India’s win over Australia in the just concluded Test series has opened up a new debate in Indian cricket - the captaincy styles of Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane. Even though the national selection committee did not have any hesitation in naming Kohli as the skipper for the series against England starting Friday, the manner in which Rahane led the beleaguered side to an unexpected triumph remains etched in the minds of the fans of the game. Does the widespread appreciation for the undemonstrative manner in which the Mumbai batsman led the team signal a greater comfort among the followers of the game than the aggressive “in your face” style favoured by Kohli?
When one looks at the history of Indian cricket, it can be seen that the first cricketer who got a long run as the captain of the national cricket team was Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, who led the side without a break from 1962 till 1970 and again came back for the five-Test series against the West Indies in 1974-75. Hence it is only natural that he left a firm imprint on the many tenets of captaincy, which were accepted and emulated by his successors. Pataudi belonged to the school which believed firmly that no emotions should ever be shown in public and least of all on a cricket field. This might have something to do with his royal upbringing, where the ruler was expected to place himself on pedestal above the plebeians over who he ruled and maintain a dispassionate and detached visage. Or it might have been borne out of the understanding that displays of emotions on the field tended to divert the focus and attention away from the main task of playing the game.
The captains who followed Pataudi - Ajit Wadekar, Bishan Bedi, Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev and Mohammed Azharuddin - followed this dictum and went about their jobs without being too demonstrative. Even the advent of live television coverage which took the game to all nooks and corners of the country and made cricketers superstars failed to change this approach. Big victories like winning the World Cup in 1983 and the World Championship of Cricket in 1985 saw the captains sporting huge grins on their faces. Even hugs were rare and celebrations over a good catch or fall of an important wicket were limited to a pat on the back and a few encouraging words.
It was Sourav Ganguly's advent to captaincy that brought about a change to this approach. This was evident from the very first match where he led India, which incidentally took place at Kochi in April, 2000, and where I was the fourth umpire. As India started chasing a mammoth score in excess of 300 posted by South Africa, Ganguly came and sat outside the dressing room by the edge of the ground. The intensity with which he observed the happenings in the middle and the manner in which he shouted instructions, which were conveyed to the batsmen by the 12th man made an immediate impression on me. One was used to the style of Azharuddin, who preferred to watch the game from within the confines of the dressing room. Further, instructions to the players in the middle were always conveyed to the cricketer carrying the drinks in private; they were never shouted across. One knew from that instant that a new and more demonstrative style of captaincy was emerging in India.
Ganguly displayed this new approach to leading the side to the whole world when he took off his T-shirt and showed his bare torso while celebrating India’s win in the NatWest Series final at Lord’s in 2002. Though this was ostensibly in retaliation to the gesture of Andrew Flintoff who took off his shirt when England drew level the One-Day International series in India earlier that year, this action attracted attention from across the globe. Surprisingly, this act won Ganguly a new constituency of supporters - the expat Indians - who saw this as an expression of the “New India” that was emerging from the clutches of the past, riding on the strength of economic growth and liberalisation. The little criticism that emerged was drowned in the excitement over the victory, which was made possible by the efforts of Yuvraj Singh and Mohamed Kaif, two youngsters who appeared to be the future of Indian cricket.
Though Ganguly himself later admitted that he regretted taking off his T-shirt and swirling form the balcony of Lord’s, this turned out to be a seminal moment for Indian cricket. The fact that this happened during a period when India was becoming the financial superpower of cricket made it easier for those who supported Ganguly’s brand of showmanship. The gesture was interpreted as a message to the erstwhile powerhouses of world cricket that India will deal with them on its own terms and not necessarily based on norms which had hitherto been in practice. Ganguly’ success on the cricket field, which included defeating Pakistan on their turf, holding Australia to a draw while touring that country and reaching the World Cup final of 2003, made many believe that the national side required a tough and visibly aggressive leader who was willing to look his counterpart in the eye without blinking. This belief was further strengthened when the team led by a mild mannered and scholarly Rahul Dravid suffered a setback during the 2007 World Cup.
It took Mahendra Singh Dhoni to convince the Indian public that a captain can be aggressive without being overtly demonstrative about it. Dhoni was tough as nails and a great communicator, besides being equally combative but he was unique in not betraying any emotion on the field. A smile was the maximum that could be captured from him by the television cameras placed all over the ground. Dhoni outdid Ganguly as skipper as the side won not only 2011 World Cup but also the T20 World Cup in 2007 and Champions Trophy in 2013, besides figuring the top Test side in the world for 21 months from 2009-11.
Kohli had earned a reputation for being aggressive even before he took over as captain from Dhoni. It is to his credit that, under his stewardship, the national side remained on top of ICC rankings system for Test matches for a period of 43 months from October, 2016, till April, 2020. Kohli is completely uninhibited when it comes to showing emotions on the field. But his aggression extends to influencing the style of batsmanship of his compatriots. For instance, he firmly believes that top order batsmen should look to dominate the bowlers and score runs at a fast pace and he has tried to instill this ethic in the team. Though this approach has worked very well on most occasions, especially when playing in India, there have been quite a few times when this has failed badly, as happened at Adelaide in December, 2020.
Rahane has led the side with elan and imagination whenever he stood in for Kohli. His leadership style is reminiscent of Pataudi’s in that there are no overt displays of combativeness and celebration. But he also showed flashes of Dhoni by ensuring that the side did not compromise on its killer instinct and pugnacity. And by stating, right after the terrific victory at Brisbane, that Kohli would continue to lead the side when he comes back, he showed a rare decency that brought back memories of Gundappa Viswanath, one of the finest gentlemen to have led India.
It is not in doubt that Kohli would continue to lead the national side till he decides to step down from captaincy. And his style of captaincy has more admirers, especially among the younger generation. But it is request of old-timers like yours truly that he should take some matches off occasionally so that we would get a chance to enjoy his deputy in action more often. Besides his undefeated record as skipper, Rahane’s understated style of captaincy brings to mind some of the old-world charm and beauty of the game that I had fallen in love with, almost half a century ago.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)