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Captain Courageous

The verdict is out: Saurav Ganguly must go. The captain must be sacked before the upcoming fearful tour of South Africa, where the last successful Indian was Mahatma Gandhi.

Captain Courageous
Pradeep Mandhani
Captain Courageous
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553
For the vast majority of unforgiving cricket fans and the agent provocateur media, the Prince of Calcutta is a bad dream to be relegated without further ado to the dust heap of history where we love dumping our cricket captains. It’s that patented Indian phenomenon called the anti-incumbency factor, by which the national conscience derives a certain amount of satisfaction by sacking a person in power, blaming him for all that’s wrong with the world today. But a few questions need to be asked. Not for Ganguly’s sake, but in the interest of Indian cricket.

Yes, in the interest of Indian cricket, we need to switch our emotions off and study the facts. The moment we do that, it becomes clear that Ganguly must be retained as skipper.

One : Check his record dammit
As we write this on the evening of the breathtakingly-poised third day of the Kandy Test, Ganguly’s Test captaincy record is as follows: five wins, three losses, one draw. This is a success percentage of 61.11, clearly higher than India’s overall Test record. Among all current captains who have led their sides in five or more Tests, he stands third, after Steve Waugh and Shaun Pollock. This is astonishing for a team like India. In one-day internationals (odis), he has led India into the finals of every tournament we have played in except the Asia Cup in Dhaka. Yes, India has lost eight consecutive finals but getting to the final every time, often from hopeless situations like in the recently concluded tri-nation series in Sri Lanka, is no mean feat.

He is also the only captain in 16 years to have won a Test match outside the subcontinent. One may say beating Zimbabwe is hardly an achievement but which other captain managed even that? And Ganguly has never, ever, got the chance to lead a full-strength India side. Yet, his boys managed to defeat world champions Australia. Remember that series? It was just a few months ago. And we’re already lusting for his blood.

Two : He has the brains for the job
Even Ganguly’s worst critics admit his cricketing acumen is far better than most people who have led India. Indeed, he is possibly the best captain India has had since Krishnamachari Srikkanth, who came to a bad end for non-cricketing reasons in a situation similar to what threatens Ganguly today (See Reason 10). Srikkanth’s removal unveiled the Azharuddin era, with the Tendulkar interregnums. Let’s not waste time and space talking about the Azharuddin era. As for Sachin, no one has ever accused the greatest cricketer India has ever produced of being a master strategist. The highest praise, even from the most admiring commentators, has been limited to "Sachin is such a keen student of the game" and "He is so involved in everything he does, whether it’s batting, bowling, fielding or captaincy."

Note: Sachin needn’t be a great captain. Bradman was not (his poor captaincy was concealed by a team that had Barnes, Morris, Hassett, Harvey, Miller, Lindwall and Tallon). He is blessed with greatness anyway, and we are blessed to have him playing on our side.

Three : He is arrogant spoilt, rude and that's excellent
It is one of the many ironies of Indian sports fandom that we admire non-Indian sportsmen with "attitude", bemoan the lack of competitive spirit in our nice-guy teams and then condemn the one captain India has had since Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi (if not Lala Amarnath) who is aggressive, ambitious, demanding and gives as good as he gets. Our colonial past makes our media lap up every allegation made by Steve Waugh and his media stormtroopers about Ganguly making Waugh wait for the toss etc, etc, etc. (Just for the record, according to the rules, the home captain is supposed to invite the visiting captain for the toss, so Waugh had no business going out there and waiting for Ganguly. When that was resolved, they started whining about Ganguly coming out for the toss in shorts!) When Waugh said that Ganguly was "the spoilt brat of world cricket", it was splashed all over. Little reported was what Waugh said about Ganguly after the series was over, when there was no reason to continue with the well-thought-through Ganguly-bashing strategy: "Ganguly is the best person to lead India. He is competitive, demanding and knows exactly what he wants from his players."

Ganguly has forged a team that is young, hungry, and unawed. But our cricket fans and pundits have their knives out. As Ganguly himself lamented once: "If they do it, it is gamesmanship but if we do the same, it’s termed as arrogance." With fans like this, who needs enemies?

Many old-timers draw parallels between Pataudi and Ganguly. Noted sports writer K.N. Prabhu remembers a Test match against the West Indies in Kingston, in 1962. Pataudi, captain at 21, wanted Ranjane to go bowl. But the bowler had just been clobbered by Sobers. "Ranjane didn’t want to bowl. And Pataudi kicked the ball with a lot of anger to another bowler." It’s another irony that while everyone remembers Pataudi today as one of India’s best captains, he was hounded and vilified by Indian cricket fans and writers when he was in the hot seat (he was even spat on at the Eden Gardens in Calcutta) and unceremoniously dropped after the 1969-70 Australia series.

Anyway, what has captaincy got to do with being a nice bloke? Simmering under all Ganguly’s "ungentlemanly" acts is an almost incredible passion to win. Something few Indian captains have had, or at least exhibited. If he is a "spoilt brat", then he has been spoiled enough to hate defeat above all things in life. Do you want a captain like this, who looks furious at the end of a lost match, or did you prefer the nonchalant gum-chewing one who shrugged and said: "The boys didn’t play well" after every shameful Waterloo?

Four : Rarely has an Indian team loved its captain so much
Media pundits have pronounced that the superiority-complexed Ganguly is aloof with his players. In the same breath, they tut-tut over his open abuse of faltering teammates on the field. Yet the truth is his team loves him. Read Sadagopan Ramesh’s lips in this May interview with rediff.com: "Saurav is a very interactive captain. One good thing about him is he really talks to the players. There’s been a lot of fuss about what Saurav has said at times but I support him 100 per cent. You can’t be nice to everyone, all the time. Another thing is that Saurav backs his mates even when they are on a low, or losing, that is a huge thing for us. Saurav once asked me if I thought he was arrogant and I said I didn’t think so. He’s a superb leader of men."

Enough said? But we’ll add a bit more anyway. Remember Harbhajan Singh saying that it was Ganguly’s faith in him that brought him back to international cricket? Remember Yuvraj Singh saying that he owed his man of the match award to Ganguly’s encouragement? Remember Virendra Sehwag thanking his captain for giving him the chance to shine for India? Remember the last time any Indian player thanked his captain for anything? Remember Ganguly, before his captaincy days, in 1997, accepting a man of the match award in Karachi and saying that it should have been shared with Robin Singh and Rajesh Chauhan? Remember any other Indian player ever saying that? Now, are you still surprised that his boys love him?

Five : At last, a captain who isn't parochial
Parochialism and zonal politics have been the bane of Indian cricket for decades. Scores of undeserving men have donned India colours but the list of cricketers who have never played for their country or been given short shrift after a cursory match or two is far longer. Since the selection committee is constituted through zonal representation, every selector has always tried to push players from his zone. And captains have been no better. The number of utter mediocrities who have taken the field for India solely because their Ranji Trophy teammate is the captain of the side is legion; we need not name any names here.

Now Ganguly, the man suspected to have slimed into the 1996 team to England on a regional quota, can surely be expected to push his Bengal and East Zone chums into the Indian team, right? Yet, the players he has been backing are four from the North—Harbhajan, Yuvraj, Sehwag and Nehra, two from the west—Zaheer Khan and Ajit Agarkar, and one from the south—Hemang Badani. Clearly, Ganguly is a fair captain to whom talent is all and language, region, caste, breeding count for nothing—or he is a closet Punjabi communalist!

Six : The man is forging a team for the future
By sticking his neck out for youngsters, Ganguly has often earned the wrath of the selectors (for Yuvraj) and the nation at large (Agarkar). While other cricket boards like the Australian and South African ones are focusing on building teams for the 2003 World Cup, there has not been a squeak from our cricket administrators about this. And it doesn’t matter. That team is being created consciously by Ganguly, even though no one asked him to.

Ganguly has come into captaincy in a period of flux. The Azhar generation has bowed out and Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad, if not also that wily warrior Anil Kumble, are nearing the ends of their careers. India needs a new crop of youngsters. And they need hand-holding, encouragement and leadership. Ganguly has shown each of these qualities. We need him if we don’t want to make fools of ourselves in South Africa in 2003.

Seven : Captaincy is not musical chairs
India and Pakistan may not play cricket with each other but as far as captain appointment strategy goes, we think exactly alike. The speed with which the countries chop and change captains would impress a McDonald’s chef. This has a disastrous effect on the morale of both captain and players. And we’re asking for Ganguly’s head five months after we beat Australia!

The best captains have been those who’ve been given time. In his first four years as captain (1984-88), Allan Border, surely one of the greatest skippers ever, led Australia in 35 Tests, winning five and losing as many as 12! The selectors stayed with him, because they recognised that Australian cricket needed time to regroup after the retirement of the Chappells, Lillee, Thomson and Marsh. Their faith paid off. They did not blame the captain for having failed to win with a bad team.

Eight : Why blame the captain when he's leading a B-team?
What makes us expect Ganguly to deliver in Sri Lanka without Sachin, V.V.S. Laxman, Kumble, Srinath and Nehra? If Ganguly could win by ‘tactics’ alone, then we should send him to the Chess Olympiad, not to the middle of a green field where, like it or not, individual performance is sacred. If you take Ganguly, Dravid and Prasad out from the team that played the Kandy Test, the other eight players had played a combined total of 56 Tests, that is, a paltry seven per head. If you take out Ramesh and Harbhajan too, the remaining six have played an average of four Tests each. No other current team has so many young inexperienced members. And after Srinath returned home injured, the board has refused to even send a replacement for him!

Yet, in this immature team lie the seeds of a force for the 2000s. By going for Ganguly’s head, we will simply waste that opportunity, create disharmony and put a good man, Dravid, in a job that he can do very well without, right now.

Nine : Want to know the truth ? Ganguly's not out of form.
The figures on the first two pages of this article speak for themselves. Ganguly’s batting average in odis as captain is higher than his career average. It will also be salutary to remember that he was the world’s highest run-getter in odis just last year, as he was in 1997 and 1999 (in 1998, he was second to Tendulkar).

Yes, his Test average as a captain-batsman is far lower than his career average (though the 48 he made in the classic Calcutta Test, partnering Laxman for 117 runs in the fourth wicket and setting the stage for the Laxman-Dravid carnage, is probably worth more than many of his centuries). But compare his recent low average (see our tables) with other current captains and former Indian captains. Sanath Jayasuriya played his first 11 Tests as captain without scoring a single 50, then scored two centuries in consecutive tests, and then did not again see the 50 mark for the next eight, ending his run drought at Galle against the Indians on the current tour. If the Sri Lankan selectors and fans had been clamouring for his head, they have definitely been very surreptitious about it.

Should Dravid have been dropped in December last year after he played 16 Test innings without a single 50? In the next three innings, he scored 432 runs, and was out only once.

Ten : Do we sit by and watch the BCCI claim another innocent victim ?
Raj Singh Dungarpur’s principal contribution to Indian cricket has been toppling Indian captains. His most controversial act was sacking Srikkanth to make Azhar captain in 1990, when the board found Srikkanth too articulate and forthright for its comfort. Is it then any wonder that when the next such captain appears, who does not kowtow to the board, and forcefully argues his case with selectors, that Dungarpur publicly says that Ganguly must go, and tells Dravid in front of junior players that he should get ready for captaincy, because Ganguly was "aloof" and "engrossed in his own problems" (for more on Ganguly’s aloofness, see Reason 4)?

Strangely enough, the majority of Indian cricket lovers and writers too have been siding with Dungarpur on this unjust and shabby ploy. This is tragic, because if Dungarpur and his cohorts manage to get rid of every upright Indian captain, Indian cricket will remain in its traditional vicious cycle of intrigue and underhandedness, where sycophants make merry at the cost of the deserving, the talented and the honest.

Manu Joseph And Sandipan Deb With Tirtha Gautam, Subhodip Pal Chowdhury and Bobby John Varkey Statistics by Anant Gaundalkar and from khel.com

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