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By Suresh Menon
“Those who can, bat; those who can’t captain,” writes Mike Brearley in The Observer. As an example of self-depracatory humour which makes a startling point, it cannot be matched. Brearley one of the great captains, finished with a batting average of 22.88 and a highest score of 91.
One of the most successful captains ever, Ricky Ponting led Australia to 48 victories in 77 Tests, for a winning percentage of 62.33. Yet he is seen – by Brearley, among others – as a flawed captain.
Traditionally, the English first pick a captain and then the rest of the team, thus investing the post with an importance that the Australians cannot understand. For they simply pick their best team and choose a captain from among that lot. If the systems had been reversed, it is unlikely that Brearley would have led his country while Ponting, from his first day in office knew he was the finest batsman in the land. This does something to your self-confidence and the way you handle both your own players and the opposition.
In his final series as captain, India’s Tiger Pataudi was a shadow of his batting self, with a highest score of 36 (19 of them made in one Vanburn Holder over) against the West Indies, yet he led well enough to take the team from a 0-2 deficit to a 2-2 score line before losing the final Test in Mumbai. Harrassed by the fast bowler Andy Roberts, Pataudi then 34, showed signs of the years he played with only one good eye, but his sense of humour didn’t desert him.
Calling the bowler and number ten Bishan Bedi for a chat between overs, Tiger told him, “Don’t worry about a thing. I’ll play Lance Gibbs (the off spinner), you take on Roberts.”
It takes humour, enormous self-belief and superior tactical skills to captain a team in which, going by form, you know you have no place. Few captains have been able to overcome individual failures and inspire a team.
In recent years, India have seen both sides of the coin – the tactically astute captain who was uncomfortable leading the side, and the tactically less assured (and occasionally out of form) captain who not only led the most but had the most success too. Rahul Dravid, like Sachin Tendulkar before him, could not shake off the interference from the administration and like his mate chose to give up the captaincy rather than fight the selectors and the officials at every turn. This, despite his superior record overseas, including a victory in his last series in England.
Ganguly, never the best batsman in the side, however, inspired a new generation while keeping the administration at bay. It was a remarkable achievement given his known weaknesses as batsman and his strong likes and dislikes as captain. He grew into the job, becoming more comfortable and self-assured with every outing.
His spiritual successor is Mahendra Singh Dhoni who began confidently and earned a reputation as a positive captain. This failed to take into account his negative tactics at the first sign of trouble (as against Australia in the home series before the last one). With every success, he has also tended to become more defensive, and it will be interesting to see where he levels off. As an attacking captain who is sometimes defensive or the other way around.
His decision to ask South Africa to bat in Cape Town (after finally winning a toss) was a defensive one. Done not to give his medium pacers first strike on a fresh wicket but to protect his batsmen from the better opposition bowlers, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel. A day later, under somewhat similar circumstances, Australia won the toss in Sydney but chose to bat. This difference in attitude might well be the difference between the current number one team and the former one.
Those who can, bat; those who can’t put the other team in!