Cool heads in hot seat

Cool heads in hot seat

spinning wins: Anil Kumble has done a wonderful job for  Royal Challengers Bangalore. PTI

Captaincy in cricket is not a ceremonial title. It isn’t merely an acknowledgement of the respect and admiration for a proven performer, nor a reward for loyalty and commitment.
Few team sports demand as much of the leader as does cricket. Captaincy entails more than merely walking out for the toss. It involves strategising off the park and executing those plans on it. More crucially, and especially in the 20-over format where there is hardly time to breathe and analyse, it necessitates the skipper to think quickly on his feet, to respond to situations, back his instincts but always, always proceed in the belief that nothing is beyond his unit.

That belief has to perforce make itself known to the rest of the team, because the players take their cue from their leader and if the skipper is dispirited, that sinking feeling percolates through the ranks. Captaincy in Twenty20 cricket, in particular, is vastly under-rated because of the frenetic pace of the game, but leadership skills – on and off the field -- are as integral to success in the three-hour format as they are in the more demanding five-day game.

Trust Virender Sehwag to open up the floor for a healthy discussion. The occasional Indian captain speaks much like he bats – without complications, and straight from his heart. The other day, the Delhi Dasher proclaimed that he didn’t necessarily believe an indigenous captain was any more crucial to a team’s success in the Indian Premier League than an overseas skipper.

The exploits of Shane Warne with the Rajasthan Royals, the least expensive of the eight franchises, would appear to lend meat to Sehwag’s contention, but for every Warne – and there is only one Warne! – there is a corollary in Brendon McCullum, in Kevin Pietersen, indeed in Kumar Sangakkara.

IPL III has overseas skippers in Warne and Adam Gilchrist – triumphant captains in IPL I and II respectively – as well as Sangakkara. Four of the five Indian captains in IPL III have led the country at the highest level and the fifth, Gautam Gambhir, has been earmarked for captaincy at some stage in the future.

It’s a fair mix of the Indian and the ‘foreigner’, a call made by team owners based on the composition and complexities of their respective units.

Warne’s extraordinary run with the unfancied Royals in IPL I must not be the yardstick against which to measure indigenous versus imported simply because the Australian magician is in a league of one. Inarguably one of the best captains not to have led his country in Test cricket, the leg-spinner is a motivator par excellence, armed with the knowledge that he is a larger-than-life personality whose young charges have been in awe of him. He can coax and cajole, berate and coerce; he leads by example, talks up his wards, laughs and smiles with them, and is one of the boys, even if he is the clear and undisputed head of the family. His man-management skills are exceptional, and the homework he did prior to IPL I, when he familiarised himself with his team-mates, many of whose names he hadn’t even heard of, stood him in exceptional stead as he gathered his motley crew and transformed them into a gloriously ambitious unit.

Gilchrist’s, though, isn’t quite the same story. Admittedly, he was in charge when the Deccan Chargers went all the way in South Africa last year, but what has often been forgotten is that he was also the captain for a majority of IPL I. A hand injury to VVS Laxman ruled the Hyderabadi out of the last nine games of IPL I and forced the reins to be handed over to Gilchrist. The Chargers finished last, the Gilchrist aura nowhere in evidence, and it wasn’t until season two, by which time he had had the grasp of things and a new coach in Darren Lehmann, that the Gilchrist magic began to resurface.

In direct contrast to Anil Kumble, it must be said. When Rahul Dravid was replaced by Kevin Pietersen as the Royal Challengers skipper last year, it begged the question – Why not Kumble? The Challengers got off to a disastrous start in South Africa, and it wasn’t until Pietersen left for home and Kumble was, belatedly, entrusted with the captaincy, that the Challengers’ revival began.

Not as subtle

Kumble isn’t as subtle as Warne. His aggression is naked, he sets high standards for himself and his team-mates, and isn’t afraid to turn on the heat in public, never mind if the recipient is a greenhorn or a former international skipper. His commitment is a hundred percent every single minute, and he won’t ask anything of his mates that he himself wouldn’t do. He believes in doing the hard yards himself – such as taking the new-ball against the likes of Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden in crucial games – and benefits from the respect and admiration of his peers and opponents alike.

Unlike KP who spent his short stint last year trying to familiarise himself with non-international Indians, Kumble knew what every individual had to offer, his Indian-ness his greatest strength. As has been the case with Indian skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni at the Chennai Super Kings, Sehwag and now Gambhir with the Delhi Daredevils, and the incomparable Sachin Tendulkar with the Mumbai Indians.

Kolkata Knight Riders’ experiment with Brendon McCullum at the helm last year fell completely flat on its face, and the team is on an upsurge following a return at the top of the talismanic Sourav Ganguly. Kings XI Punjab have fared far worse under Kumar Sangakkara this year than they did with Yuvraj Singh in charge over the first two years, reiterating the massive difference between leading a national outfit and a franchise made up of players drawn from different countries, different skill-sets, different backgrounds and therefore requiring a different approach from the captain.

There is no right or wrong here. History in terms of the two previous champions would suggest overseas is the way to go, but that is but one half of the story. A captain,  they say, is only as good as his team is, but a very good captain gets his team to play above itself, and to respond positively in a crisis. Time after time. Warne has consistently done the former, Kumble is a master at orchestrating the latter. Maybe it’s in those wrists!

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