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There is no more coveted job in Indian sport - indeed perhaps in Indian life - than the cricket captaincy. But there is none that is also more controversial and hazardous. Cricket is India's most magnificent obsession - even greater than films I would argue - and arouses extreme passions and reactions among its followers and administrators. In triumph, a captain gets limitless adulation, but heaven help him if the team fails.
After the twin overseas victories in 1971 under Ajit Wadekar, for instance, there was a giant bat commemorating this performance erected in Ahmedabad;three years later in 1974, when Wadekar's side was whitewashed in England, the same bat was vandalized. Cricket captaincy in India has thrown up some fascinating characteristics. The first captain (in 1932) was Col CK Nayudu, a magnetic personality who inspired generations of players across the country. In a time when royals were patrons and players, for Nayudu to become captain was an achievement in itself.
In 1936, the official tour captain was the Maharajah of Vizianagram, which speaks for itself. Thankfully, Vizzy never played a Test;the job here was still left to Nayudu. Since then, there have been captains of royal pedigree, very humble backgrounds, fine education, non-degree holders et al.
Some of those who looked best equipped for the job did not quite make it count, like Sachin Tendulkar. Some who got the job unexpectedly went on to lead for years: Pataudi, Mohammed Azharuddin, Sourav Ganguly. A few had chequered careers with up and downs like a roller-coaster ride. Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev and Ajit Wadekar would fall in this category: spectacular triumphs followed by major slumps. Amongst all, the game-changers for me have been:
Lala Amarnath was known as the stormy petrel of Indian cricket, allegedly for the rebellious streak in him as a youngster. But while he may have been overzealous in his pursuits other than cricket too, a trifle short-tempered, and not servile to authority, this did not necessarily make him out as an uncontrollable maverick.
Charges of indiscipline - which led to Amarnath being sent back from the 1936 tour of England and remains one of Indian cricket's darkest chapters - were never clearly substantiated. Amarnath bore lifelong a grudge against what he believed was a miscarriage of justice, yet went on to play multifarious roles in Indian cricket viz selector, manager, administrator, but perhaps most importantly as captain.
Lala's tenure as a captain was brief and unproductive, yet significant. He was independent India's first captain when he took the team Down Under in 1947-48 to play Sir Donald Bradman's Invincibles. The series was a gross mismatch, India losing 0-4, but this must be seen in the context of the circumstances prevailing then.
The Indian team was without two of the country's leading batsmen, Vijay Merchant and Rusi Modi. Even worse, stalwarts like Wazir Mohamed and Abdul Hafeez Kardar along with the gifted young fast bowler Fazal Mahmood had opted to be in Pakistan post-Partition. All things considered this was a severely depleted Indian team, but played with enough enthusiasm and skill to impress even Bradman.
Amarnath's captaincy and positive approach was one of the high points of the tour. Bradman called him a great ambassador for the game, and in his book Farewell to Cricket pays the Indian captain accolades that he has reserved only for a few.
The flavour of Amarnath's captaincy, however, was to dissipate soon after. In the 1950s, for reasons not entirely related to talent availability, Indian cricket settled into a defensive mindset that was to put a draw ahead of all else. The establishment also got highly politicized, with the captaincy becoming a hot seat in every sense of the word, the nadir being reached in the series against 1958-59 against Australia when there were four captains for five Tests.
Amarnath, incidentally, was a prominent manager and selector in this decade which showed that he too had perhaps been sucked into this vortex.
MANSUR ALI KHAN PATAUDI
Pataudi became captain by default when Nari Contractor was felled by a Charlie Griffith bouncer on the 1962 tour of West Indies. He was vice-captain, but only 21 and nobody expected him to take on the job so early. And when he did, nobody expected him to last as long as he did or bring about the changes he did, for which many still consider him to be India's best captain ever.
That Pataudi became captain in such excruciating circumstances probably helped steel him to the job. In his autobiography Tiger's Tale, he writes about how difficult it was to captain the Indian team because people in the dressing room didn't even speak the same language.
Pataudi's first big task was to break that and other barriers, like winning over the seniors who were sceptical about his credentials and probably believed that he had got the job only because he was from a privileged background. He did that by earning, rather than demanding respect as had been the practice.
Pataudi was a man of few words, but these were weighty and pertinent. Bishan Singh Bedi has often said about how Pataudi made every player believe he was an Indian first and play as a team. Before his time, the dressing room was full of highly-skilled individuals and a less than optimum performing team.
Pataudi infused a sense of optimism and self-belief in the players. Though he hailed from a royal background, he strived to shrug off the deference to former colonial powers - or others who had given Indians a complex.
On the field, he set about revising strategy to build a formidable all-spin attack which gave rise to the famed quarter of Prasanna, Bedi, Chandra and Venkat. On Indian pitches (then), Pataudi realised there was no great role for fast bowlers. He pinned his hopes on spin - supported by excellence in fielding which he pushed for.
Ganguly, like Pataudi 40 years before him, got the captaincy almost by default and in the most difficult circumstances. Sachin Tendulkar had surrendered the job and shortly after he took over, Indian cricket was hit by the match-fixing scandal.
From the debris, Ganguly went about building the image and cricketing reputation over the next six-seven years through his blunt ways, strong support of young players and imaginative leadership: all these based on tremendous self-belief.
It is in Ganguly's reign that not only players like Tendulkar, Dravid, and Laxman reached full bloom, but also players like Sehwag, Yuvraj, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan got their break and support from the captain. All the younger players, in fact, were dropped from the team at one time or the other, but were brought back by Ganguly because he had faith in their abilities.
It is his approach, however, that Ganguly redefined the thrust of Indian cricket in the new millennium, which was best reflected in the matches against Australia from 2000-2001. The world's best team did not look quite as destructive playing against Ganguly's India, and this produced some of the most exciting cricket in the past decade.
Ganguly was tough, ambitious and not averse to theatrics. His shirt-waving incident at the Lord's balcony in 2002 was symbolic not only of a grudge win against England, but also of an aggressive New India that aspired to be winner.
What could have been the best phase of Ganguly's career turned out to be a disaster when Greg Chappell, whom he had brought into the system, worked against him. Soon he lost his captaincy and after some comebacks, he retired in 2008.
A year later, India were No 1 in the Test rankings and in 2011 won the World Cup. The genesis of both these landmarks could be traced to Ganguly's leadership.
MAHENDRA SINGH DHONI
Mahendra Singh Dhoni got the captaincy unexpectedly when Rahul Dravid abruptly decided to quit the job in 2007. He had been in international cricket for less than four years, and while he was held in high esteem by fellow-players and critics, nobody was quite sure how he would fare.
Within a few weeks of his getting the assignment, India won the 2007 T20 World Championship. Four years later, India was also the world's top-ranked Test team and World Cup winners. The recent debacle in England cannot mitigate Dhoni's performances for no other captain in the history of the game has enjoyed such sweeping success.
Dhoni is known as the man with the Midas touch, but his success is not a result of chance or fluke. He has a sharp fell for the game and is brilliant in his people-management skills. After the World Cup victory for instance, Dhoni was hardly to be seen in the wild celebrations, preferring to take the back-seat and let his teammates - particularly Tendulkar - bask in the glory.
His tactics can vary from being ultra-bold to one of attrition. In the Nagpur Test against Australia (in 2008), he set fields with eight players on one side to stymie the strokeplay of the batsmen and frustrate them into indiscretion. India won that Test handsomely.
Dhoni comes from Jharkand, not a known centre for cricket, and in his reign, players from hinterland India have arrived in droves, many of them to make a mark. His ability to get along with cricketers from big cities and small towns with equal facility, has been a big factor in his success.
He has also won the admiration of the world's best players - Tendulkar, Dravid, Hussey, Lee, Fleming - with his calm under pressure, and the ability to come up with Zenlike solutions in a crisis. In his tenure, India became the best team in the world in all formats.
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