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A Tale of Two Captains

22 October 2008.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Ricky Ponting might as well come from the same street, the same school, the same suburb. They emerged from the backwaters and arrived on the cricket scene with sharp minds and hardened games. As time passed, both learnt to use the right words and sometimes to think the right things, and in Mohali both led their teams onto the field. Already both had far surpassed the expectations of youth. Hereafter their fortunes took different courses.

By the end of an extraordinary Test match in the Punjab, Dhoni was praising his players for securing an overwhelming victory, and was also accepting the award as Man of the Match. His counterpart was left nursing bruised egos and lost souls. It was not so long ago that the Tasmanian had been comparing the new-age cricket played by his side against the tired old efforts of his opponents. Seldom has complacency so comprehensively been shattered. As a rule a man gets his desserts, and the same applies to cricket teams. Nor is it wise to tempt fate.

Besides winning the toss Dhoni made two telling moves in the match. Neither affected the course of the contest but both told a tale about India’s new leader, a man whose clarity of thought had already impressed senior players. His first intervention came when India were pursuing quick runs in the second innings.

Ordinarily a new captain might be expected to treat India’s phalanx of famous batsmen with kid gloves. After all, an entire nation was in thrall to them. But Dhoni knows no such deference. To him they are just a bunch of cricketers he has been asked to lead. He respects them, likes them, admires them, but does not live in fear of them. He has driven fiery motorbikes in his time and that prepares a man for all eventualities. So he strapped the pads on himself.

As ever, his reasoning was straightforward. His team needed to push the score along and he was the right man for the job. This ability to make objective judgments, especially about oneself, is rare at any stage of a career, let alone at its outset. Nor did he allow notions of wounded pride to hold him back. Instead he told astute Dravid, mighty Tendulkar and dazzling Laxman to wait a while. Instead he instructed Sourav Ganguly to follow him to the crease. After all they had batted fluently in the first dig. Ganguly had contributed a smooth and composed hundred, while the acting captain had broken his duck with another statement of intent, a hook off his eyebrows that sped away to the boundary.

Sourav Ganguly

Sourav Ganguly.
Photo © Hash Milhan from London, United Kingdom / CC BY (

At once Dhoni’s action conveyed a message to his players: the team came first, and the captain was going to lead from the front. And it worked. Bold decisions are almost always rewarded. Probably because they instill confidence in the team, give it priorities and a sense of direction.

Dhoni’s other significant action in his second outing as Test captain came at the fall of the last Australian wicket. He did not punch the air with glee or charge towards his players or otherwise display any of the ecstasy detected in the Australians at the end of the travesty in Sydney. Rather, he picked up one of the stumps, walked quietly across to Gautam Gambhir, whose batting had been so important, and gave it to him. Gambhir was not surprised. Apparently stumps were also given to Amit Mishra, Virender Sehwag and Sourav Ganguly. It was a considerate gesture from a captain towards one of his young players. Doubtless it was appreciated. Here was a man in charge of himself and his team, a man capable of giving and inspiring loyalty.

Dhoni had every right to be pleased with himself but he did not show it. Nor did he say anything about captaining the team in the next match. He does not get carried away. Afterwards India was ablaze with debate about the rights and wrongs of playing Anil Kumble or Amit Mishra in Delhi. At such times the choice between newcomer and proven performer, worn-wicket specialist and hard-track tweaker, fit and sore, is especially painful because it is final. But Australia yearns to face such a predicament. At least India has found Kumble’s replacement: in a roly poly character who went to Haryana to advance his career and was able to learn his trade away from the spotlight without the pressures and distractions that attend city slickers and youthful prodigies.

India could also be delighted with the performances of its new-ball pairs. It has been a long time since Australia was given such a trouncing, even longer since its opening batsmen and bowlers were so decisively outplayed. Ishant Sharma and Zaheer Khan were far more effective than their counterparts. Gambhir and Sehwag, his pal from Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, Delhi, Delhi Daredevils and India, ran superbly between wickets as they built two damaging partnerships. Only one of the four played in the Boxing Day Test ten months ago. India has come a long way in a short time.

They even had the cheek to steal a page from Australia’s book, naming the side for the next two matches towards the end of the fourth day and crowding the bat with Zaheerb on a hat-trick. Hereabouts a voice in the press box gasped, ” I thought Australia was supposed to be the aggressive side.”

By the end of the match the Indian camp seemed confident and content. No longer was anyone fretting about the supposed Fab Four. They had taken care of that. No longer did the Australians seem as formidable. Previously it has taken astonishing contributions from exceptional players to bring them down. Always it had been an upset that provoked shock and celebration. Now India had done a professional job and it was enough. Australia had been massacred. Only two of the visitors could command a place in the home side, both of them middle-order batsmen.

Ricky Ponting finished the match in an entirely different state of mind. His bowlers had been flogged and there was no respite in sight. His team’s fielding had been patchy, with throws missing stumps and overthrows given away, both long regarded as tell-tale signs of a team falling apart. His bowlers had been unable to control, let alone disconcert, their opponents. Worse, the batting had lacked any sense of rhythm. In the first innings the batsmen had been cautious as they dutifully tried to build a wall around their wickets the better to resist the Indian onslaught. Anxious to make amends in their second outing, they had lurched too far in the opposite direction, slashing away in a manner bringing to mind Macbeth at Banquo’s ghost. It had been a lamentable, lacklustre display. Despite Michael Clarke’s game innings, it was a defeat wrapped in darkness

To add insult to injury, Ponting had himself failed twice, and on both occasions had been uprooted by his nemesis, Ishant Sharma, whose pace and inswing has exposed a chink in technique. No wonder that at the end of the match Ponting looked as miserable as he did. His team was in trouble and his own game was not working. Already it was bad enough, but even that was not the end of it.

Ponting’s argument with Brett Lee touched a nerve. It is not uncommon for fast bowlers and captains to fall out from time to time. Indeed it is not unknown for captains deliberately to instigate a row on the grounds that the paceman probably will not thump his leader, not in public anyhow, and might instead take it out on the batsmen. Such tempests are usually temporary, and easily settled with a well-timed peace offering that often bears a stark resemblance to a glass of beer.

But this stoush was different because it was between two friends and hurting players. Lee has been having a rough time on and off the field. To his frustration he has not been able to swing the ball or bowl fast or accurately enough to pin the batsmen down. Accordingly he was sensitive to any slight and was dismayed that he was at the back of the bowling queue on the fourth morning – a sentiment he expressed to his nearby leader.

Far from taking the protest in his stride, Ponting overreacted, a response that showed he was rattled. Never before can he have felt so powerless on a cricket field. He might as well have been trying to solve a quadratic equation. Captaining strong teams is relatively easy. Leaders of losing outfits require degrees in psychology, medicine, law, labour relations, mathematics and much else. Yet it was not Lee that was the problem. It was the other experienced campaigners he relied on in tough times, Matthew Hayden and Andrew Symonds. One of them had gone AWOL and the other was not scoring any runs. Ponting was not on top of himself or his senior players.

Despite their similarities, the contrast with his counterpart could not have been greater. As so often, the story of the cricket match was the tale of two captains.

This article was written for ESPN Cricinfo.
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