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February 29, 2000


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Captaincy conundrum

Prem Panicker

Did someone declare open season on captains, and forgot to tell us?

Wasim Akram, Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara -- all high performers at an individual level, all quitting under the pressure of collective team failures, inside the space of a month. And for a while, before the United Cricket Board of South Africa intervened, it was touch and go whether Hansie Cronje would make that list as well.

Wasim Akram Each one of these exits has come with its undercurrent of controversy. Akram decided in Australia, towards the fag end of the CUB series, that he wanted out. Apparently the pressure of performing at an individual level, and trying to lift a team the members of which didn't seem to share his burning drive, had got to him. His wife Huma told us, at that point, that Akram decided midway through the tour that this wasn't what he wanted to do any more, that he wanted increasingly to concentrate on his own game.

At that time, Akram approached Moin on his own and asked him to take over. 'Don't even mention my name as your possible successor,' Moin told his skipper. 'There is no way I'll take the job.'

Why not? Simply because Moin is himself under pressure at an individual level, with his own batting form slipping, his keeping during the tour Down Under being rather ordinary, and his rival, Rashid Latif, performing prodigies back home. To take the captaincy and to lose would have meant the end -- not just of his captaincy, but of his continued tenure in the team. So Moin, figuring he was in a no-win situation, did the smart thing, and opted to stay as player rather than stick his neck out for the axe by taking the mantle of leadership.

Saeed Anwar's choice is pretty interesting. Partly because yet again, the Pakistan selectors have elected to ignore the very clear, very loud hints Inzamam has given that he wants the job. Partly because during his earlier tenure at the top, Anwar became so stressed that he turned into a brooding insomniac, and needed to consult a psychiatrist. One would have thought that an experience of that kind cures you of the ultimate ambition -- but Anwar, surprisingly, elected to give it a second try. Why? Because his own bad run of form had put him perilously close to the exit, and the word coming through is that Anwar was told by the selectors -- you have a choice, take over as captain, or lose your place in the side.

Which seems a funny way to pick a captain, when you come to think of it.

And now Anwar finds himself in hot water, having lost the one-day series at home and at the time of writing this, with Pakistan just 37 ahead on the second innings with four wickets in hand, seemingly set to lose a home Test as well. So what's the odds Anwar won't survive the season?

Brial Lara Then there is Lara. Tired, he says, of marginal success and devastating failure. Word, though, is that his quitting was something in the nature of a pre-emptive strike. Once Viv Richards was given the gate (another cricketing legend taking over as coach and finding that a brilliant record does not help when it comes to motivating others -- you have to wonder if Kapil Dev is listening), Lara reportedly realised that he was next in line for the axe, and opted instead to get out rather than suffer the ignominy of being thrown out.

And that brings up the Sachin Tendulkar exit. Theories for which have been varied -- and which have varied from the quixotic, to the conspiratorial.

Where lies the truth? From what close friends of his tell us, it would appear that Mohammad Azharuddin is the cause. But only indirectly.

Throw your mind back a bit, to the sequence of defeats Down Under. Remember how, after the second Test, there was an outcry for Azhar's immediate comeback? And how Tendulkar and Kapil Dev were blamed for his non-inclusion?

At that time, Tendulkar kept telling all who would listen that he had been instructed not to discuss selection issues with the media. He added that if the truth about the Azhar affair needed to be found, the media should talk to Chandu Borde. And to the president of the BCCI. 'I can talk only if I am given permission to talk,' Tendulkar said, both on television and in print.

Borde and company, however, played their cards very cleverly. By staying silent or, worse, by coming up with loaded non sequitors, they conveyed the impression that they were all for Azhar's inclusion, and that it was only the obstinacy of Kapil and Sachin that kept the former captain out of the side.

Meanwhile, the board president stayed silent throughout. Which is only to be expected -- Mr Muthaiah, busy with the onerous task of running an industrial outfit that as per the last financial report is not doing too well, can't be expected to concern himself with petty matters such as cricket, now can he?

The most interesting bit was that there was no real attempt made to make Borde talk. After all, as chairman of selectors, he was uniquely fitted to tell us the truth about the Azhar affair. But he was never put under the spotlight, he was never pinned down by hard questions.

My colleague Faisal Shariff tried, on one occasion. Succeeding, after a lot of calls, in getting the chairman of selectors on the phone, Faisal asked him what the whole Azhar controversy was all about. 'Oh, I don't know,' was Borde's response, 'you have to ask the team management.'

A nice little Mexican standoff, there. The team management says ask Borde, Borde returns the compliment. And in the process, truth becomes the casualty.

Faisal, though, went further. Mr Borde, he asks, do you remember when you announced the team to tour Down Under, you said that the selectors did not even discuss Azhar's name? If it is the team management keeping him out now, as you indicate, why less than a month ago were you not even prepared to consider his name?

Borde's response was a classic of its kind: 'I am late for a wedding, and I can't talk now.' With which, he put the phone down. Contacting him hasn't been easy, ever since -- somehow, the mention of seems to put the chairman of selectors in mind of an urgent appointment elsewhere.

Sachin Tendulkar And so, say his intimates, Sachin decided to quit. Because he was sick of the board. Because he chafed at the way he had been stuck out on a limb, and made accountable for decisions taken by others. Because he was tired of his name being repeatedly dragged into muck not of his making.

Apparently he made the decision in Australia itself. And was slated to announce it ten days before the selection of the team for the home series against South Africa. But the announcement kept getting delayed -- because Muthaiah wanted to "discuss it" with him, Dalmiya wanted him to "reconsider", Borde and company assured him "full support" and wanted him to continue.

ANYWAYS. Is his quitting such a bad thing, when you get right down to it?

At an emotional level, you could argue a case for his continuance. You could point to Clive Lloyd, who twice in his career came within a toucher of giving it all up -- first, when his team was thrashed by Australia at home, second when he lost the World Cup to India in 1983. "Maan, when that last wicket fell, Lloydy just turned to us and said, okay, that did it, I quit!-- and he left us close to tears," was how Michael Holding once described that incident to us. Both times, Lloyd rethought his decision. And rather than leave as a loser, he led a resurgence that shot his team back to the top.

You could point, too, to the case of Allan Border. Who, a year into his taking over as Australian captain, announced that he was quitting because he couldn't stomach ineptitude any more. And then rethought his decision, dug deep within himself, and found the grit he needed to mould his side into the best team of his era.

You could argue that Sachin owed it to himself not to quit as a loser. But against this, there is the other side of the coin.

Recently, while discussing India's cricketing problems, the South African great, Barry Richards, told Faisal: "You ask Sachin to put his hand on his heart and say he wants the captaincy -- and he won't be able to do that! His actions are those of a man doing something against his will!"

An immaculate assessment, I would think. Sachin didn't want it when it was offered to him, he didn't seem to want it at any point in the last couple of months -- and one secret to productivity is to put hungry people in place, not give a crucial job to a person who would rather be doing something else.

The one thing Sachin remains hungry for is runs. And it would, therefore, seem to make sense to free him, to let him slake that hunger and, in the process, rediscover the batting touch that makes him dreaded by opposing bowlers.

And to give the captaincy to someone who is hungry for it. And make no mistake, 'hunger' describes Saurav Ganguly's mindset to a T -- and before you flood my mailbox with a storm of protest, I do not mean that in a pejorative sense. I am not trying to imply that Ganguly politicked his way into the job, or any such. I merely mean that he has a burning desire to lead his team, a desperate hunger to do well in that job, and he has made no secret of it any time this last year or more.

So hey, give the guy the job, why ever not?

Besides the hunger, Ganguly brings a very interesting attribute to his job. Sachin, temperamentally, is not a confrontationist. He shies away from head on clashes, backs away when things are not going his way in the backroom. Ganguly on the other hand has the poise and manners of a gentleman, but the instincts of a street fighter. He'll be polite when he makes his points -- but leech like in insisting on it.

And you need a bit of the mule when dealing with this bunch of selectors and administrators.

His first two statements on taking over the captaincy give an indication of where he is going, thinking wise. The first thing he said was that he -- along with the coach -- should be the one to pick the playing XI. True -- the selectors' job traditionally ends with the picking of the squad. Deciding the playing eleven is not their prerogative -- it is the captain and the coach who have to decide on the strategy for each game, and they can't do that if someone else is going to decide the playing eleven.

If the selectors insist on picking the eleven, then it is only fair that they are the ones facing the media after a defeat and explaining why they got the team wrong.

The other statement Ganguly has made is equally interesting. 'When we pick a player, we should give him two series to grow into the job before deciding whether he should be retained or sacked,' Ganguly said. 'It is not fair to axe a player without giving him a proper chance.'

And why does he feel this way? Because, as he explains, he has traumatic memories of his own first tour, Down Under. When he was taken in the side, and not given anything more than one tour game, and summarily axed. 'I remember how I felt then, I don't want other players to go through that agony,' Ganguly explained.

That argues a certain sensitivity a captain needs to have -- if you want your team to back you, you have to first put yourself on the line for them, fight their battles in the selection committee.

But there's also this -- time and again, we have seen people with the right ideas quickly cut to size by a board and a selection committee without any ideas at all.

Will Ganguly be able to buck the trend? Whether he can deliver results is for the future to decide (interestingly, he was very clear in his statement that he does not have a magic wand to make overnight transformations with) -- what I am interested in is seeing if he can go up against an unfeeling, unthinking establishment, and hold his own in that battle.

If he can, then heck, he would have contributed more to the cause of Indian cricket than any captain I can think of in the last 20 years.

Prem Panicker

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