CRICKET: THE BURDEN OF CAPTAINCY

November 03, 2019

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Babar Azam (right) faces tough T20 act after replacing Sarfraz Ahmed
Babar Azam (right) faces tough T20 act after replacing Sarfraz Ahmed

The nation has seen it all —the way each captain of the national cricket team came and went. In most cases, the end has been ignominious. And so it was with Sarfraz Ahmed. Winning a record 11 series on the trot was undoubtedly Sarfraz’s greatest achievement as the Pakistan Twenty20 skipper, alongside of course the ICC Champions Trophy glory in June 2017. But then came the unacceptable debacle to a low-ranked Sri Lanka on home soil. And that was the end of his tenure at the top.

His abrupt departure from the international arena — let’s hope it is only a temporary phase for the wicketkeeper/batsman — was met with a mixed response, and debated at length. However, the question remains: why sack someone who has led Pakistan to No.1 in the ICC T20 team rankings, bagging 28 wins in just 37 games? Yes, his personal form, both with bat and behind the stumps, has not been that great of late. But why the sudden need to dump him altogether when there are several others in the team who have also been struggling for runs and wickets?

Surely it is a cause for concern in the backdrop of Sarfraz losing favour with his employers, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), which also stripped him of the Test and ODI captaincy. The next immediate assignment for the national side is the three-match T20 series in Australia that starts today in Sydney where Babar Azam is set to become Pakistan’s eighth captain in the shortest format. 

The Pakistan Cricket Board’s decision to summarily sack Sarfraz Ahmed as the skipper in all three formats of the game is contentious. But more importantly, will the new Test captain Azhar Ali and, particularly, new T20 skipper Babar Azam be able to rise to the challenge?

The world’s top-ranked T20 batsman, who has only marginal experience of leadership, could find the going not only challenging but extremely tough at times. The real issue that is almost certain to burden Babar is the captaincy itself. It is a job that demands of the individual to show tactical flair as well as the required skills on the field of play.

The legendary Sachin Tendulkar was never really comfortable with the onerous task of leading India. And there were other great cricketers for whom the saddle of captaincy became too much to carry on their backs. There is already concern that Babar’s young shoulders may also feel burdened with the pressure of this coveted post, undermining his brilliant form with the bat.

Not everyone can handle the art of captaincy because leaders are not born overnight. Thrusting anyone into the role is akin to gambling with the individual’s capacity. A lack of proper grooming is one key reason for this shortcoming. Modern-day captains do not just go through the routine life of marshalling their troops, they also have to be able to handle all sorts of media. The mandatory press conferences are the hardest for any captain because the variety of questions put to him can be extremely tricky to answer.

Ian Chappell, a hard-nosed character, is widely respected in sports circles because of his remarkable knowledge of man-management. During the early 1970s, Chappell earned fame as the finest captain in the cricket world of that era and led Australia with great distinction. This is what he says about the art of captaincy in one of his thought-provoking write-ups some years ago: “A captain must get to know his players; find out which ones react well to a pat on the back and which ones respond to a kick up the backside. One needs to spend time with the players after hours to plant some seeds if he wants to reap rewards on the field and become a respected leader. Once he acquires that status, he’ll be well on the way to become a good captain.” 

Chappell’s assessment is a recipe for success for any sensible captain willing to make the sacrifices for the team’s cause. He further says: “Respect is vital to a captain and he must earn it in three categories: as a player, as a human being and, finally, as a leader. If a captain achieves those aims and complements them with good knowledge of the game, which he applies with common sense and a dash of daring, and he’s endowed with a reasonable share of luck, he’s on his way to a rating of excellent.”

There is an old saying that a captain should be as good as his team — meaning he must be a good enough player first and then a captain. The Australians have been adopting this policy for ages because they select the team first and then the captain is chosen from the XI, a system which Chappell emphatically advocates.

Azhar Ali takes over the Test leadership
Azhar Ali takes over the Test leadership

In the Pakistan set-up, however, the appointment of the captain is purely the prerogative of the PCB chairman as per the constitution of the board. We have seen a number of chairmen in years gone by, who were actually duffers in terms of their cricketing knowledge, chiefly because they were in their position only at the behest of the patron-in-chief — who used to be the country’s president in the past before constitutional amendments were made to empower the prime minister to nominate the chairman.

Personality does play an important role in how a captain shapes up. Over the years, there have been instances where some were entrusted with the heavy responsibility despite their well-documented lack of skills for the biggest honour. In fact, in some series there were times when the appointed skipper was surrounded by several former national captains in the same playing XI. The musical chairs of captains being discarded was the talk of the town with no signs of long-term stability in sight on that front. The basic reason for this malady was the dirty politics of ‘player power’.

Conspiracies were often hatched to make the captain fail, with the culture of groupings developing within the team. The so-called senior pros all dreamt of captaining Pakistan. The players either sided with one group or the other while the neutrals were left in a minority.

If one reads the history of Pakistan cricket, this has been the case from the time Abdul Hafeez Kardar, the first man to lead the country in Test cricket, hung up his boots. We have also been witness to the days when Kardar, in his capacity as the board chief, termed some of the senior players ‘mercenaries’ for challenging his authority and even accused them of aspiring for the captaincy.

The infamous revolt against Mushtaq Mohammad — who is regarded as one of the shrewdest captains Pakistan ever had — was hatched after an aging Mushtaq decided to skip the 1979 World Cup. 

History was repeated when the seniors ganged up against Javed Miandad during the tour of Australia in 1981-82, which ultimately forced Miandad to quit as captain. Imran Khan, the compromise choice as the skipper — ahead of the ambitious Zaheer Abbas — had no prior leadership experience. However, Imran still led by example to become the most authoritative of all Pakistan captains, eventually leading the country to its only one-day World Cup title in 1992. Such was his presence that the selectors were mere bystanders and haplessly let Imran pick his own team.

Zaheer did, however, get his burning desire for leadership fulfilled when injury forced Imran temporarily to stand on the sidelines. But he emerged as the most defensive Test captain, who actually feared losing from ball one. This was another example of a great batsman — which Zaheer was without any shadow of doubt — not necessarily being good enough to be a captain.

Of the subsequent national captains, Misbah-ul-Haq also got the job by sheer luck after Salman Butt chose to destroy his own career by embroiling himself in the sordid spot-fixing saga during the Lord’s Test in 2010. Misbah, often castigated for his defensive mindset, quit of his own volition — for a pleasant change — in June 2017 as the most successful Test skipper, with a record 26 victories.

This was when the reins were handed over to Sarfraz, who was already the limited-overs team leader. Had Pakistan succeeded in qualifying for the World Cup semi-finals this year, Sarfraz would have, in all probability, survived the fall from grace. 

Now the onus is on Babar to prove himself Sarfraz’s worthy successor, and on Azhar Ali, who has replaced him as Test captain for the two-match series against Australia, starting from November 21. While Azhar has already earlier gone through the hard grind of leading Pakistan in 29 One-day Internationals and one Test (when Misbah was docked for a slow over-rate during the New Zealand series in 2016), all eyes will be on the young Babar as he braces for his biggest challenge yet. One can only hope that the burden of captaincy does not crush him.

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 3rd, 2019