May 25, 2007

The curious case of captains.

Unless you are Ricky Ponting and going through the form of your life, being captain of any international team is no cakewalk. What takes the cake though is how some captains, in spite of their fickle form and fitness, still find themselves ensconced in the top job.

The most curious case is that of Michael Vaughan – being a premier test batsman and captain was not enough. He was saddled with the one-day captaincy – till date Vaughan, a top-order bat has not scored an ODI hundred and averages about 27 in 86 ODIs spanning over 6 years. Also, it doesn’t help that Vaughan’s travails with injuries make Tendulkar’s seem like mere trifles.

Such was the blind faith in Vaughan’s abilities, that when he could not lead from the front, they made him lead from behind. Along with old hand and coach Duncan Fletcher, an injured Vaughan fiddled from the far pavilion. He played no part in any of the five Ashes tests and was only flown in mid-tour as a last ditch effort. As the Gauls would say “these English are crazy!”

The lack of belief in the tippler on the sea, Andrew Flintoff’s leadership resurfaced in the West Indies - when he was reprimanded and relieved of his vice-captaincy. Meanwhile, Vaughan was England’s secret weapon in the World Cup – one that would raise the bar for a below par English side. But how many games did he finally play?

Never mind that a captain must automatically select himself in the final eleven as a player first. That is Aussie thinking. Never mind that the Australian juggernaut had the nerve to drop some of their best captains, Mark Taylor and Steven Waugh from the one-day side. How else would Ricky Ponting have become the one-day team’s captain? How else would players like Michael Hussey and Michael Clarke make the grade?

An English team sans Michael Vaughan can field hungry top-order batsman like Cook, Bell and Collingwood. Meanwhile, Vaughan continues to fiddle on the roof.

Things have hit the roof with other captains too – Rahul Dravid, once the least controversial Indian player finds himself saddled with more baggage than can fit in a Boeing’s boot. And while Dravid’s remarkable run of form has seen a familiar captain’s dip, and his team is in tatters, the media has been unhinged with their conspiracy theories, always substantiated by unnamed sources. Like the Michael Vaughan-Duncan Fletcher nexus, Dravid too enjoyed the backing of his coach. And much like Vaughan-Fletcher, Dravid-Chappell were targeted after their team’s World Cup goof-ups. Somehow, both captains survived, while their coaches perished.

In the meantime, both captains play second fiddle to superstars and mercurial talents. For Vaughan it’s the Demigods, Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen, while for Dravid it’s the Dus Avatars - Dhoni, Sehwag, Yuvraj, Tendulkar, Ganguly, Pathan, Harbhajan, Zaheer, not to forget, Guru Greg and the BCCI babus.

For, in India every second player is a superstar with the exception of Rahul Dravid. Every player thinks it his birthright to be in the Indian team. And when any player is dropped or rested, the furor created by the media is almost deafening.

And though it’s nearly two months to India’s first test against England on July 19th, both the English and Indian skippers find themselves in quite a jam. And for once Dravid’s nickname Jammie rings true – he looks like a captain without a team, while England looks like a team without a captain.

England however, does not lack leaders. In Flintoff they found the inspiration to come back from behind, and draw a test series in India. And in Strauss they have the easy- going guy who sits back and waits in the slips. And while Flintoff can almost single-handedly raise the bar many notches, Strauss can be a calming influence. Still neither player has that X factor that makes a captain special. And that is something that Vaughan, in spite of his frailties, has in abundance.

Of course, a test series against a transitional West Indian team can be a wrong assessment of England’s strengths. And while Strauss’ captaincy will not be exposed against the Windies, it could well be tested. Already in the first test at Lord’s, the pace and impetus of the game was allowed to drift.

Definite alternatives for the captaincy are Paul Collingwood and Kevin Pietresen. While Collingwood is England’s “Dravid”, and Pietersen is their “Ponting”, crucially, both are automatic selections in the playing eleven.

After the 5-0 Ashes drubbing, it’s unlikely that England will risk another superstar as captain. Which makes Paul Collingwood, who is now scoring runs at a Pontingesque pace, a more obvious choice.

Either way, injuries notwithstanding, England has the nucleus of a strong test team, at least against weaker sides. Meanwhile India continues to scratch in the familiar dead and dusty tracks of Bangladesh. Wonder what the extra seam ‘n’ movement of English conditions will do - once again, the onus might fall on the captain. Without whose runs, this team will surely be jammed.

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