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If I can just give to the world more than I take from it, I will be a very happy man. For there is no greater joy in life than to give. Motto : Live, Laugh and Love. You can follow me on Twitter too . My handle is @Raja_Sw.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

The myth of captaincy

There has been so much written about Saurav Ganguly in the media. Print media, online media. I must be out of my mind to come up with yet another piece on him. But there is more to this than just one individual, there is the bigger issue of Indian captaincy at stake – and that is enough for me to write this piece, even if the subject has been beaten to death a million times.

Like millions of other Indians, I reveled in the glory years of Ganguly. When he made his debut hundred at Lord’s almost nine years ago, I was “over the moon”. He followed it up with another hundred in the next Test – and I became one of his biggest fans. For years, India had depended on two batsmen – Tendulkar and Azharuddin. Now, there were two more to hold the fort – Saurav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid. (That series was also Dravid’s debut series and he also did very well although he did not get a hundred).

For the next few years, Ganguly was one of India’s frontline batsmen – and even after Azharuddin’s fall from grace, we spoke of the troika - Tendulkar, Dravid and Ganguly.
This was before VVS Laxman and Virender Sehwag entered the fray to stake their claim in India’s batting hierarchy.

I suspect it was sometime during India’s disastrous 1999-2000 series in Australia (where even Dravid did not get a fifty) that I remember reading about a chink in Ganguly’s batting armoury – that he was suspect against short-pitched fast bowling.

This may be untrue – and Ganguly insists it is – but the fact remains that the opposition has used the short delivery to its advantage and Ganguly has, time and again, played right into their hands. If this was a psyching tactic, in Ganguly’s case, it has worked wonderfully for the opposition.

This has been going on for about five years now (which is a long time in today’s busy schedule in international cricket) – and although he has got a few hundreds and fifties to show – Ganguly’s batting average has plummeted from a 50-odd excellent figure to a still-good-but-nowhere-near-impressive-enough 41-odd. If Azharuddin fell from grace for reasons which had nothing to do with his batting, Ganguly seems to be steadily falling from grace for reasons which have everything to do with batting alone.

It is difficult to see a player you like struggling so much – especially when you have been enthralled so often by his clean, dominating batting. Who can forget the 1999 World Cup thrashing of Sri Lanka ? For years, Ganguly had the cleanest cover drive in the game and his taking on of spinners had become legendary. It just does not seem to happen anymore, at least not in Tests.

He continues to do well in the limited overs version of the game – a sign that where the need is not to play out a long innings, he can still be reasonably counted upon. But in Tests, where you sometimes have to just stay there for a session or two, Ganguly seems to have increasingly lost the plot.

I am not unused to this. Over twenty years ago, I saw my then-favourite batsman Gundappa Vishwanath struggling to get runs that he could have got in his sleep just a few years before. The classic square-cut, the exotic late-cut, the fluent flick past mid-wicket – trademarks of Vishy – suddenly became something to yearn for as they got increasingly rare. His struggle was extremely painful to watch – he himself refused to accept it as anything other than a temporary loss of form. Finally, when he was not selected for the 1983 World Cup squad to England, a decision that came to him and the country as a huge surprise, it was the final writing on the wall for him. I still have memories of a picture in a magazine of that time where Vishy was at the airport (Bombay or Delhi, I don’t remember) wishing the Indian team the best of luck for the tournament. He was bitter, no doubt, but he was too big-hearted to allow his personal disappointment to come in the way of wishing the team success. The caption for the picture read “End of an era ?”.

I am digressing. We are discussing Saurav Ganguly and, as is typical of me, I have gone back to the days of Sunny and Vishy. Put it down to the bane of carrying too much cricket history in my head.

Back to Ganguly. I am not suggesting for one moment that Ganguly’s career is coming to an end or that his best days are behind him or that he should be replaced by somebody else. My only point is that there have been precedents of players going woefully out of form, some for extended periods, and many have not survived the dip. Ganguly has been fortunate in that he is in the strongest Indian batting side ever, so his own limited contributions in the last five years have been compensated by abundant contributions from the others. Added to this is the fact that he is Indian captain – which serves as considerable (if not absolutely water-tight) insurance for retaining his place in the side. Vishwanath did not have this luxury. Neither was he captain during his lean period, nor did others necessarily carry the team if he failed.

Which brings me to the subject I really wanted to talk about – Ganguly’s captaincy. I am going to become extremely unpopular by the time I am done but I will risk this. For I have to say what I think, even if it defies popular belief.

Inspite of Ganguly’s batting failures in the last few years, I believe he is better than his recent performances indicate. I can accept that he is going through a rough patch and will prove his detractors wrong – that big innings is just round the corner.

What I just cannot accept is what so many people all over the world believe - that Ganguly is a brilliant captain.

Figures and opinions will be thrown in my face to prove me wrong. After all, Ganguly has the most successful captaincy record in Indian cricket. Many leading ex-captains and commentators go ga-ga over Ganguly’s captaincy. He comes across as an aggressive captain, seems very passionate about the game, does not hide behind excuses and has transformed the Indian side into a performing unit. That is what I am repeatedly told.

I beg to differ. If the ICC player rankings are anything to go by, India has some of the world’s top batsmen and top bowlers at the moment. A really top captain would have leveraged this abundant wealth of talent and skills to win not just the odd Test but almost every Test India plays. Maybe this is overly ambitious and optimistic and I do admit that a team like Australia is definitely in a league above India, but India, under Ganguly has not half-achieved what it could and should have. Sure it is third in the ICC rankings but looking at the quality of teams below it, anything lower than third would be a disgrace.

Whenever we talk of Ganguly’s captaincy, one point is immediately brought up – under him, India has become the only real challenger to Australia, having beaten them in a home series in 2001 and almost beaten them in Australia in 2004. So Ganguly deserves credit for this.

Utter nonsense. India’s 2001 performance had everything to do with Laxman and Harbhajan Singh. Its 2004 performance in Australia had everything to do with a whole host of performances from almost every Indian player and a weakened Aussie side.

When Australia visited India late last year, they set the record straight. Ganguly missed a couple of games but he was overall captain and must take responsibility for India’s dismal showing.

Under Ganguly, India has done well notably well in 4 series of consequence :
- against Australia at home in 2001
- against England in 2002
- against Australia in Australia in 2004
- against Pakistan in Pakistan in 2004

In all these series, my argument is that India would have done whatever it did, whether being led by Ganguly or by anybody else.

By the same token, if Ganguly is such a brilliant captain, why did India lose the away-series in the West Indies in 2001-02 ? I remember it being a very average West Indian side. Reason : The Indian big guns, notably Dravid and Tendulkar and even Kumble, did not fire consistently and Sehwag was missing. Ganguly’s captaincy counts for nought if his talented team has an off-day or off-series.

Sure, Ganguly led India to the World Cup final in 2003. Again my argument is that any other captain would have done the same – there was nothing special that Ganguly did.

If Ganguly is such a brilliant captain, how is it that India could not capture four Pakistani wickets on the last day at Mohali ? Sure Kamran Akmal and Razzaq batted very well and the wicket was flat, but could not Ganguly inspire his bowlers to finish off the game, considering the prize at stake ? Any other captain in his place would have got much more flak than Ganguly did. But then he is the “blue-eyed” captain, so this total failure was conveniently glossed over.

Everybody knows that this is the weakest Pakistani side to ever visit India and still India is struggling to win the series hands-down. Surely the captain should take responsibility for this.

As for Ganguly’s aggression and passion, it counts for nothing. If aggression and passion is all it takes, anybody can demonstrate these qualities and claim captaincy. It takes effort to make ordinary players do extraordinary things, to envision and lead to victory a side when every other team player has lost hope and looks totally down and out. Ask Allan Border and Imran Khan, two captains who had far less skilled players at their disposal and who turned them into World Cup winning players. True, Ganguly may have led India into the World Cup final of 2003 but let’s face it, India had a very strong squad with Tendulkar in full form and the one team that could have thrashed India, did so very convincingly. What great captaincy skills did Ganguly exhibit when Australia were thrashing India from the first ball of that final ?

I am ending this blog now. It is not organized in any manner but I am glad I have written this. It takes a load off my mind.

My take on Saurav Ganguly is somewhat different from that of many others. Most people criticize his batting but praise his captaincy. For me, it is different.

I can tolerate Saurav Ganguly’s repeated batting failures. Hopefully he will come good soon.

I cannot tolerate this hype about his “great” captaincy. He is leading a team with top players and has not shown the results he should have. Mohali hurts real bad for me, even today.

I would like to still see Ganguly in the side, playing under somebody else. Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, whoever. I don’t expect the results to be any worse than what Ganguly has produced – this, for me, will be the final explosion of the myth of “Ganguly’s great captaincy”.

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