Stars and style

Stars and style


Style is the yeast of leadership. The league rounds of this World Cricket Cup are not designed to offer much by way of excitement since it would require too much stupidity on the part of the Biggies not to qualify for the knockout stage, which is when the mercury will start rising. England, possibly in honour of its long sporting tradition, is trying very hard to fail, but I suspect that it might very well fail to fail. I hope Bangladesh marches into the quarter-finals, precisely because it is the very opposite of England: its spirit is greater than its ability, unlike England, which brought along quality to the Cup but mislaid its spirit somewhere on the flight to the subcontinent.

The one fascinating aspect of this tournament so far is the difference in the management style of its captains. The test of a captain lies, obviously, in adversity, and Bangladesh's Shakib al Hasan is blessed with the courage of self-belief. He could have fallen into that worst of all traps, sulking self-pity, when angry fans broke his window panes after his team's pathetic loss to the West Indies. Instead, he picked himself and the team up, and led them to a famous victory against England. It does not actually matter now whether he goes into the next round. He has restored his nation's pride. Bengali fans are right. They do not expect Bangladesh to win the Cup, but they will not tolerate a team that betrays its honour.

The surprise is Shahid Afridi, who could easily join Pakistan's foreign service after this swan song. The man who has tweaked a ball or two in his time, has flowered into a diplomat. He soothed ruffled feathers after defeat against New Zealand through a brilliant strategic pincer movement: he invited the huge Pakistani media contingent for dinner with the players. Mollifying the messenger is the best treatment for the ache of bad news.

Afridi is clearly aware that contemporary Pakistan has only two powerful institutions, the Army and the media. The Army has only cursory interest in cricket during wartime, so an alliance with the media is sufficient for crisis control. Pakistan remains the contrarian's favourite; and if Afridi can handle his temperamental eleven with the kind of aplomb he has shown off the field, then watch out for the Greens. Predictably Pakistan's erratic, slippery-fingers wicketkeeper Kamran Akmal has induced the best joke so far: "What is Akmal's favourite pick-up line? Can I drop you anywhere?"

In contrast, Mahendra Dhoni is so laidback he could have been training in a sauna. Dhoni is a proponent of the Yawn School of Business. When asked why India had made such heavy weather of defeating less-than-ordinary sides like Holland, he replied with a verbal shrug. India was winning, wasn't it, and that was good enough for him. Well, he might lose when there is no second chance left. It may not be much of a problem for him personally, since the advertisement deals are done, cheques are in the bank, and he probably thinks that the Great Indian Public is fickle in its affections anyway. Somebody should tell him that the symbol of India is the elephant, and while the elephant treads with a light step, it also has a long memory.
The captain who really knew how to lie on his back was the incomparable Viv Richards, but he had a few advantages over Dhoni. He was a genius with the bat. He was fearless (he disdained a helmet, trusting his eye and instinct instead). And he had a set of bowlers who could break your hand when you were looking and crack your head when you took your eye off the ball. Dhoni has fashioned half a team for this tournament, just a set of brilliant batsmen, on the assumption that opponents will get themselves out. We shall see what we shall see.

The finest gentleman ever to captain England was surely Colin Cowdrey. In his last match as captain Cowdrey walked to the pitch for the toss, dressed in immaculate whites. And waited. Richards sauntered up 20 minutes late, wearing a T shirt and bandana in more colours than a rainbow would dare to advertise. The coin was tossed. Richards won. Richards looked at the prim and proper Cowdrey and asked the Englishman what he wanted to do, rather than exercising his right of decision. Once Cowdrey had recovered, he said England would like to bat. Okay maan, said Richards, you bat.

The West Indies won that Test match by ten wickets. That is why it was Cowdrey's last match. And that is why few lovers of cricket can remember Cowdrey, and no one has forgotten Vivian Richards.

Style is an art, particularly if it can be complemented with swagger. But style is not a substitute for substance.