Ricky Ponting has led Australia in 58 matches, won 38 of them and lost just nine for a win percentage of 65. Is he one of the great captains of the game? The answer apparently is that he is not even one of the great captains currently playing. His lack of tactical nous is criticized regularly, as recently as in the first Ashes Test when, according to the pundits, he suddenly went defensive in England’s first innings, getting his second line spinners to keep a holding position while the call was for picking up wickets.
Ponting is in excellent company. In the 1970s and 80s when the West Indies were steamrolling the opposition, they were led by Clive Lloyd who won 36 of the 74 Tests he led in, losing just a third of that. Yet, Lloyd was never seen as a good captain, but as an errand boy who merely had to take the ball from one of his four fast bowlers and give it to the least tired of the other three, and then repeat the process.
Captains get a lot of flak when their teams lose, but seldom enough credit when they win. India’s most successful captain, Sourav Ganguly guided his team to 21 victories, yet he was often dismissed as a tactical disaster. Sadly, no captain could ever say, “Forget my tactics, look at my results,” to silence the critics.
Mohammad Azharuddin and Ajit Wadekar, two of India’s more successful captains too were made to feel that their teams did well despite their captaincy, which is both unfair and unrealistic.
But already the aura around Lloyd’s figure is beginning to brighten; such perhaps will be the fate of the likes of Ganguly, who, a generation or two later, might emerge as one of India’s great captains. Time lends a romance to statistics that proximity tends to hide.
Each country has a set of ‘great’ captains, their greatness established as much by reputation as by repetition. Hence the stature of India’s C K Nayudu and Tiger Pataudi, Australia’s Don Bradman and Richie Benaud, England’s Mike Brearley and Ray Illingworth, Frank Worrell of the West Indies.
Perhaps it is time to look at captaincy from a different perspective altogether. Allan Border won only 32 of the 93 Tests he led in, yet the statistics do not explain how he took a team of no-hopers in the mid-80s and built them into the world-beaters they continue to be. Stephen Fleming led unglamorous New Zealand in 80 Tests, winning 28 of them, but the fact that his team began most of those Tests as the underdogs does not enter the equation.
Ricky Ponting is unlikely to figure in any discussion of the great captains of the game (except perhaps as an interesting footnote), which is unreasonable. But it is in keeping with the game’s conceit that statistics are fine for the mediocre, but for the great player, they mean nothing. It is wonderful to have a great player, Don Bradman, for example, whose figures (that batting average!) suggest the greatness, but the romantics would gladly drop him from an all-time Australian team in favour of someone like Archie Jackson or Victor Trumper or Stan McCabe who, by contemporary reports, gave greater sensual pleasure when they batted.
Winning alone is not enough, piling on the runs do not make the great player. A well-made 25 is sometimes rated above a pedestrian century. And that is why there will be an asterisk over Ponting’s name in the list of captains. “Successful, but not creative”, it will explain. That’s cricket.