Selectors face a split decision
With the rumour mills working overtime, India's next captain will, it seems, be decided by either a straight shoot-out between Sachin Tendulkar and Mahendra Singh Dhoni or a split between the two. With Tendulkar, the question is whether or not he wants the job for the shorter version of the game. With Dhoni it's a question of whether he is ready for the job just now. Either way, with no other real candidate presenting themselves, it seems that the selectors will have to go with someone who is reluctant, or someone on whom the job is thrust before his time.
A reluctant leader is usually not a good one and Tendulkar's stance on one-day cricket has been pretty clear in the recent past. In a widely reproduced interview to the The Times, London, a fortnight ago, Tendulkar had spoken in some detail about how difficult it was for him to recover between one-day matches. It is learned that Tendulkar has spoken to Dilip Vengsarkar, the chairman of the national selection committee, about these problems, and asking if there was a chance he could be used a bit more sparingly in the shorter version of the game. Vengsarkar would not confirm this.
However, with India playing 12 ODIs at home in the next two months, seven against Australia and five against Pakistan, there was every chance Tendulkar would have been rested at some point. This was the scenario before Rahul Dravid stepped down from the top job.
Whether this has changed or not is anyone's guess. If Tendulkar thought he wasn't keen on playing every ODI that India played, it's tough to see him accepting the additional responsibility of captaincy. However, the lure of reclaiming a job that was once his, in the evening of his career, might just be too much to resist.
If not Tendulkar, the selectors are almost certain to go with Dhoni. This could well result in a scenario where the Indian captaincy is split for the first time. For the moment, the selectors have to decide merely on the captain for the ODIs against Australia, which gives them some breathing space. They'll need to pick a Test captain soon enough, though, with Pakistan arriving in India in early November for a Test and ODI series.
Cricinfo has learned the selectors could well persuade one of the seniors - and Tendulkar is the leading candidate here - to "hold the fort" as far as the Test captaincy is concerned while Dhoni grows into the job leading the team in ODIs. The serious concern over handing Dhoni the captaincy in both forms of the game is that the next two Test series India plays are its most demanding, against Pakistan and in Australia. The Australians' reputation of targeting captains for special treatment adds to the selectors' concerns, and they don't want to throw Dhoni in at the deep end.
If they do decide to split the captaincy and are forced to look beyond Tendulkar, two well-qualified fringe candidates emerge in VVS Laxman and Anil Kumble. Both have leadership experience, and both command the respect of their peers. The only problem in this case is that neither is a 100% certainty to play all Tests. When India have tinkered with their combinations - playing an extra seamer or an extra bowler - Kumble, and more so Laxman, have been left out.
With Harbhajan out of the mix at the moment, though, Kumble's place in the Test side, both home and away, is set. In Laxman's case, the likelihood of India playing six batsmen against Pakistan and Australia, makes him a sure starter.
Kumble's obvious advantage is that he has won more matches for India single-handedly than anyone else in this squad, and commands respect. He has always considered it an honour to lead the team, and it's only a mixture of timing and circumstance that has meant that this thinking cricketer has never been captain. What's more, Kumble is sure to be a non-parochial captain, non-controversial, non-confrontational (off the field) captain, and this will make things smooth for the selectors and the board.
What's more, if either Kumble or Laxman is given the job, it will clearly be only on an interim basis. They will merely be warming the chair for Dhoni, who can take up the job when India are faced with smaller mountains to climb. Giving the reins to a Tendulkar or a Ganguly might make that transition that much more difficult. Ganguly has already had his run as captain and achieved more than anyone else has in the job. At the moment he is enjoying his batting, and producing results, and might not even want the job, if it's offered to him.
From the outside, it seems like a rather complex choice before the selectors. But that's only because it's unclear whom they have sounded out and what the responses have been. When they meet in Mumbai on Tuesday, they might just buy themselves some time by appointing Dhoni for the one-dayers, and leaving the larger decision till later.
Anand Vasu is associate editor of Cricinfo