Many years ago, I was seated next to the legendary close-in fielder, Eknath Solkar, waiting for a function to commence. Since he was considered to be the best short-leg fielder of all time, I asked him who he believed was the best fielder in the outfield. “There was nobody better than Tiger Pataudi,” he said, lowering his voice, as if to show reverence, when he mentioned his former skipper’s name.
That, mind you, wasn’t the first time I had heard a Test cricketer of the 1960s take that name with such veneration. The love and the admiration for Pataudi wasn’t because he was a prince or Oxford-educated. It was respect for the man that he was — an inspirational leader and a great cricketer.
A couple of decades from now, there is very little doubt that Virat Kohli’s name will be counted amongst the finest batsmen of all time. Will he, as a leader of men, however, get the same sort of respect that Pataudi gets nearly 45 years after he said goodbye to cricket?
Pundits, I hope, will agree with me when I say that Kohli the skipper isn’t in the same league as Kohli the batsman.
Leaders in cricket — as in life — are of two types. Those that lead from the front like Sir Donald Bradman, Sir Garfield Sobers, Richie Benaud etc. and those that inspire their men, from the rear, to play to the best of their abilities, like Mike Brearley, Sir Frank Worrell, Ray Illingworth and others. In the Indian context, Kapil Dev belonged to the first category, while Pataudi, Ajit Wadekar, Sunil Gavaskar, Sourav Ganguly and a few others belonged to the second category. MS Dhoni was perhaps the rare skipper who hovered between being an inspirational leader and one who went to war — armour et al — when the situation demanded.
Kohli, by default, leads from the front. He is aggressive — a warrior at heart — and believes in leading the charge rather than leaving the scuffle to somebody else. It is quite possible therefore that out of the 10 players that he leads onto the field, a few may feel intimidated by their skipper’s belligerence and his demand for a 110 percent effort. Does he take care to make the juniors in the side feel wanted, on and off the field, or does he believe that as professionals they don’t need cajoling? Do players, on the other hand, believe that the skipper’s personal interests are secondary to that of the team?
In his book, The Devil’s Pack (co-authored by yours truly), Balvinder Singh Sandhu writes of why Kapil Dev was respected by young players in his team, though he was a stickler for hard work and hated players who didn’t put in the effort. The scene he describes is of the Test at Port of Spain, in 1983, which is petering out into a draw and the only interest left in the match is academic: Kapil’s hundred. Sandhu walks in to bat when his skipper needs four runs to reach the landmark — without a helmet over his turbaned head.
“Oye, bloody fool! Sardar, where’s your helmet?" barks the skipper as Sandhu reaches the non-striker’s end. “Everybody’s packed up and ready to leave. There are no helmets available,” Sandhu replies. “Don’t worry, Kaps, I’ll manage.” “Manage my foot!” shouts Kapil, spitting fire, mixed with some spicy Punjabi words. ‘They’ll blow your brains off!”
Disturbed by the incident, Kapil is beaten by Marshall’s final two deliveries. As he glares at his hapless partner, Joel Garner takes the ball for the next over. The ‘gentle giant’ bowls six bouncers at Sandhu, with Kapil ranting, ‘Take that, you donkey. Get f****d now. You have charged him up!” as the West Indies fielders have a hearty laugh. Sandhu survives somehow and Kapil gets to his hundred in the next over.
As Kapil and Sandhu walk away after the match is called off, the skipper wraps his arm around Sandhu’s shoulder and says: “I was only worried that you would get hurt, you idiot!”
Not all players in the side can be of equal talent. There will always be some with exceptional skills and then there will be some who are very hard working but not as skillful.
A good leader’s responsibility is to get everybody to contribute to the best of his ability and to get them, mentally, on the same page.
Alexander the Great once said, “I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.” Kapil was a lion; so is Kohli. The only difference is that the former was in complete control of his emotions on the ground, while the latter wears his heart on his sleeve. Emotional reactions on the ground affect rational decisions and reading of the game, as game awareness becomes narrowly focused. Therefore, after the recent India-England series, Michael Holding said that Kohli, as a skipper, was ‘work under progress’.
Sun Tzu, a Chinese general who lived in the 5th century BC and wrote The Art of War, says, “He who is prudent and lies in wait for an enemy, who is not, shall always be victorious.” Wadekar, a banker and a brilliant student in school was known to analyse match situations accurately. Described as a shrewd customer by all those who came in close contact with him, he is said to have been a step ahead of his opponents with a battle-plan drawn up in his mind. Gavaskar was another skipper who could read match situations well. Both of them, as opposed to Kohli, were known to be calm and composed in the toughest of situations.
If Gavaskar is credited with the grooming of good fast bowlers for India, it was Ganguly who truly built a strong batting side for the country at the turn of the millennium. Virendra Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Dhoni and Ganguly, himself. India never had a stronger batting lineup. What did it take for Gavaskar and Ganguly to bring about these changes? A personal commitment to excellence; talent was identified, nurtured and allowed to blossom. For Kohli to be recognised as a legendary skipper, he will need to create a core group of excellent cricketers who will take on the might of the cricketing world — at home or away — and come off victorious.
In the recent India-England Test series, Kohli’s side lost 1-4. That score-line, in football, would mean a thrashing defeat. However, Kohli — and the present dispensation — tried to sweep the dirt under the carpet by stating that the series was closer than people thought it was. Great leaders don’t find excuses for losses, nor do they try to hide the chinks in their armour. They accept defeat, learn from the experience and move on.
At a press conference after the series, Kohli was asked by a writer if he truly believed that the present Indian team was the best travelling side in 15 years — as stated by Ravi Shastri, the Indian coach — despite the defeat. Kohli shot back, “What do you think?” When the writer said that he wasn’t sure, the skipper said, “That’s your problem”.
Great skippers are knowledgeable, good communicators, have a good cricketing brain and are excellent people managers. The downward graph of Hardik Pandya and the failure of Kuldeep Yadav in the Test series will go down as blotches in Kohli’s book. The playing of an injured Ravichandran Ashwin, and the neglect of Ravindra Jadeja till the final Test will also be something he will have to account for. As a skipper, therefore, Kohli has a lot to learn about managing his players.
Jim Yong Kim, the incumbent president of World Bank says, “No matter how good you are as a leader, my goodness, the people around you will have all kinds of ideas for how you can get better. So for me the fundamental thing about leadership is to have the humility to continue to get feedback and to try to get better — because your job is to try to help everybody else get better.”
To be a good leader requires humility, and he also has to have his ears to the ground. Hope Virat Kohli is listening!
The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler and coach, he is now a sought-after mental toughness trainer.