Ganguly or Dravid: who was a better ODI captain?
The freewheeling banter at the launch of Sachin Tendulkar's autobiography was revealing, perhaps unintentionally so. Sachin Tendulkar made his views about Greg Chappell clear. Rahul Dravid was non-committal. Chappell contributed an essay to Timeless Steel, a collection of essays published by ESPNcricinfo on the occasion of Dravid's retirement. John Wright did too. For Wright, Dravid was "the rock around whom the rest moved". For Chappell, he was "the eternal student". This says a lot about Wright and Chappell. It also says something about how Dravid, perhaps, sees the Chappell era.
Dravid's tenure as India captain coincided with Chappell's tenure as coach. Chappell, as we've learned recently, was not averse to challenging older players (or "senior" players, in the parlance of our times) and the order they found comfortable. Apart from the standard-issue comments about Dravid's character, Chappell gives one concrete example about the way India improved under Dravid - in chasing totals in ODI cricket.
India had a problem chasing runs. Chappell tells us that Dravid decided to confront this problem head on by choosing to field first irrespective of the conditions. Both assertions are supported by the data.
Under Dravid, India won 14 consecutive games chasing.
Ganguly chose to field first 20 out of 53 times. Dravid did it 22 out of 42 times. The key batsmen in these chases were Dravid, MS Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh.
It is debatable whether this was a function of Dravid being lucky to have two stellar finishers, or whether he helped create two of the finest finishers of the age. I'm inclined to believe the latter. If you look at the India squad that won the 2011 World Cup, and the India squad that won the tri-series in Australia in 2008, it consists of players who came to the fore under Rahul Dravid.
India also built a superb Test record under Dravid. They won two overseas Test series - West Indies in 2006 and England in 2007. Dravid is the only India captain other than Ajit Wadekar to achieve this. This had something to do with Dravid's interest in giving opportunities to bowlers who could swing the ball and get wickets. The series win in England was also because of Zaheer Khan, who produced one of the finest performances by an overseas pace bowler in England.
Many Indian fans credit Ganguly with nursing young players and ensuring that they got opportunities. There's no evidence to suggest that Ganguly was especially effective in doing this. Forty-three players batted in the top seven in 110 games under Ganguly. Of these, Yuvraj and Virender Sehwag ended up being successes. Mohammad Kaif was more or less a regular but declined towards the end of Ganguly's reign. Dinesh Mongia, Hemang Badani and VVS Laxman were in and out. Strikingly, Laxman, despite batting in the middle order, did almost exactly as well as Ganguly. He scored just as quickly despite hitting fewer boundaries.
Given the more recent success enjoyed by Ian Bell and Mahela Jayawardene in the ODI top order, one wonders what might have been had Laxman opened or batted at No. 3 on a consistent basis for India.
Twenty-nine players batted in the top seven in 70 games under Dravid. In that list are Gautam Gambhir, Suresh Raina, Robin Uthappa and Dinesh Karthik.
The foundations of India's success under Dhoni were laid in the Dravid-Chappell era. When Chappell and Dravid tried to pursue a youth policy, allied with a hyper-flexible batting order, they attracted plenty of criticism.
Under Ganguly, India built a losing record. In fact, India's record against these teams was worse under Ganguly (45-60) than it was under any other major Indian captain since Gavaskar took over the ODI captaincy in 1980, with the exception of Sachin Tendulkar (19-41 in 66 games).
Gavaskar first became ODI captain from 1980-82, and then again in 1984-85. His overall record is worse than Ganguly's but he built on Kapil Dev's success in 1983-84 and won a major tournament in Australia.
Under Ganguly, India played a brand of cricket that was not in keeping with the times. Their fielding was poor with the exception of Kaif and Yuvraj's. They didn't have wicket-taking bowlers like Shoaib Akhtar or Brett Lee, and they didn't have power batting with the exception of Tendulkar.
Contrary to the general perception, Ganguly was a liability in the Indian ODI batting order for much of his tenure as captain. Much has been made of Tendulkar's preference for opening the batting. Much has also been made of Ganguly's quality as an opening batsman.
Even when taking into account Ganguly's best years, from his debut to his sacking as India captain, he made seven runs per innings less and had a strike rate about 15 runs per 100 balls worse than Tendulkar.
If you look only at matches that Ganguly captained, then Tendulkar averaged 16 runs more and 12 runs per 100 balls faster than Ganguly.
To get a sense of the available batting conditions, Matthew Hayden, Adam Gilchrist, Sanath Jayasuriya, Herschelle Gibbs, Gary Kirsten, Chris Gayle and Salman Butt all average more than 50 against India in these games. Sehwag, who was just starting out, averaged 39 and scored at 98 runs per 100 balls. From 2003 to 2005, Ganguly averaged 24.4 as captain in ODI cricket in 45 games against the top seven Test-playing nations.
Had he not been captain, it is unlikely that Ganguly would have kept his place in the XI as long as he did. This dismal record was masked to some extent by his record against weaker teams, especially during the 2003 World Cup. In 2003, it was not clear if Ganguly had simply lost form or if he was in decline. By 2005, evidently it was the latter. While India were winning, Ganguly's lack of production with the bat mattered little. By 2004, after India won in Pakistan, the team seemed to have achieved a new high.
The question of which two out of Ganguly, Tendulkar and Sehwag should have opened the batting for India in ODIs should never have arisen. Yet, it remained one of the central tactical questions of that era. So much so that it came up even during the launch of Tendulkar's autobiography. Ganguly was at his self-deprecating best. He suggested that he largely lost the argument about who should open the batting. At one point, Tendulkar slyly observed, "Tere toh waise bhi run nahi ho rahe the" ("As it is you weren't scoring runs"). There was more than a little bit of truth in that.
Ganguly is a polarising figure in India. Perhaps this is because his reputation is at odds with his actual record to a far greater extent than his contemporaries. India not only won more under Dravid than they did under Ganguly, but the changes enacted under Dravid laid the foundation for the Dhoni era in which India have consistently been the best or one of two best ODI sides in the world.
* All figures used in this post consider games against the top seven Test-playing nations only - Australia, England, South Africa, New Zealand, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and West Indies