March 11, 2012

Jayawardene succeeds where Dhoni fails

A lot of it has to do with the cultures and make-up of the Sri Lankan and Indian teams

The value of good captaincy may be debatable but there can be no disputing that strong leadership improves a cricket team's performance. Sri Lanka's Mahela Jayawardene is a good example.

His vibrant leadership during the CB Series inspired and took his team to the brink of a tournament victory. From the moment Jayawardene elevated himself to the top of the Sri Lankan order, his team became a threat. He also led the way with some brilliant fielding, but just as important as his individual contributions, it was his faith in his players and the respect he has earned that have elevated the level of Sri Lanka's play.

Good captaincy can be seen in the moves a skipper makes on the field but strong leadership is harder to quantify. It mostly involves work done behind closed doors but the rewards are reaped on the field.

Jayawardene showed enormous faith in Lasith Malinga following a horror night in Hobart. And his lead bowler continued to contribute despite a niggling injury. The rapport between the two was obvious when Jayawardene hugged Malinga after his outstanding finishing effort in the must-win match against Australia at the MCG.

In the end Sri Lanka fell just short of winning the trophy, but without Jayawardene's strong leadership and shrewd captaincy, it's doubtful they would have even reached the finals.

Compare Sri Lanka's playing-above-themselves competitiveness with India's under-performance throughout the Australian tour. There's no doubt India had a more talented line-up than Sri Lanka, but other than Virat Kohli's electrifying night at Bellerive, the Indian team was unable to live up to its reputation.

MS Dhoni is a good captain, better in the short forms of the game than Test cricket but a solid skipper nonetheless. However, he has been unable to inspire his team on two lacklustre tours and consequently eight overseas Tests have been lost on the trot. There may have been extenuating circumstances in England, where injuries took their toll, but the Australian tour was an unmitigated disaster.

The obvious difference between Sri Lanka and India was that one played as a team and the other as individual performers. As has often been observed, a champion team will beat a team of champions.

There's no doubt Dhoni has earned the respect of his team-mates as player and captain. The fact that he's more animated in the shorter version of the game suggests he's more motivated with a younger, more energetic fielding side to lead. It could also stem from the fact that the shorter versions often dictate how the game has to be played, whereas in Tests the captain has to continually evaluate his strategy. Whatever the reason, Dhoni was unable to inspire his team in England or Australia series.

There's also the suspicion that honest appraisal is an accepted part of life in the Sri Lankan team, while the senior Indian players are untouchable and some of the younger brigade have succumbed to sloppy habits. There could be another underlying cause: the Sri Lankans are still owed some back pay, while in many cases the Indian players have become extraordinarily rich overnight via hefty IPL contracts. There has long been a theory that hungry sportsmen are the most competitive.

Whatever the reasons for the differences between the two sides, there's no doubt Sri Lanka have an egalitarian team culture, while India's is more conducive to developing bad habits. India's problem is that their culture means it will do little good changing captains or blaming all the failings on Dhoni. It's obvious the Indian problem is systemic when a high-ranking official waves away criticism of the team's dismal performance on tour by saying all will be forgotten when India experience victory at home.

Generally, cricket teams need strong guidance on and off the field. What makes Jayawardene's outstanding leadership even more meritorious is that he has achieved a lot despite constant upheaval amongst Sri Lanka's administrative ranks.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator and columnist

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