical deficiencies the team suffers from. However, ICC tournaments still remain their Achilles Heel with India suffering heartbreaks in crucial knockout games.
As good as team?
An old adage goes that a captain is only as good as his team. Viv Richards and Ricky Ponting captained champion sides full of legends to the apex of the game. So what kind of difference does the skipper make? Can he turn an average team into world beaters with his influence?
Richie Benaud said that captaincy is 90 per cent luck and 10 per cent skill. But that 10 per cent can often be crucial. Often, it takes generations for great teams to be forged. Ponting continued the project began by Allan Border and passed on through Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh. Kohli is, arguably, reaping the fruits of the tectonic shifts brought in by Ganguly and Dhoni.
Often, rise and fall in cricket is cyclical. Look at the current West Indies team that Jason Holder is trying to rebuild or the talented but erratic Pakistan side led by Azhar Ali. The Richards or the Imran Khan era is a thing of the past, at least for now.
Is the stress, the tension, the thankless and unforgiving hours worth it? Former England captain Nasser Hussain thinks it is. Because once you captain the nation, you are forever remembered for those years that you put in as the leader of the team. You are part of a tradition and leave behind an indelible mark and a personal legacy that cannot be replicated by any other achievement.