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Thursday, September 28, 2006

Rahul/Azhar vs Ganguly: A matter of Captaincy

Current India Coach Greg Chappell explaining a shot to his predecessor, John WrightArresting a decay is mostly difficult because it invariably happens in a very unnoticeable, gradual manner. Corruption, for instance, would never have become as acceptable had it happened all of a sudden. Why it succeeded is because it corroded the system over a very long period of time in a very non-intrusive manner.

Yesterday*, surprisingly, a decay reached one of its early summits and I say surprising because unlike corruption or most other decadence that have been witnessed, this one was surprisingly rapid yet there is hardly much murmur about it. And the surprise is all the more because this latest case of decay is taking place in an area we are quite attached with – emotionally and actually.

It was less than two years back that Indian cricket was riding high on the success of Saurav and Wright’s tactics. What was amazing and heart-warming about the team was not so much the success that they were achieving, but the spirit with which they were playing. On a player-to-player basis, this team was no superior than the previous teams which had represented the country. In fact, the shining star of the previous years, and one of the greatest batsman the game has ever seen, was now evidently past his peak. And I think, the best way to gauge the success of this team is from the position of this great player in the team. Saurav’s team became free of Sachin – Sachin was important, he was arguably still the most important player, but that was it. The team’s performance was no longer proportional to the length of Tendulkar’s stay at the crease. The Indian cricket team became what it was always supposed to be one – a team. Each member became important and no one indispensable. Azhar’s boys had been replaced by Saurav’s men.

Watching the dying moments of the match yesterday was an agonizing experience. I could see my spirits and hopes dying – the clock had completed a full circle all too soon. Rahul’s India had become Azhar’s India: Saurav’s India has been thrown into the dustbin of cricketing history all too soon. While there is enough logic and statistics to back the decision of throwing the player Saurav into the bin, there is no logic, cricketing or scientific, to abandon all the good work that he had done. When five boys (read wickets) fell early in Azhar’s India, the game was given up. Saurav’s men fought it till the very end – and more often than not, succeeded. The idea of giving up had been given up.
An interesting bit of statistic: While chasing an ODI target, if seven or more wickets have fallen, the win record of Ganguly’s team is 1.5 times that of Azhar’s. The importance of this record is realized when you look at a similar record for the Australian team since 1st Jan 1991. Their variance between overall win record and for this filter is less than 20%. For India, it’s close to 35%. Which means, if Australia had a similar record as other team’s for this particular filter, their record for this period, when they have been the unquestioned number one team, would only remain marginally better than the next team.

You might think that India didn’t give up yesterday after the first five wickets fell early and you are right about it in a very narrow, unthinking manner. Ganguly’s biggest contribution to the team was not recovery but a more tangible phenomenon called success. (See box) Though I have not been able to collect empirical evidence to verify this, India under Ganguly had the best probability of reaching a score of 200 batting first, if the first four wickets fell for less than 50. The idea is that recovering and reaching 150-175, while commendable, did not do much for the end result. The first target for team recovering from a similar position (unless the wicket is a landmine) is invariably 200. Anything less is a defeat – like it happened yesterday. Unlike the paying public’s penchant for close finishes, Ganguly was the kind who would not see a difference between a 16 run loss and a 56 run one. A defeat is a defeat, and it hurts.

Let’s continue the above discussion, with the situation reversing – India defending a total, that is. Except for the odd match, like the Benson & Hedges tie against the West Indies in 1991 at WACA, Azhar’s bowling changes were too defensive and fatal. In this match Azhar did a Ganguly. Defending a meager 126, he went for the jugular – not a single over was given to any irregular bowler though he had only four regular bowlers in his armoury. Tendulkar was brought in to bowl the 41st over only when he had absolutely no choice. But by then the strategy had worked beautifully, with West Indies having lost all but one wicket, and still short by six runs. India won the match, but not before Tendulkar had given away 5 runs. Imagine the result if Azhar had employed his regular strategy. While Kapil, Prabhakar, Srinath and Banerjee had each recorded an economy rate of 3 or under, a few overs by Tendulkar, even if he had scalped a wicket or two, would most probably have been a fatal strategy. But unlike this day of master-captaincy, Azhar was mostly a master at missing the plot. In innumberable cases, when the match was tightly balanced, Azhar’s defensive tactic of getting through with his secondary bowlers first would kill the match long before the spearheads came back into attack.

Ganguly was no genius, just that he was smart enough to learn from Azhar’s mistakes. He didn’t transform the team over night; it was a slow, gradual process. So it is bizarre that the man who thought Dada was next only to God (okay, only in half of the cricket field) should have gone into a complete re-learning mode. Dravid opening the innings would nowhere fit into Dada’s scheme of going for the jugular. Even if we leave Dada aside, a copybook correct Rahul should know that no team puts its best two batsmen at the very top. I am not against innovation or experimentation, but this is plain wrong – cricket is over a hundred years old, one-dayers itself are over a ripe thirty: Certain experiments have already been done and the results well-documented for future reference, you are repeating failed experiments at your own peril.

Saurav succeeded because he learnt from history, he knew the weaknesses that were to be worked on, and the strengths that were to be harnessed. Even he experimented occasionally but never went on an over-drive. Rahul is failing because Chappell seems to have convinced him to start on a blank-canvas. They are following a most weird hit-n-trial strategy. You just need to iron out the wrinkles; a complete plastic surgery may the kill the body.

* Written on the day after the India- Australia match of the DLF Cup 2006, Malaysia


Anonymous said...

That was an interesting and a very good one

Anonymous said...

Right... Ganguly held to captaincy to be a part of the team inspite of a long bad patch. Dravid and Kumble are considered to be one of the most intelligent and smart cricketers India have produced in their era. So if Dravid had to open in Tests it was not experimenting. It was because he wanted to accomodate Ganguly and Yuvraj and asking any of them to open is not utilising them properly. So he sacrificed his favourite position for the cause of the team. And remember, if either one of Ganguly/Yuvraj were not in the team, the batting order was never changed. And barring Dravid opening in tests there were no other changes that was ever done with the batting line up. If Dravid did not open then how do you accomodate both Ganguly and Yuvraj??? And who would he ask to open if not him? Tendulkar? Laxman? Yuvraj? Ganguly? Dhoni? Especially when either Sehwag/Jaffer was missing. So you see its not an experiment in tests but what the situation actually demanded. Unlike Ganguly who made Yuvraj/Laxman open Dravid took it on himself. A note on History. On the field history does not matter. How many times have we seen history to have been re-written. History is good advice but does not have any bearing on the present. As times change so does strategies and what is best at that time. The changes in the ODI team was because of the comfort zone everyone was getting into. It started right at the top with Ganguly. Ganguly is an exceptional captain no doubt. But that does not mean Dravid was not. Under his captaincy we did achieve a lot of highs - 17 consecutive wins chasing alone in ODIs, test series wins in WI and England and for the first time ever a test win in SA. So lets not keep comparing Dravid and Ganguly and instead appreciate the good that both of them have done. Comparing them in my opinion is doing injustice to both of them. We lost the World Cup 07. Everyone might argue that it was Dravid's captaincy and that a team is only as good as its captain but how do you argue for the unnecessary runout of Yuvraj in the do or die against Sri Lanka? Or for that matter Ganguly's slow run rate and the lack of contribution from Tendulkar and Dhoni in both the matches again Bangladesh and SL. Should we go and say that it looked as though Tendulkar and Ganguly did it on purpose. In my opinion it is mean on the part of us supporters to say so after what they have done for Indian cricket.

Amit Bajaj said...

Quite a bit of time has elapsed since I wrote the past and in the interim my respect for Dravid, the captain has increased manifold !!

However, I will leave you with some food for thought on your comments about 'history'. If history doesn't matter at all on the field, then why does a team generally keep sending batsmen in their regular order? It does - history tells the captain that a certain player is most likely to succeed if he is sent out at a certain position. It tells the selectors that a certain player will do well in tests or one-dayers or as opener or as a middle order bat. Without the benefit of history, and going by mere skill sets and style of play alone, would you have ever predicted Sehwag to succeed in tests and fail in one-dayers?