Coming into the second Test in Melbourne during the recently concluded series in Australia, India’s situation was pretty similar to the ‘Summer of 42’ in England 46 years ago.
During a private conversation with Raj Singh Dungarpur many moons ago, this correspondent had the privilege of listening to the former BCCI president, a connoisseur of the game, analysing cricket captaincy threadbare.
Sunil Gavaskar in his book Sunny Days documented how India’s tour of England in 1974 had descended into chaos after the visitors were bowled out for 42 at Lord’s. From the controversy at Indian High Commissioner’s place to opener Sudhir Naik being accused of shoplifting and dressing-room discord; it was ‘Blight in Blighty’.
After India returned home with the West Indies coming for a five-Test series the following winter, India faced a captaincy crisis. Ajit Wadekar was left out of the West Zone team, let alone India, after the England tour. Gavaskar was still pretty young and the BCCI had to fall back on Mansoor Ali Khan (Tiger) Pataudi to rejuvenate a beleaguered side.
India spectacularly bounced back from 2-0 down to make it 2-2 and although they lost the series to the Caribbeans 3-2, Pataudi had steadied the ship. The great captain never pressed the panic button. Calmness, composure and tactical nous had been the hallmark of his captaincy. Ajinkya Rahane has performed the art of captaincy with such aplomb in Australia that Bishan Singh Bedi compared him with Pataudi. As far as leadership is concerned, that’s the ultimate for a captain in Indian cricket. But we would come to that later.
During a private conversation with Raj Singh Dungarpur many moons ago, this correspondent had the privilege of listening to the former BCCI president, a connoisseur of the game, analysing cricket captaincy threadbare. “Captaincy is not about winning percentage. I tell you a story… After losing the first two Tests against the West Indies (1974-75), India were staring at defeat in the third Test in Calcutta also. West Indies were in a good position on the fifth day and Clive Lloyd was still at the crease. Chandra (Bhagwath Chandrasekhar) bowled a few expensive overs and a full house at Eden Gardens was in fact barracking Tiger for continuing with the leg-spinner. Tiger, though, refused to budge. Chandra then worked his magic, removing Lloyd, (Alvin) Kallicharran and (Bernard) Julien in quick succession. The Test match was won. That, my friend, is great captaincy,” Raj bhai had waxed lyrical.
Cut to Dharamsala in March 2017. The India-Australia Test series was tied at 1-1, as Dharamsala hosted the decider. Virat Kohli missed the game due to an injury and for the first time, Rahane led India. His first decision, in conjunction with then national team head coach Anil Kumble, was to hand Kuldeep Yadav his Test debut. It was an attacking decision. Even more adventurous was his decision to bring the debutant chinaman bowler into the attack, when David Warner and Steve Smith had been in the middle of a fine partnership during Australia’s first innings. Yadav broke the partnership and went on to claim four wickets, tilting the balance in India’s favour in the process. The Test was won.
Coming into the second Test in Melbourne during the recently concluded series in Australia, India’s situation was pretty similar to the ‘Summer of 42’ in England 46 years ago. The ghost of 36 all out in Adelaide and without their regular captain Kohli, who returned home on paternity leave, the team could have been torn apart. They galvanised instead under Rahane, who was calmness personified even at the time when Tim Paine’s very marginal run-out call went in Australia’s favour.
What India pulled off in Australia with a severely depleted squad was nothing short of a miracle. Rahane presided over his country’s finest hour. He led from the front with a superb hundred in Melbourne. He bowling changes and field placements had been spot on. In all three Tests, he out-captained his Australian counterpart Paine.
“Personally, I am floored with the way Rahane conjured magic from broken bodies around him. The way he handled his meagre resources reminds me of Tiger Pataudi, who throughout his captaincy tenure was woefully short of a well-rounded unit but his leadership alone gave Indian cricket fresh legs. It was Pataudi who defined an “Indianness” in our cricket. He infused in us a thrilling sense of being together in this ride,” Bedi wrote in The Indian Express.
Mind, the likes of Bedi, Chandrasekhar, Erapalli Prasanna; and a vast majority of those who played under Pataudi, still allude to the great man as “their captain”. Such is the level of respect for a man who passed away in 2011. So Bedi comparing Rahane with his hero has been the ultimate accolade for the man who stood in for Kohli in Australia.
Should Rahane be made the permanent Test captain? The question has to be asked. Bedi backs the idea. The legendary former Australia captain Ian Chappell thinks that Rahane is a “born leader”. Expectedly, Kohli is back to captain India for the upcoming home Test series against England and Indian cricket has moved on from the 1970s and 80s, when the team used to have several captaincy aspirants, and the incumbents always looking over their shoulder.
Rahane will not snap at Kohli’s heels. “We both are really close, really good friends. We just want to do well for our country. Let me tell you one thing, Virat is the captain now and I am the vice-captain, and whatever was happening before Virat left, it will just be the same. He is the captain and I am enjoying my role. (I am) happy to take a backseat now during the England series,” he said at The Indian Express Idea Exchange.
All said and done, with a better captain available, Kohli will now have little margin for error. His every move will be put under the microscope. Rahane has grown immensely in stature during the Australia series. Succession in the long run could be inevitable.