Recently a friend of mine from school days, who is also a reader of this column, sent me an article titled “5 Indian cricket legends who publicly expressed their hatred for M S Dhoni after retiring”. The said article listed Gautam Gambhir, Yuvraj Singh, Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh and Irfan Pathan as those who expressed unhappiness over Dhoni’s leadership. On detailed reading, it was found that while Gambhir had only expressed his angst over Dhoni being given the entire credit for India’s victory over Sri Lanka in the 2011 International Cricket Council (ICC) World Cup final, others showed their resentment about they not being supported by the skipper during the twilight of their careers. Gambhir had performed well with the bat in the final against Sri Lanka and his innings of 97 held the Indian innings together after the early dismissals of Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag. Hence it was only natural that he was not happy to see Dhoni cornering all the applause. In the case of other four, all of who had played under Dhoni for a significant part of their careers, it was a case of not seeing the writing on the wall that their heyday were over and it was time to give way to younger talent. If Dinesh Karthik, who started playing for India before Dhoni made his bow in International cricket, could return to the national squad in 2022 on the strength of his performances in domestic cricket and Indian Premier League (IPL), nothing prevented these stars of yesteryear also from forcing their way back to the team by sheer weight of runs scored or wicket taken in first-class matches. It was just that they wanted to be retained on the basis of past performances, overlooking prevailing form, which Dhoni was not willing to accept. If anything, the criticism by these players only adds to the stature of Dhoni as a leader who placed the interests of the side above everything else, including his relations with individual players.
This article brought to mind an issue that plagued Indian cricket for long in the past but had not surfaced during the recent years - infighting within the national squad and, in particular, severe difference of opinion between captain and the players. Diversity of viewpoints is natural within any group of individuals and is in many ways a healthy trait as well. It is only when they become severe and evolve into a conflict between persons or outright dissidence that they affect the performance of the side. Unfortunately, our national side was bogged down due to discord between senior players on many occasions in the past, which affected not only the performance but also cast the entire team in bad light. It would be interesting to recall some of the major controversies that shook Indian cricket on this score.
It did not take very long after the entry of India into international cricket for this malaise to make its appearance. The first instance in the annals of Indian cricket when a player developed serious differences with captain and team management took place during the tour of England in 1936. The side was led by Maharajkumar of Vizianagaram (Vizzy) who was known more for his politicking inside the chambers of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) than for his prowess on the field. Expectations that Vizzy would choose to restrict his leadership to the social arena proved to be a non-starter as he insisted on captaining the team in the field as well. This did not go down well with the players, especially Lala Amarnath, who did not think highly about the cricketing skills of the skipper. Amarnath was young, impulsive and on a high after scoring a century on his Test debut, and he did not hide his resentment against the decisions taken by Vizzy. Matters reached a head when, in a tour match against Minor Counties, Amarnath was asked pad up so as to bat at No. 3, but was sent out only after five wickets were lost. An upset Amarnath lashed out at the captain and the team masseur in colourful language, leading to complaints about his brash and impetuous behaviour. Brittain-Jones, manager of the team, judged that this was an apt opportunity for instilling some public school type discipline on the young cricketer and decided to send Amarnath back to India. The pleas of senior players, including C K Nayudu and repeated apologies by the player himself failed to move the manager and Amarnath was placed on the next ship to India. The worst fallout of this episode was that it was used by the British establishment as an example to support their stand that Indians could not work together except under the supervision and control of the colonial rulers. For the record, India lost this series 0-3.
The next major controversy arose during India’s disastrous tour of England in 1974. Ajit Wadekar was the skipper and an argument broke out between him and Bishan Singh Bedi at a dinner organised by one of the expatriates settled in England. Bedi complained that the emoluments paid to cricketers was very low despite the increasing popularity of the game in the country. Wadekar felt that Bedi was accusing him of not taking up the matter more firmly with the BCCI and accused him of being “Pataudi’s man”. This upset Bedi who threatened to leave the side unless Wadekar apologised to him. Though Wadekar expressed remorse over the incident, relations between the two remained frosty during the rest of this tour. Not surprisingly, India lost this series also 0-3.
The clash between Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev that took place during the first half of 1980s hogged newspaper headlines. Gavaskar was replaced by Kapil as captain of the national side after India lost the series to Pakistan in 1982-83. Kapil led the side with elan and won the 1983 World Cup, a feat that electrified the nation. But India lost the series against the West Indies that followed in the winter of 1983-84. Kapil felt that Gavaskar was not pulling his weight with the bat during this series and made some observations to this effect, which upset the latter and he offered to step down from the side. This issue was resolved only after N K P Salve, then president of the BCCI, called both players and had a chat. Gavaskar was back as skipper during the season that followed when England toured India. Kapil was dropped after the second Test at Delhi, which India lost, on “cricketing reasons” though it was widely felt that this was on account of a loose shot that he played at a critical juncture in the game. This brought the differences between the two into the open yet again and for some period, the entire nation appeared to be split, almost equally, on who was to blame for the impasse. Not surprisingly, India lost that series 1-2. However, the duo put their differences behind them during the World Championship of Cricket in Australia that followed, where India lifted the trophy. Gavaskar stepped down from captaincy after this tournament, paving the way for Kapil to return to the helm.
There have been many other instances of bickering within the national squad and players being at loggerheads with each other. It remains a fact that the performance levels of the side plummets whenever there is infighting or captain and other players do not see eye to eye. It is to the credit of skippers of the newer generation such as Sourav Ganguly, Dhoni and Virat Kohli that they did not allow any such instances to develop during their stint at the top. There would have been differences between individual players but these captains showed sufficient tact and skills to ensure that these did not evolve in serious problems that affected the side. Further, they placed the interests of the team above their personal likes and dislikes.
Finally, it should be mentioned that all successful captains set an example by their own conduct. For instance, the allegation of Yuvraj and Co. that Dhoni did not help them to extend their careers might have carried some traction had the latter tried to cling on to his place. However, Dhoni had stepped down from captaincy and moved away from Test cricket and limited overs versions in international arena when his skillsets were undiminished, which sent across the message that he would not stretch his career at the expense of the team. In this situation, the statements of the four players do not carry any credibility and will not dent the popularity and standing of Dhoni in the public eye.
To sum up, while there is nothing abnormal for differences of opinion to exist among members of the national side, they should not be allowed to escalate into controversies that affect the performances of the team adversely. Cricket is a team sport where captain plays an important role and it is his responsibility to ensure that prospects of individual players do not gain priority over the interests of the side. Whenever skippers have failed in this responsibility, there have been bad consequences for the team, however, talented the players or skilled the captain. This is a lesson to be learnt and assimilated by players and captains right from the school/club level all the way to international matches.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)