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With the exception of the drab draw at SSC, the recently concluded Test series did produce some high-quality cricket: Murali weaving his magic at Galle, Malinga constantly making the ball talk, Sehwag taking the attack to the opposition, Sachin's resilience and Laxman's gritty match-winning innings, to name a few. While these exhibitions would keep the critics at bay for a while, another aspect of the game, hitherto of no great concern, has sprung up to be a potential alarm for both sides. It was the quality of leadership, or the lack of it, from both Dhoni and Sanga, which left a lot to be desired.
Let's go backwards. While it was an exceptional knock from Laxman, which sealed the day for the Indians, Sanga's tactics were baffling to say the least. He started the day with four men on the fence even when Ishant was on strike. Then he made the culpable error of having both long-on and long-off on the fence for Laxman, early on in his innings, knowing rather well that Laxman rarely takes the aerial route. Laxman obliged by rotating strike with ease to find his groove. And then how could you explain not having a slip for Mendis when only wickets could win you the match? These were only a few of the many such glaring errors he made throughout the series.
If Sangakkara bungled up, Dhoni too was in the wrong for being too defensive. Yes, he was impaired in the bowling department but that's exactly when you need to take the initiative. For a good captain can make an ordinary line-up efficient. Instead of taking the gamble of playing one extra bowler, he took the safer option. Then we repeatedly saw field placements for bad balls. Or else, how could you explain a deep point in the first over of the Test match? How could you explain not having a single slip in place when the Sri Lankans needed only a handful of runs to win the first Test match? And so on.
The real test of a captain's leadership skills is to lead a depleted unit. Steve Waugh didn't have to be imaginative with regards to fielding positions and bowling changes whenever he needed a breakthrough. All he needed to do was to throw the ball towards either Warne or McGrath or perhaps both in tandem. But when you have to deal with the likes of Mithun, Ishant and Ojha, you need to make them look more effective than they may be on a particular day by employing different strategies along with some smart field positions. A good captain, contrary to popular belief, is not as good as his team but the one who makes the team punch above its weight.
Dhoni's USP, until now, has been to think out-of-the-box and his willingness to punt. For me, the defining moment in Dhoni's captaincy was when he put his money on rookie Joginder Sharma and picked him to bowl the last over of the World Twenty20 in 2007. And voila, it paid off!
Captaincy is a lot about instinct and having the guts to go with the feeling. Dhoni showed both, and in heaps, but if he abandons it for safety, which he seems to be doing, he would cease to be the maverick of a captain we all believe that he is.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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Aakash Chopra is the 245th Indian to represent India in Test cricket. A batsman in the traditional mould, he played 10 Tests for India in 2003-04, and has played over 120 first-class matches. He currently plays for Delhi in the Ranji Trophy; his book Beyond the Blues was an account of the 2007-08 season. Chopra made a formidable opening combination with Virender Sehwag, which was believed to be one of the reasons for India's success in Australia and Pakistan in 2003-04. He is considered one of the best close-in fielders India has produced after Eknath Solkar.