Cricket – Thou Art India’s National Obsession, and for many…Religion….
Here’s another debate, this time on India’s National Obsession – CRICKET. Who’s been the BEST CAPTAIN of the Indian Team ever, and why? For the sake of relevance and relatability, I have limited the choice between Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Sourav Ganguly, and Mahendra Singh Dhoni. There have been many legends before and in between, and there is Virat Kohli dominating everything at present, but the aforementioned four stalwarts have left an indelible impression on viewers and fans with their tenures at the helm and I have personally had the privilege of watching…
Sunil Gavaskar –
Chronologically, the first of the four was Sunil Manohar Gavaskar. The original Little Master, this diminutive 5’5″ Mumbaikar led India in the late ’70s and early ’80’s with his stint sandwiching Kapil Dev’s World Cup-winning tenure from 1983 to 1984-85. An opening batsman after whom Cricket Textbooks could be written, he was technically perfect, sound in defence and has scored runs all around the world, that too in spades!
Alas, the same cannot be said of his Captaincy stints. A very conservative Captain, whose first idea was to save a match (exemplified by the high number of draws under him). He was also egocentric, self-obsessed, and not a very good Man-Manager. All in all, a very ordinary track record from a superlative batsman of his era, and perhaps, India’s Greatest Opening Bat ever!!
The below set of Tables give the Statistical Comparison of the Four Greats of Indian Cricket, during their stints as Indian Team Captain :
Kapil Dev –
Kapil Dev Ramlal Nikhanj debuted as India’s Captain in the 1982-83 season and despite the historic World Cup win in 1983, he was sacked as India’s Captain in early 1984 due to poor performance! Dev was instinctive, a medium-pace bowler with a fantastic bowling action and a lovely away swinger (though he later developed a lethal in-swinger too!). He was also a great fielder and a more than capable batsman in the lower order. His 176 against Zimbabwe in the 1983 ODI World Cup has been rated as one of the greatest ODI innings ever! But his Captaincy stint was pretty mediocre (he has little fast bowling support, mostly) and his individual performance could not inspire his team to great things – except that dreamy run in the 1983 World Cup…. His catch to dismiss Sir Vivian Richards, running back approximately 20 yards, was the stuff dreams are made of and clearly won us the Cup for the first time ever, but his Captaincy dwindled into insignificance soon after. Indian Cricket’s Greatest ever All-Rounder thus had an utterly forgettable time as India’s Captain!
Sourav Ganguly –
Next, enter the ‘Prince’ – Sourav Chandidas Ganguly – aka Dada! Though he made his international debut in 1992, his proper debut came in 1996 at Lords, along with Rahul Dravid. He made a 100 on debut, and never looked back! Around the year 2000, after the tumultuous match-fixing marred reign of Mohd. Azharuddin, and the wobbly and shaky reign of Sachin Tendulkar, the Captaincy of Indian Cricket was handed over to Sourav. He had the unenviable task of putting a scarred and shaky team together, which included a Superstar and a few talented youngsters. On that slushy and slippery ground of uncertainty, Ganguly started building his mansion, brick by unsure brick.
He brought in youngsters like Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Yuvraj Singh, Mohd. Kaif et al and turned them into match-winners on their own. An uncannily instinctive leader, he was the first Indian Captain who lived the maxim – “Never Back Down” and gave back better than he got! (ask the Australians!). Like a phoenix, the Indian Team rose from the quagmire of scandal, went toe-to-toe with the best of those times, and more often than not, came away victorious! As Captain, Sourav had most Away wins ever, till MSD came along. Under him, India went till the finals of the 2003 ODI World Cup and lost only to a Ricky Ponting Masterclass!
He has to be credited for creating a team, mentoring champions, and creating a culture that India was no longer the polite, Gandhian opponents – they could brawl – they would return a punch and not the other cheek! He was a canny tactician, strategist and had a special nose for sniffing out talents and back them to the hilt till they came good and became superstars themselves. His Achilles’ Heel was that he never had two Fast bowlers of great promise together for a long time, otherwise his Overseas Test record would have looked even more stellar.
This transformation of a Team ethos was carried forward by MS and now Virat Kohli, but Sourav germinated that theme and carried it on his shoulders for others to bear. Had Greg Chappell and his weird philosophies not intervened, Sourav may have India to greater heights, but that’s a debate for another day….
M S Dhoni –
Captain Cool aka Mahendra Singh Dhoni, came from the hinterlands of Jharkhand and made his ODI debut in 2004 and a year later in Tests. A wicketkeeper-batsman with a flowing mane, Dhoni made his name as a ‘finisher’ and someone with fearsome power and uncanny hand-eye coordination. He captained India in ODI’s from 2007-2016 and in Tests from 2008-2014 and the trophies he collected during that time remain unrivalled in Indian Cricket history and will remain so for the unforeseeable future.
Under his captaincy, India won the 2007 ICC World T-20, the 2010 and 2016 Asia Cups, the 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup, and the 2013 ICC Champions Trophy, and remains the only Captain in Cricket’s history to have won all ICC Trophies! He also led India to the No. 1 Ranking in Tests for the first time in its history. One major difference between the team Dhoni inherited and the one Sourav did was in the mindset of its members. While Sourav’s charges were jittery, insecure, and unsure of their footing, Dhoni’s team had established superstars and players who were secure in their positions and the fire of achievement and the desire to excel were already well ingrained. All he had to do was to carry that legacy forward and continue to improve the momentum. He did both with equal aplomb.
His coolness under pressure, match condition awareness, and supreme strategic skills came to the fore as he matured into the role. His finishing prowess added to the aura around him. He also groomed youngsters like Suresh Raina and Ravindra Jadeja. Particularly in short form Cricket, he has no parallels, and his superlative wicketkeeping skills married to his brutal batting made him a Superstar in his own right! One loses count of how many matches he pulled out of the brink of despair into the warm embrace of Victory, single-handedly. He can also be credited for the supreme fitness culture the team boasts now, where he led by example. Such is the legend of M S Dhoni!!
His Test Match Captaincy is another matter, however. At times, he went into a defensive mode and became conservative with both his bowling changes as well as setting attacking fields. He was also a mediocre batsman in the Test arena, particularly outside the sub-continent, where his lack of footwork would prove his undoing time and again, and one would be hard-pressed to identify one innings outside the sub-continent where MS has single-handedly won us a Test match – something he’s done countless times in ODI’s. This dichotomy between his short-form Captaincy and Test Captaincy can perhaps be accredited to his losing the intensity and focus over 5 days.
A breath of fresh air has been brought around in this by Virat Kohli with his mantra of ‘Win at all Costs‘, but I digress…. There have been times when Dhoni would give up a chase in the 4th innings to secure a draw and more than anybody else, gave the impression that he’d rather be safe than sorry. So, on balance, MS was a fantastic cricket captain in ODI’s and T20’s but a pretty average one in Tests.
VERDICT – Best Cricket Captain of India
However unbiased and objective I try to be, it’s very hard to look beyond Sourav as the Best Captain to have ever graced the Cricket field from India. He inherited a rattled and low on confidence team, turned them around into World beaters, instilled the firm belief in them that they could give back better than they got. He watched the players’ back like a hawk and nurtured talent like nobody else before or after him. For the first time in Indian Cricket history, you did not have to come from Mumbai to get selected, if you had the talent and desire to do well, Sourav will back you till the end. The team became like a cohesive family and they celebrated each other’s success and shared the burdens of failure equally. This is the legacy that he handed down to MS Dhoni, who carried it forward ably and well.
But the pathbreaking and legendary Captain of the Indian Cricket team will always be ‘The Prince of Calcutta‘ – Sourav Chandidas Ganguly!
For the sake of objectivity, I have not considered the Captaincy stints of Mohd. Azharuddin, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, and Anil Kumble – All capable and able leaders but somehow overshadowed by the towering personalities before and after them… No offense meant to any of these legends!!