May 15, 2013

Dravid and the art of T20 captaincy

Despite a small squad bereft of big names, Rajasthan Royals' captain has churned out win after win

About two months ago Rahul Dravid rang me to ask my opinion of a couple of domestic uncapped medium-pacers I had played with. If Rajasthan Royals had vacant spots, it was worth signing these lads, I remember suggesting. After all, every team is allowed to sign as many as 33 players for their IPL campaign and uncapped players hardly ever burn a hole in the franchisee's pocket; they are always "good buys".

Rahul, though, was quite sure what he wanted to do, which was sign only one of the two. Keeping the squad small (Royals have only 28 players) was their top priority.

I thought that emphasis on keeping the squad small indicated his and the franchise's inflexibility. I mistook his clarity of thought for rigidity, a quality I expected to see in his captaincy as well.

Since they had small squad I assumed not too many changes would be made to or within the playing XI. I was in for a surprise and, I think, so were most of the other teams. Royals continued their dominance at home but no two games followed the same pattern. Against Kolkata Knight Riders, they dished out a greentop and played five seam bowlers. The plan was to not only negate the Sunil Narine threat but also to not bowl to the Knight Riders' batsmen's strengths, which is playing spin.

As much as captaincy is about playing to your strengths, it's equally about knowing your opposition and denying them what they like most. While that means challenging yourself, it's a risk worth taking against an opposition that's superior to you on paper.

Nine days after the Knight Riders game, when Royals hosted Mumbai Indians, Dravid opened the bowling with two spinners. The sight of Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting opening together can be daunting in any format other than T20. While most batsmen don't mind going after the bowlers from the beginning, Tendulkar and Ponting are unlikely to step on the accelerator before getting set. In that small window of circumspection, Dravid bowled two of his rather inexperienced but accurate spinners - Ajit Chandila and Ankeet Chavan.

Now that Ponting has made way for Dwayne Smith in Mumbai's line-up, I'm sure Dravid will opt for a different pair to open the bowling.

To succeed as a captain in T20, you need to swallow your pride and do what is right for the team. Putting the team ahead of himself comes naturally to Dravid

However guarded you are about the surprises you have planned for the opposition, certain cards do get revealed at the toss. But once the game starts, it's a captain's prerogative to shuffle the pack as many times as he wishes to, and that's what Dravid is doing. While most teams are surprisingly reluctant to experiment too much with the batting order, Dravid hasn't played an identical line-up in two consecutive games. He has identified Shane Watson as Royals' most important batsman and all efforts are made to give him a platform to succeed.

When Royals played Sunrisers Hyderabad, Dravid opened the batting to negate the threat of Dale Steyn. At Eden Gardens, Watson opened, because the first six overs are the best time to score; Dravid demoted himself to No. 8, for he knew that to score on that sluggish pitch against spinners they needed left-handers or players with more brute strength than he has. So Dishant Yagnik was picked (even though Royals had a keeper-batsman in Sanju Samson) and promoted up the order to bat with Samson, and Owais Shah, who is very good against spinners, replaced the in-form Brad Hodge. Against Mumbai, Dravid pushed himself down to let the big hitters go out and make the runs.

To succeed as a captain in T20, you need to swallow your pride and do what is right for the team. Putting the team ahead of himself comes naturally to Dravid.

While many believe Royals' strategy of keeping a small squad is a money-saving exercise, Dravid's view is that it's always prudent to pick the right personnel and then empower them. In a big squad, there will be insecurities and unfulfilled expectations, which cause dissent and resentment. It also tempts the captain to prematurely drop a player and move on to the next man. In a format where failure is more common than success, it's imperative to instil faith in a player, to let him know he isn't one poor game away from getting dropped, and that the management trusts his skills and their assessment of him.

Not many uncapped players have got an extended run in big-ticket teams like Mumbai and Royal Challengers Bangalore, but Royals have not only given several opportunities to relatively lesser-known Indian players (Samson, Yagnik, Stuart Binny), they have also batted them high in the order to give them enough time to succeed. The bigger the names in the team, the tougher it is to play around with the XI and the batting order.

Clearly the adage about a captain being as good as his team has been turned on its head in the case of Rajasthan Royals. Dravid's ingenious utilisation of limited resources has proved that at times a team is as good as its captain allows it to be.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here