A captain doesn’t always get the credit when a team does well. But when it does badly, the focus is on him – or her, as Mithali Raj is discovering afresh, and England’s Joe Root is too, following the defeat in the West Indies.
When India returned with 0-4 defeats against both England and Australia in 2011, the guns were pointed at skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Thanks to the then cricket board president, Dhoni kept his job. So well has the team done since then that when South Africa beat them recently, the whispers against skipper Virat Kohli became more distinct.
Kohli led in 68 Tests, Root in 64. As former England captain Michael Atherton said, “there comes a time when a captain has nothing new to say…” Like with artists and novelists, the wells of creativity dry up, and all that remains is repetition and routine.
The ‘decency’ argument
The consensus seems to be that Root is too decent to be an international captain. This raises the question: do only indecent players make good captains? And what does the term even mean? That captains ought to be humourless misanthropes? That is carrying it too far.
Recent captains from New Zealand — the current World Test champions — have shown that captains can be decent men who lose nothing because of their decency, and might even bring out the latent decency in their opponents. Think Brendon McCullum or Kane Williamson.
Captaincy is important in cricket, but judging it is difficult. The most astute captain, bursting with tactical nous can still end up losing a match or a series for events he has no control over. An injury to a key player, for instance, or unexpected rain or a surprise bowling spell from an opponent.
The reverse is equally true. An apparently weak captain can win because fortune favours him or a player on the verge of being dropped makes a century. If a captain is only as good as his team — one of the game’s cliches — then the elements that make for his success are out of his control anyway.
Burden of reputation
Sometimes a reputation stamped early on a captain is impossible to shake away. Tiger Pataudi may or may not have been a better captain than his successor Ajit Wadekar. But in the popular imagination — fed by the media of the time — the former was ‘great’ while the latter was ‘lucky’. This is unfair. But we have only the metric of win-and-loss to judge a captain.
This is different from the manner in which players are evaluated by runs scored or wickets taken without reference to whether these performances led to victory or not. Captains can make bowling changes or rearrange the field or the batting order, but even if these do contribute to victory, they will not figure in his statistical chart, thus making judgements a subjective matter.
While ambiguity is a good basis for arguments at bars or in social gatherings, there is something unsatisfying about subjectivity in a sport where figures tell the rest of the story.
Do we make too much of captaincy, investing it with almost magical powers? Any senior player ought to be able to lead a team since he has the experience. You can’t blame fans for thinking that sometimes the best captains sit outside the game — in the media boxes! But not all players handle man management well, and often that is as important as tactical knowhow. The third element, luck, is crucial, something the best captains acknowledge without embarrassment.
Losing can become a habit too
If nothing succeeds like success, nothing follows like failure either. Losing can become a habit too, and when you lose five series in a row (as England have recently), something happens to the team. Players begin to accept defeat as something natural, and no team can be so accepting of defeat. New captains bring in a new energy, a new way of doing things that might reverse a depressing trend.
When chairman of selectors Vijay Merchant ended Pataudi’s reign with his casting vote, he explained that he had acted like the CEO of a company which was not making profits and changed the manager in the hope of a change in fortunes. It worked, and India, unused to winning those days, won three series in a row.
We have no way of knowing what might have happened had Pataudi led to the West Indies and England — it was a team he had built over a decade after all.
Maybe modern captains have a sell-by date. Cricket is extensively analysed, and just as the strengths and weaknesses of batters and bowlers are worked out, so too are those of captains. Once the element of surprise disappears, it is time to end the captaincy. One good custom, as Tennyson said (he wasn’t speaking of captaincy), can corrupt that world.