By S Giridhar and V J Raghunath
“On Friday, I watched JM Brearley directing his fieldsmen very carefully. He then looked up at the sun and made a gesture which seemed to indicate that it should move a little squarer. Who is this man?” wrote The Guardian correspondent after Brearley had conjured another impossible win against Australia in the famous Ashes series of 1981
Cricket discourse in India is always strident. Within a year, a ‘great captain’ has become a ‘terrible captain’. The fact is that our team is playing poorly and it could be a long rough road to recovery. Reasoned discourse is the first casualty and something as enjoyable as sport becomes a cause for breast beating as though it is a national calamity.
Both of us decided to step away from this din and simply look back with pleasure at some of the greatest captains of all time. We read about them and we discussed. We pulled out nuggets of brilliant prose by some of the greatest writers and we savoured them. We realized that whether it was England, Australia, Pakistan or India, the national cricket captain’s job is somehow treated as the second most important job in the country. It is clear that cricket captaincy, at least among the cricket playing nations, is something very special.
We cannot think of a better beginning than Frank Worrell of West Indies. Worrell symbolised for the Caribbeans and the world, the breaking of colonial hegemony. After years of sub-standard white cricketers leading a motley group of cricketers from the Caribbean Islands, when at last Worrell was given the captaincy in 1960 he welded his players of great talent into a team that became world champions. The West Indies — Australia series of 1960-61 is indisputably among the finest in cricket history. In the famous tied test of Brisbane, after 5 days of see saw cricket, Australia needed just eight runs with 4 wickets remaining. With Worrell calm and poised, his team mates found the passion and reserves of energy to tie the match with three run-outs. Such was Worrell’s leadership of the West Indians that the entire population of Melbourne came out to give Worrell a ticker tape farewell after that series, on a scale that is usually only given to visiting heads of state. Indians can never forget that when their own captain Nari Contractor was grievously injured by a bouncer in West Indies in 1962, Worrell was first in the line to donate blood for his surgery. A few years later, Worrell died tragically young at 42, of leukemia.
Each nation has faced its own crisis at various times in its cricket. If it emerged stronger, cleaner and happier from each such crisis, the reason was that it chose its captain wisely. Just a few examples: When India was torn by the betting scandals and the earnest cricket lover was shattered, Ganguly forged a committed and honourable band of cricketers who wore their country’s colours with pride. When Australia sank to its lowest ebb and a weeping Hughes threw in the towel, they turned to Border. The tough, no nonsense cricketer delivered one of the greatest recoveries. Within two years, he had wrapped his hands around the World Cup. Many years earlier, Indian cricket used to regional intrigues, selection quotas and a ‘walk all over me’ attitude found in Tiger Pataudi, a leader who told his team, we are not playing for Bombay or Delhi or Madras, we are playing for India. He also told his men that he wanted to see a lot of mud on his players’ trousers and grubby knees — for the first time an Indian captain was turning on the heat for better fielding. Imran Khan was a leader of such stature and charisma that he was able to unerringly spot talent and pick unknown players straight into the national team and it was at his insistence that the concept of neutral umpires was first tried out in Pakistan. Ranatunga is remembered as much for how he combatively stood up for Muralitharan in Australia as for creating the World Cup winning opening combination of Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana. There are many more such turning points in cricket history.
Obviously, cricket captaincy is more than just imaginative, inspired decision making in batting, bowling and field placements. When a team brings out its fullest potential on the ground, obviously a lot has been done outside the ground. The captain has literally forged his troops into a team where roles, responsibilities and expectations have been understood. Motivation, individual and collective pride, a sense of destiny, the feeling of being blessed to perform and participate, all these are an essential part of the team culture and environment.
One of us played a lot of serious league cricket in Chennai and Mumbai during the sixties and seventies. And one saw some great captaincy first hand. Here is one such example: In order to get promoted your team had to finish in the top two among 12 teams in Chennai league. A win carried 4 points but a draw only carried a point. So our captain, Rangan would try and go for wins with early declarations and attacking fields. There were hardly any drawn matches for who wanted that measly one point for a draw. It was attacking captaincy and the courage to go for all or bust. The strategy was so sound that though we lost a few games we won enough to always finish among the top teams. But strategy works only with committed execution. The attacking field meant we had to hold our catches and half chances. Our captain made sure we worked hard and practiced our catching strenuously. It paid off because we were able to take blinders at gully and short-leg. Test cricket too has stories of captains who bet on top class fielding as their main weapon.
Jack Cheetham took a young unfancied South African team to Australia in 1951-52 and shared the series against superior opponents with the most breath-taking fielding seen in Australia. All the experts agreed that team spirit and fielding was what made Cheetham’s men heroes.
Another reminiscence: Our team Indian Gymkhana had bundled out a strong CCI team on a shockingly bad wicket at the Brabourne stadium. Since we were chasing a small target we were asked not to play cautiously and instead go all out with attacking batting, because it was a matter of time before an unplayable ball got you.
Our captain opened to show the way and the rest of us followed his lead and we, the underdogs had pulled off a coup. Talk to people who followed cricket in the 1960s and 70s and they will speak with enormous admiration about Vasu Paranjpe’s brilliant leadership at Dadar Union and that master strategist Jaisimha, captain of Hyderabad and South Zone, in those days easily the best captain in Indian cricket. The relevance of all this will strike those of us who recall that India, when set just a target of around just 120 at Jamaica in 1996 on a wearing wicket where the ball was keeping low, played too cautiously and lost.
In the days of uncovered pitches, captains often declared when their side was collapsing so that they could quickly put the other side in and catch them before the wicket became better. And in response to such manoeuvres, smart captains reacted by changing the batting order and sending in all their bowlers first.
Two examples come to mind: Late one evening, with the conditions tailor made for a lot of seam movement, Bradman sent in his tail enders O’Reilly and Fleetwood Smith to open Australia’s batting, saying they were not good enough to put bat to ball on that wicket; his premise was that better batsmen would be good enough to get a snick or touch and get out. He was proved right as O’Reilly and Fleetwood Smith lasted a crucial eight overs and gave the batsmen who followed a better chance. The other famous story is from 1977. Middlesex needed an outright win against Surrey and one day’s play had been washed out. After bundling out Surrey for 42, Brearley stunningly declared Middlesex’s first innings after just one ball so that his bowlers could again run through Surrey a second time when the pitch was at its worst. Surrey collapsed for 89. Now, in better batting conditions and with sufficient time in hand, Middlesex knocked off the required runs.
Never say die! How clichéd this sounds; but it is this attitude that makes the difference between defeat and victory. One of the most romantic of such tales is the test match between Australia and England at Manchester in 1961. England requiring 255 to win on the last day was cruising to victory at 150 for 1. Richie Benaud, Aussie captain, turned around to Wally Grout the wicket keeper and said loudly enough for all to hear, “we have to win this one”. He himself went around the wicket, bowled his leg spinners in one unbroken spell of six wickets for 70, and spun Australia to victory. Wisden, in its “Illustrated History of Cricket” (1989) said, “Benaud had affected one of the most astounding escapes in test history”.
Amid all this, the good captains confront “under performance” squarely, brutally with some, gently with others. An oft told anecdote is of the time when with few runs to defend, Brearley asked Willis to bowl flat out at the Australians. Seeing Willis bowl just medium pace, Brearley, hand on hip and out thrust jaw, told Willis that if he wanted off spin he did not need Willis. He got what he wanted as a maddened Willis tore through Australia. As Rodney Hogg the Australian bowler once famously said, “Brearley has a doctorate in people”!
Great captains also have a fine sense of occasion and history. Here are two samples. Mark Taylor, unanimously considered among the best tacticians of all time, declared the innings closed when his personal score came level with Bradman’s 334 the highest by any Australian. Taylor was clear that no way would he ever cross the incomparable Bradman! Closer home, and more recently, Dhoni, leading India in a test against Australia, gave the reins of the final session to Ganguly, who was retiring from international cricket after that test match. It was Dhoni’s way of paying genuine tribute to one of India’s finest captains.
One of our forthcoming essays will be on our choice of great captains. It will be an exercise fraught with some peril. While some names would be unanimous choices, others may be contested and omissions will trigger heated debate. But we are prepared for that.