The IPL and the art of captaincy

Different strokes

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan puts the IPL's captains under the scanner

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan

June 2, 2008

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Warne led spectacularly, but also contributed with ball and bat © Getty Images
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The irony was striking. The IPL was supposed to symbolise cricket's future, but the winning captain openly sniggered at laptops. Twenty20 was supposed to be an instinctive form that didn't offer much time for thought, but the finalists were led by the two most charismatic leaders.

"If you walk up to a bowler and look worried, it gets to him," said Mahendra Singh Dhoni after the second semi-final. "So I act as if I'm not." At once it conjured up images of Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar - anxious, nervous and hoping for the bowler to hold his nerve while appearing to be losing theirs. There was Yuvraj Singh, who seemed to holler louder as the tension increased, and Harbhajan Singh made a habit of chewing his fingernails.

Dravid made an interesting point after the daylight robbery Bangalore pulled off in Chennai, when an inexplicable collapse helped his side to a win against the odds. When asked about how well he had led, Dravid blushed. "When you win, every captain looks good. When you lose, whatever you do appears wrong."

Admittedly a lot of analysis of captaincy relies on hindsight, but the IPL made one thing clear: the shrewdest survived. Kolkata's John Buchanan wanted his side to approach every game as if they were confronting 240 individual battles, one for each ball. The depth of the planning was evident. Added to that was a demand for quickly adapting to the conditions and changing plans accordingly.

Shane Warne imposed himself. While hailing his leadership skills nobody should forget the value he offered as a player - no other captain played as many match-winning hands. More than one Rajasthan player has spoken of the boost the side received after Warne's sensational finish against Deccan Chargers, when he carted Andrew Symonds for 17 off the final over. One team-mate has said how his faith in the captain increased ten-fold that evening. Warne was in the middle in the final too and the crack through covers in the penultimate over, when 12 were needed off 7, set up the finish.

Rattling the Bangalore top order with a bouncer barrage on a lively Chinnaswamy pitch was a classic case of astute planning coming off. The sight of Warne alerting the fielders at fine leg to anticipate a catch will stick in the mind. So also, Warne giving his faster bowlers one-over spells against Chennai, in the second match between the sides, was another one of those little surprises that had a big impact.

Warne was also blessed with that enviable quality good captains usually need - luck. He won 10 of his 15 tosses, and even when some of his gambles misfired - like the promotion of Sohail Tanvir up the order - it didn't cost them too much. The punt on Swapnil Asnodkar came off spectacularly. And whenever a match went down to the wire, Rajasthan found that extra bit of magic to pull it off.

Dhoni was the other captain team-mates swore by. His batting made a difference in a few games but it was his ice-cool demeanour that stood out. His side were unstoppable at full-strength, but even after their Australians left, Chennai continued to upset strong teams in close finishes. The decision to hold back L Balaji for the final overs in the second game against Punjab proved a masterstroke, and the faith he placed in Joginder Sharma to bowl the last over in Chennai's first few games never backfired. Maybe he missed Joginder in the final over of the final too.

 
 
Mumbai's three captains came with contrasting styles: Harbhajan impulsive, Pollock measured, Tendulkar fidgety
 

One wonders how things would have panned out if Dhoni had kept wicket in the second half of the tournament - he has admitted he leads better when he keeps, standing in a position where one can read the game best. He also might just have been more efficient than Parthiv Patel behind the stumps, especially when it came to batsmen taking off for byes to the keeper.

Yuvraj never really inspired with the bat but was fortunate to have Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene by his side - two allies he regularly turned to. Where Yuvraj did inspire, though, was in the field - he was at the centre of the cliffhanger in Mumbai, lambasting his fielders for every minor lapse. He bowled a tight over and clinched the win with a diving run-out straight out of the Jonty Rhodes album.

The decision to give James Hopes the final over against Delhi - in the rain-curtailed game - was a brave one, and one that made the eventual difference. And the continued faith Yuvraj reposed in VRV Singh was as surprising as it proved effective. Yuvraj was also fortunate to have the most balanced side in the tournament - one where overseas batsmen and Indian bowlers went about their jobs efficiently. Rarely did Shaun Marsh let them down, and the rest of the order always had a launch pad in place.

Early in the tournament Virender Sehwag appeared to have netted the best side among the eight. He had a new-ball pairing to die for and a top three that fired in every match; Sehwag could really run the ship on auto-pilot. But things started getting tough when Plan A didn't fall into place.

His move to bowl Amit Mishra in the final over against Deccan was inspired, and produced a hat-trick. While a smile was never too far from his face, even when the rest were suffering palpitations, Sehwag might look back on a couple of key moments - giving Shoaib Malik the final over against Chennai and bowling himself, instead of Glenn McGrath, in the crunch against Punjab. Both games slipped away and the road to the semi-finals got rougher.

The excessive faith placed in Malik was intriguing, especially when there was Tillakaratne Dilshan waiting in the wings. Sehwag could possibly have rejigged the batting order once it was clear that the middle four weren't striking the high notes.

Mumbai's three captains came with contrasting styles: Harbhajan Singh impulsive, Shaun Pollock measured, and Tendulkar fidgety. In a team with a number of unheralded players, Pollock and Tendulkar were figures to look up to. Abhishek Nayar and Rohan Raje spoke about how eager they were to pay back the faith that a legend like Tendulkar had placed in them.



Dravid fought the good fight but struggled to come to grips with the demands of the format through the tournament © Getty Images
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Close finishes, though, were a bugbear for Mumbai. While Harbhajan entrusted bowlers who appeared off-colour - his confidence in Ashish Nehra proved costly against Bangalore - Tendulkar occasionally also under-used those who appeared on song: he didn't bowl Nehra in the final over against Rajasthan. "We didn't show enough common sense" was how Tendulkar summarised the last-ball defeat to Rajasthan. The same could have been attributed to several other close misses.

How Sourav Ganguly would wish he had found some form early in the tournament, especially after he inspired Kolkata to two wins late in the piece. Ganguly the captain is usually at his best when his batting clicks. He turned it on when he could with the ball, notably in his spell to thwart Bangalore.

What Ganguly might regret, though, is not getting his combination right for most of the tournament. Chris Gayle's injury was a big blow, especially after Ricky Ponting and Brendon McCullum left, but the amount of confidence reposed in Mohammad Hafeez was slightly baffling. Ajit Agarkar started well but didn't deserve the long rope he got. It was probably in their very last game that Kolkata got their right combination. By then it was just a bit too late.

Dravid, surprisingly, finished among the top 12 run-getters but it was never going to be enough with a faltering team. He did try and put up a brave fight and ended the campaign with a few smiles, but these were just a few positives from a forgettable campaign.

He may introspect on how Bangalore won just one game among the five where he won the toss. He said they were trying to come to grips with the nuances of the format and didn't really have a preferred option at the toss. The selections of a few XIs were puzzling, and they also made a habit of choking when the target was in sight.

Neither VVS Laxman nor Adam Gilchrist will look back on the IPL too fondly. Both watched one close loss after another and by the end one could almost see them coming. Laxman veered from too conservative to too experimental - against Punjab at home no bowler got to bowl two overs in a row - but struggled to strike a balance. Things might have turned around had Warne not smashed Symonds for 17, but when it came to close finishes Deccan were always second best.

Gilchrist couldn't really express himself, with the knowledge hanging over him that a collapse was likely just round the corner. The rest of their overseas players sleepwalked through the series and it was left to Rohit Sharma and Venugopal Rao to earn a few consolation prizes.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo

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