Ramachandra Guha, the famous historian and sociologist, who is also well known for his knowledgeable essays on cricket, had written in his book ‘Wickets in the East’ that the captain of the Indian cricket team was the second most important person in the country after the Prime Minister of the nation. While admitting to a certain amount of hyperbole, this statement nevertheless comes very close to a correct depiction of the amount of stress that the skipper of the national side feels every time the team steps out onto the field. Carrying the dreams and hopes of a billion people is no easy task and the mental strain associated with this job has caused some of the best cricketers that the world has seen to give up this position. William Shakespeare would not have imagined that his words “uneasy is the head that wears the crown” would fit the captain of the Indian team so perfectly when he penned it in the play “Henry, the fourth”.
Though the situation described above is specific for India in that no other cricket captain has to carry the burden of aspirations of so many people, the skippers of all major Test playing nations hold a place of prominence in their respective countries. This is the reason why leading the national side remains the most cherished dream of nearly every child who picks up the cricket bat or starts turning their arms over with the red cherry in hand. In no other contemporary sport is the authority and influence of a captain as significant as it is in cricket. Watching a good skipper in action is almost akin to witnessing a live demonstration of the basic tenets of leadership.
These thoughts came to mind while reading the news reports about the decision of Joe Root to step down from the captaincy of England. Root took over as skipper in 2017 and led the side in a record 64 Test matches during his five-year reign at the helm. His significant achievements include the highest number of wins (27 Tests) by an England captain, besides victories over Sri Lanka and South Africa in the away series. However, the side had hit a bad patch during the last year when they could win only one out of the 17 Tests they played. The defeat against the lowly-placed West Indies last month was the worst cut and prompted Root to throw in the towel.
In addition to being the captain of the side, Root was also the leading batsman for England. It is to his credit that he did not allow the pressures of captaincy to affect his batting as could be seen from the tally of 5,295 runs, which included 14 centuries, that he amassed during his stint as skipper. A total of 1,708 runs, with the highest score of 228, won him the award of “Men's’ cricketer award” for 2021 from the International Cricket Council (ICC). He retained his position among the “big four” batsmen in contemporary cricket, the other three being Virat Kohli of India, Kane Williamson of New Zealand and Steve Smith of Australia, all of who incidentally led their national sides as well. But the long string of defeats, which included a drubbing during the Ashes series in Australia and the consequent criticism took its toll on Root and convinced him that it was time to step down. The press statement released by him said that this was the “most challenging decision” he faced in his life.
Stepping down from the captaincy of the national side is a big decision for any cricketer. Being forced to take this call when the side is performing poorly is even more difficult. All international sportspersons are successful individuals, intensely proud of their achievements and standing in the sport and society. Hence leaving on a note of poor performance or defeat would be a complete anathema for them. Only very few cricketers could manage to do this with poise and continue playing the game.
Kim Hughes is the name that springs to mind when one thinks about the adverse fallout of resigning from captaincy. Hughes was a supremely talented batsman who was made captain of the Australian side in early 1979 when most of the top Aussie cricketers were playing in Kerry Packer-sponsored World Series Cricket (WSC). He was made the deputy to Greg Chappell when these cricketers returned after the folding up of WSC. When Chappell declared himself unavailable for the tour of England for the Ashes series in 1981, Hughes was appointed as skipper. This decision did not go down well with senior players, especially Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh, who felt that the latter would be a better choice. Australia lost a hard-fought series, but the selectors continued to repose their trust in Hughes and he was made full-time skipper after the retirement of Chappell.
It was the singular misfortune of Hughes that Australia had to play two series against an all-powerful West Indies squad immediately after he took over as skipper. It would have been difficult even for a well-settled side with an experienced skipper to take on the mighty Windies side during the first half of 1980s when they made it a habit to decimate all opposing teams. Hughes came under heavy criticism for the losses suffered by Australia, even though it was obvious that the Aussies would have suffered the same fate under any other captain. But the pressure of repeated losses and adverse media reports became too much for Hughes and he announced his decision to quit as captain after the second Test of the home series against West Indies in 1985. He was so distraught and overcome by emotion that he broke down during the press conference and could not even complete reading out the prepared statement. That incident did not do anything to boost his confidence and he found himself out of the national side soon afterwards.
A striking contrast to the breakdown of Hughes was the stoic manner in which Sachin Tendulkar stepped down from captaincy. Tendulkar had two stints at the helm - the first one in 1996-97 and the second in 1999-2000. He was replaced by Mohamed Azharuddin after his first stint and he was not very keen to take over when he was offered this position a second time. But he was forced to do so and the results were not good as India lost 0-3 to Australia in an away series. After the side returned to India, Tendulkar announced that he would be stepping down at the close of a short two-Test series against South Africa at home immediately afterwards. India lost both the Tests and Tendulkar handed over the reins to Sourav Ganguly. However, Tendulkar went on to play international cricket for another 14 years and became acknowledged as an all-time great of the game.
What path will Root’s career follow after this call? A look at the history of the game will show that many a batsman has chosen to let go of the pressures of captaincy and continued playing the game at the highest level with remarkable success. In fact, the phase following the tenure at the helm was akin to “golden years” for some like Sunil Gavaskar and Rahul Dravid, both of who decided to step down after a major reverse but could finish off their stints as captain on a winning note. Both of them made most of the opportunity to focus on their specialist task without being burdened with the responsibilities of captaincy and made mountains of runs in the period after captaincy. One could state that they had their fill of being at the helm and did not miss it, unlike Hughes who badly wanted to continue and felt he was done in by unfair criticism. In all likelihood, after five years at the helm, Root will be feeling satiated and hence not likely to miss the responsibilities of leading the side.
It is not a coincidence that Root’s decision to quit leading the side comes close on the heels of a similar one made by Virat Kohli a few months earlier, though the circumstances in which the two players arrived at this decision are different. With Steven Smith out of the reckoning in Australia following the ball-tampering episode, only Kane Williamson among the “big four” remains captain of a national side at present. This could also be a signal that these superb batsmen, whose skills with the willow have enthralled the fans of the game the world over, are entering the last phase of their career when they should be allowed to focus solely on their first specialist task.
Let us hope that the decision to step down from captaincy adds years to the international career of Root the batsman.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)