T20: Do you really need the captain in the side even if he disturbs the balance?
Williamson’s absence has allowed them to play Mohammad Nabi, Afghanistan all-rounder who has won them games with both bat and ball.
Captaincy has always been one of the narratives of IPL cricket. From MS Dhoni’s ability to take a team of 30-somethings to the title, to Ravichandran Ashwin pushing the boundaries on the rules to gain a competitive advantage, what captains do becomes a talking point. And now this edition of the IPL has thrown up another delectable puzzle: of the captains who don’t fit.
On one hand you have Kane Williamson, inspirational leader of men, who took an island nation that has more sheep than people to a rare away-Test win against a subcontinental superpower. In orange, Williamson has proven IPL credentials, having led Sunrisers Hyderabad to the final last season. This year he has missed much of the action with a shoulder injury, but his team haven’t missed him. Sunrisers have been firing on all cylinders, winning three out of their last four games.
Williamson’s absence has allowed them to play Mohammad Nabi, Afghanistan all-rounder who has won them games with both bat and ball. Once Williamson returns to fitness, can the team management justify leaving Nabi out, and thus upsetting the team balance, just because Williamson is the captain?
On the other hand you have the Rajasthan Royals, a team that has just one win to their credit and look unbalanced because of their captain. Ajinkya Rahane, with an IPL strike rate of 120, opens the batting for the Royals along with Jos Buttler. Playing in the middle order is Rahul Tripathi, who has a career strike rate of 142, and whose batting style is more suited to the opening slot.
In the run-fest in Hyderabad, the Royals lost against the Sunrisers. The Royals scored 35 in the Powerplay with Rahane scoring a run-a-ball 20. Sunrisers scored 69, and that proved to be decisive in the end. Logic dictates that — given good batting conditions — Tripathi should open the innings with Buttler, while Rahane bat in the middle order. But then he is known for starting slowly against spin, and if not at the top, he may not find a place in the XI. So who will tell the captain?
Which raises the question, exactly how much does the captain matter in cricket? Football puts all the power in the manager’s hands, with the captain’s armband not much more than ornament. The Davis Cup, the closest tennis gets to being a team sport, has the concept of non-playing captains. Cricket is quirky; both the coach and the captain traditionally share powers. Off the field the coach lays the groundwork, but once on the field the umbilical cord is cut, and the captain must run the show alone.
T20 cricket is reinforcing and revolutionising that at the same time. In the shortest format, every ball is an event, which is why we often see lengthy discussions between captain and bowler between deliveries. But just as much, T20 is the format that is most given to data-driven decisions. Along with instinct, modern captains rely on analytical match-ups to determine who bowls to whom, and where the field should be. On a recent podcast, commentator Aakash Chopra spoke of how Mumbai Indians skipper Rohit Sharma relies on a veritable second XI of coaches and analysts, who feed him with relevant information. With this information available to other senior players as well, do you really need the captain in the side if he doesn’t fit the balance?
There is another factor to consider. Indian cricket has always been driven by a star-culture, and your star player is often your captain. Yet the IPL has seen some star-captains dropping themselves when not in form, for the benefit of the team. Ricky Ponting stepped back from the role in 2013, after which Rohit took Mumbai to the title. Gautam Gambhir stepped back from captaincy last season after a run of tough games. And as much as the selflessness of the individuals involved, such decisions are also driven by team owners, who care more about the bottom line and less about who leads the side.
How Sunrisers and the Royals deal with their leadership predicament will tell us something about how T20 continues to revolutionise the game we love. A veteran broadcaster reminded me on Twitter of John Buchanan’s multiple-captain model. Chewed up and spit out by the IPL a decade ago, it doesn’t seem so farfetched today. Modern T20 cricket is built on role-play, and in this edition of the IPL, we might see roles outweigh even leadership.