Mahendra Singh Dhoni doesn’t seem to have a truck with measured predictability. The man with ice-cool nerves in boiler-room pressure has always surprised with his decisions—both on the cricket turf, and off it. When he announced his retirement from Test cricket mid-series in Australia, he shocked everyone, including the selectors. He again surprised by quitting the India captaincy in the shorter formats, even though he has been picked as a player for the ongoing ODI and T20 series against England starting January 15.
It’s rare for an Indian captain to step down gracefully. Even fewer have done so while being at the top of their game. Of the 32 captains in India’s Test history, those who resigned on their own (and on their own terms) can be counted on one’s fingers. The prominent names in recent times are Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble, who all stepped down due to various reasons. In the last 30 years, India has had 14 Test captains of which Dhoni (a success rate of 45 per cent) and Sourav Ganguly (42.86 per cent) have been the most successful. Although Virat Kohli’s success rate till the end of the England Test series is 63.64 per cent, he has captained in only 22 Tests and is hungry for more wins. Virender Sehwag’s win ratio is 50 per cent, but in only four matches.
The habit of holding on to the captaincy seems to be more pronounced in India than in some other countries. There is generally much better communication between the leader and the selectors abroad, and so the transition is smoother and, therefore, less acrimonious. However, communication channels in India have improved lately, more so during the Sandeep Patil-headed committee’s tenure that ended late last year; the practice continues now under M.S.K. Prasad’s chairmanship.
Dhoni, however, stunned both committees while relinquishing the captaincy of the three formats in two instances. Saba Karim, who was a member of Patil’s panel, admits that all the selectors were taken aback by Dhoni’s announcement to retire from Tests on the 2014 Australia tour. “His announcement came as a big shock and surprise to all of us national selectors, more so because it was in the middle of a series. He realised that he wasn’t able to contribute in the longer format,” says Karim.
Sunil Gavaskar was another captain who told the world about his decision to quit the ODI captaincy in a most dramatic manner, during his trophy acceptance speech after leading India to the World Championship of Cricket title in Australia in 1985. “Ladies and gentleman, first of all I’d like to thank the manager and members of my team for having given me this wonderful present [trophy] on the last day as captain of India,” he announced in Melbourne on March 10, 1985. Chandu Borde, a former India captain who was chairman of the selection committee at the time, revealed that Gavaskar had discussed the issue with him. “I had requested Gavaskar that he should decide about it after returning from the Australian tour. But after winning the World Championship of Cricket title, he suddenly announced his retirement from captaincy. He is a person who decides to do things when at the top, and he was at the top at the time,” says Borde. After quitting the limited overs captaincy, Gavaskar continued playing Tests and ODIs till 1987, when he retired.
Interestingly, only a few players have performed well after quitting as captain. Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid are the exceptions. Tendulkar, who captained India in two stints, and Dravid continued to score big after quitting. Tendulkar actually failed as a captain (with a success rate of 16 per cent in 25 Tests), but, when unburdened, scored prolifically. Sachin played international cricket for almost 14 years after giving up captaincy. In this post-2000 span, his game blossomed: he appeared in 124 Tests, tallied 9,885 runs and hammered 29 centuries. Dravid also didn’t seem to have enjoyed captaincy a great deal. After captaining in 25 Tests, he finally resigned despite leading India to a creditable 1-0 Test series win over England in England in 2007. After quitting, he played for almost five more years, and scored 3,808 runs in 42 Tests in this period. Going by this, we will hopefully see a carefree Dhoni lustily hitting huge sixes and boundaries, in the flamboyant way he batted when he made his ODI debut in December 2004.
The others who were either unceremoniously sacked by selectors or didn’t know when to leave the scene, didn’t have a long run as players after quitting. Several reasons are cited by selectors—possibly the best judges, who have seen captains from close quarters. Akash Lal, who represented north zone on the selection committee from 1989 to 1991—a tumultuous phase in Indian cricket—says it’s all in the mind. “It’s the reluctance to part with captaincy because of the label, the status and the honour attached to it. People are reluctant to part with power. There are not many cricketers who would retire in the interest of the country so that somebody else takes over. This is a psychological block,” says Lal. V.B. Chandresekhar, who was a selector from 2004 to 2006 when the Greg Chappell-Sourav Ganguly saga raged, says earlier captains had to be sacked; no one resigned. “Ganguly was the last captain to be removed from captaincy, in September 2005,” says Chandrasekhar. He gives an interesting reason as to why captains often stick to the chair. “It’s difficult to give up because you are under the spotlight; it’s a seat of power and there are cricketers who look up to you. And there are two-three players who you think are good and would like to back them, and those cricketers would find it difficult once you let go the reins,” he says.
After the Kiran More-headed committee replaced Ganguly with Rahul Dravid, the Bengal left-hander played 29 more Tests in three years and scored only 2,146 runs, before retiring in 2008. More says often the team’s performance leads to captains’ downfall. “It all depends on your and the team’s performance. The team’s performance comes first because if you lose a series, say, 4-0 or don’t win two or three series in a row, then the pressure is on you. So, psychologically, it affects your batting or bowling and the overall performance too. It’s always difficulty to leave captaincy when you’ve become a leader,” says the former India wicket-keeper. Bhupinder Singh, who was a national selector from 2005 to 2008, says at times captains ignore the writing on the wall because of insecurity. “India captains have so much power. They are part of selection committee meetings and have a say in choosing the squad and the playing XI. So, often they don’t want to quit in adversity and make themselves available as players because they don’t want to be at the mercy of the new captain,” he says.
There have been occasions when the selectors have summarily dumped captains after a short reign. It happened with Krishnamachari Srikkanth, after he drew the four-Test series 0-0 in Pakistan in 1989. On his return, the Raj Singh Dungarpur-chaired selection committee did away with him, possibly also for his failure with the bat, and surprised everyone by famously thrusting Mohammed Azharuddin in his place. Srikkanth only played four more Tests, all under Azharuddin, after losing captaincy. Akash Lal, who was part of that committee, distinctly remembers the meeting in Hyderabad at which Azharuddin was appointed. “We had a lot of problem after we picked Azharuddin as captain. BCCI president B.N. Dutt, first of all, wouldn’t give his approval for changing the captain. We didn’t budge and were prepared with our resignations. Then, only when we said that the entire committee would resign unless the captain’s choice was approved, did he relent,” he says.
Azharuddin, too, was removed from the captaincy and dropped from the team as well. He was recalled for the home series against South Africa in 2000, missed the first Test in Mumbai due to an injury and played the next match in Bangalore, where he scored a century. But it turned out to be his last one, before the match-fixing allegations caught up with him, leaving him stranded on 99 Tests. Kumble, too, got the surprise of his life in November 2007. After the resignation of Dravid, the Dilip Vengsarkar-led committee appointed him captain for the Australia tour, thus deferring Dhoni’s elevation to captaincy. Kumble ended his career as captain at the Ferozeshah Kotla in Delhi, where he had started his stint as captain. In 2006, at an ICC event in New Delhi, Kumble had admitted that he had given up hope on becoming India captain. But within a year, the selectors presented him with the opportunity. Kumble is now coach of the Indian team that has its hopes high as Captain Kohli scripts a new era in Indian cricket.