Captains of the game

2009 May 18 by Suresh Menon

Watching Shane Warne carry his team in the IPL it becomes clear why many consider him one of the finest players never to have led Australia.

Watching Shane Warne carry his team in the IPL it becomes clear why many consider him one of the finest players never to have led Australia. His off-field behaviour clearly went against him. There was too the old prejudice against bowler-captains although one of Australia’s best was Richie Benaud, the country’s greatest leg spinner till Warne came along. Keith Miller never led Australia and Neil Harvey just once, substituting for Benaud.

Every country has a player or three like this. In England, that ‘honour’ has usually fallen on Trevor Bailey, whose sharp cricketing brain and tactical sense were put at the service of Len Hutton, the first professional to captain England in the modern era in the 1950s. England’s aversion to having professional captains was summed up by this plaintive cry from Lord Hawke at the suggestion that Jack Hobbs, the pre-eminent batsman of his time should lead: “Pray Heaven no professional may ever captain England!”

Captaincy is denied to the deserving for a variety of reasons. Candidates might not be automatic choices in the playing eleven or their careers might overlap those of long-serving captains. There might be political reasons too. When it is down to a choice between two players who haven’t led, the younger man usually gets the job.

Warne apart, it is Anil Kumble who has impressed. That both are vastly experienced players, now retired, with either nothing to prove or keen on proving a point cannot be a coincidence. Test captaincy came to Kumble late in his career, after younger men like Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and Virender Sehwag had led India.

But at least he got the job unlike Vijay Merchant, M L Jaisimha, Erapally Prasanna, Ashok Mankad, Brijesh Patel, Arun Lal who are among the best never to have led India. In 1946, when Merchant should have led, the senior Nawab of Pataudi got the nod for the England tour by a narrow margin; when India toured Australia in 1947-48, Merchant withdrew and Lala Amarnath got the job.

Tiger Pataudi’s elevation to the post at the age of 21 meant that the door was shut to a whole generation of players. His friend and contemporary Jaisimha, one of the most astute captains on the domestic circuit where he led a talented Hyderabad side (but, significantly, never to a Ranji title) remained a possibility in the background but never a serious contender.

In 1974, Karnataka beat perennial Ranji champions Mumbai and then went on to win the national title under Prasanna. When skipper Pataudi and vice captain Sunil Gavaskar pulled out of the Delhi Test against the West Indies with injuries, Prasanna was among the half dozen players who nursed ambitions of leading India. Some of them arrived at the ground in their blazers just in case. It was Venkatraghavan who led. Once Gavaskar from the next generation took over, Prasanna knew the moment had passed.

Neither Mankad nor Patel could hold down a place in the team, and so despite their superb domestic record as both player and captain, they were never serious contenders. Arun Lal, who played 16 Tests under four captains, might have got in ahead of Dilip Vengsarkar as captain had his batting average at Test level (he made his debut at 27) not let him down. He was sound without being spectacular, a brilliant slip catcher, an intelligent captain and a wider personality than most of his contemporaries.

Like top batsmen at domestic level who fail internationally, good captains at first class or Twenty20 level might be disasters at the next level. But with Warne and Kumble, that is irrelevant now.