The Art of Leading

A debate on who is the greatest cricket captain of all time..

The winning runs are scored in Nagpur. India has downed the Aussies for a 4-1 ODI series win. Another victory for Kohli and his boys, taking India to the pinnacle of ODI team ranking again. They are comfortably no.1 in tests also. Kohli has truly shown the way- a record which is unmatched in recent times. Leading a team of youngsters, inspiring by aggression, Kohli is like the naughtiest kid who finds his feet once he is made the monitor in school. He lifts the team with his remarkable batting and is also the team’s best fielder. Always setting very high standards, is Kohli going to be India’s best captain of all times? Well, maybe the overseas tour of the big three (South Africa, England, and Australia) will help us answer. Till then, let’s roll back time and debate- who is the greatest cricket captain of all time?

To start with, there is Sourav ‘Dada’ Ganguly. Taking over the reign from Sachin with the backdrop of the betting controversy, Dada truly changed the way India played cricket, over his captaincy reign. In a time when captains used to favour players from their own states, he was the first to back his horses from across India- Yuvi to Bhajji to Zaheer to Sehwag- the list is long. He was a transformational leader- the one who changed the trajectory for Indian cricket and made them a good side overseas in tests. The series draw Down Under and the win in Pakistan were the feathers in the cap, among many others. He was also great in giving a tit for tat- so making Steve Waugh wait for the toss and rubbing him the wrong way in that Famous Eden 2001 test to celebrating by taking off his shirt at the Lords balcony to get back at Flintoff and the Pommies- Dada always gave back more than he got! His leadership and administrative skills are next to none. My hunch is Dada as the BCCI or the ICC head is a day not too far away.

If Dada was the fire, Dhoni is the ice. ‘Mr Cool’ took over after the turmoil that was the 2007 World Cup ODI fiasco in the Windies. Dhoni quickly established his own ‘Band of Boys’, stressed on the importance of fielding, and was in a way ‘The First among Equals’. His record as captain is exemplary- a T20 World Cup, an ODI World Cup, Champions Trophy, No 1 test ranking and numerous IPL’s- the list is complete. MSD is an economist’s delight- marveling when the resources are constrained- no wonder his awesome record as leader in limited over cricket stand out. And who can forget that six at Wankhede to win the World Cup- the best ‘Captain’s knock’ if ever there was one. He is street-smart and instinctive- who else would have given the last over of a final to a rookie like Joginder Sharma? The other thing so admirable about Dhoni is how calm he is no matter what is the result- he would gladly take a back seat after the job is done. So you will struggle to find him in the team pictures after the World Cup wins- reminds me of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’- ‘If you can treat victory and defeat.. And treat those two imposters just the same…’.

If you turn back the clock, Imran Khan was another truly charismatic leader. His greatest claim to fame was obviously leading Pakistan to the World Cup win Down Under against all odds. From being all out for 70 odd vs England (the game was luckily abandoned due to rain) to winning it all in Melbourne- it was the stuff of dreams. Imran had the amazing knack to back youngsters and give them confidence- from Qadir to Akram to Inzy- the young blood prospered under him. His magnetic charm and good looks as also the noble cause he espoused for (making a cancer hospital in memory of his late mother) made him appeal to the masses.

There have been a few leaders who have led great teams. Think of the Windies in the late 70’s and Clive Lloyd’s name flashes up. The Aussie ‘Invincibles’ in the early 2000’s and there’s the dour ‘no nonsense’ Steve Waugh. Or the Indian team in the 80’s and that unforgettable picture of Kapil lifting the Prudential Cup in Lords in 1983- these were good leaders who created great milestones. Then there were a few ‘New Age’ leaders who changed the way their team played the game – Martin Crowe in the 1992 World Cup and Arjuna Ranatunga in the 1996 World Cup are the names that pop up. With the novelty of pinch hitting, we got a flavor of T20 cricket well ahead of it’s time.

We have a few young Turks who took over the reign early in their careers and led their country with great success over a long period of time- Stephen Fleming and Graeme Smith are two great examples. There was also the case of average players who were great leaders- Mike Brearley probably justified his position in the team more as a captain than as a batsman. He was known to be among the most astute leaders.

A few possible great captains missed the cut and never got the chance to lead their countries. Shane Warne ‘The Maverick’ shone so brightly as captain for Rajasthan Royals in IPL1- winning it all with a group of youngsters. Specifying a role for every player and maximizing their potential. Yusuf Pathan, Shane Watson and Sohail Tanvir prospered under him. Gautam Gambhir (GG) and his aggression won two IPL’s for KKR. GG unfortunately played for India when the MSD wave was on in full swing. The super attacking fields that GG set won many a game for KKR in IPL- India’s loss was possibly KKR’s gain. There was also ‘Mr.Tracer Bullet’ Ravi Shastri- currently coach of the Indian team. A habitual straight talker, ‘Shaz’ is known to be shrewd strategist with a mind that would have made a good captain.

The one leader who has truly impressed me of late is Mithali Raj. She has a 50+ average for India and has been a successful Indian player in a sport dominated by the Aussies and the English. But she has stood apart for her cool and calm demeanour and she has truly led from the front. Batting for ‘more women power’ in a sports dominated by the men, she has vouched for more live women’s matches on TV and hopefully she will be a reason why we will have a Women’s IPL someday. Amidst many leaders, she stands out- as a true ambassador.

So you have the super aggressive Kohli, to the cool MSD; charismatic Imran to the ‘no nonsense’ Steveda; ‘Mr. Milestone’ Lloyd to the ‘Prudential’ Kapil; the maverick Warne to the ‘ambassador’ Mithali. Who do you think is the greatest captain? No points for guessing, my vote goes to the one and only Royal Bengal Tiger- to Sourav ‘Dada’ Ganguly- because there can be many contenders, but you know there can only be one ‘Maharaja’.

The Lord’s Balcony- venue of Ganguly’s (in)famous shirt waving celebrations.

Jamaica Farewell

Reminiscing the most memorable swansongs in sporting history.

‘I’m sad to say I’m on my way
Won’t be back for many a day
My heart is down, my head is turning around
I had to leave a little girl in Kingston town….’

Harry Belafonte is crooning one of my favourite songs as I warm up to Usain Bolt’s swansong run at the London World Championships. What a career Bolt has had! An eight-time Olympics gold medalist, with the ‘triple double’ combination of 100 m and 200 m wins the last three times. Bolt has been Mr. Clean in the oft tarnished image of dope-stars in the world of athletics. I am starting to think that he gave the phrase ‘bolt from the blue’ a new meaning altogether.

So when Bolt lines up for one last time at the 100 m starting line, it sort of signals the end of an era. As the gun roars, Bolt makes another slow start. The youngster Coleman from the US is the one who starts with a bang. But you expect Bolt to make up ground between the 60 and 80 meters mark, like he always does. You look at lanes 4 and 5 expecting a photo finish when, all of a sudden, Gatlin from the outside lane presses a foot on the accelerator and does the unthinkable. The crowd is stunned. Boos are heard as Gatlin has had a long history of failed dope tests. The fairy tale finish was not to be but Gatlin pays homage to the ultimate champion as he bows to Usain. 9:57 seconds will continue to be a marker, for generations to come.

Sporting farewells are always difficult- and here are some of the more memorable ones.

It was November 2013 when India stopped for a day. This was when the ‘Little MasterSachin Tendulkar finally decided to call it a day. Remember seeing a banner which said ‘I was an atheist till I realized that God played cricket.’ We grew up with our lives punctuated by centuries by Sachin. He gave us hope when there was none. So when the curtains came down at Wankhede after 24 memorable years of unadulterated joy, the entire country cried with Tendulkar. His humble speech, when he thanked his family, his roots, his coach and fellow players defined the middle class values this great man stood for. But the most remembered shot was when the little master after finishing his speech, went and bowed to the playing pitch one last time as he departed with tears in his eyes. One remembered the shot of Kohli carrying Sachin on his shoulders after the ODI World Cup win. Virat said ‘For more than twenty years he has carried Indian cricket on his able shoulders. It’s time we carried him…

Arguably the greatest to play the game of cricket, Bradman went into his final test in 1948 with an average of 101.39. ‘The Don’ had broken all possible records. He squared up to face Eric Hollies one last time. Given Bradman’s metronomic consistency, everyone assumed he will hit another century in his last innings. But just the second ball into his innings, Hollies pitched the ball up slowly, it was a googly and what followed was He’s bowled…Bradman bowled Hollies … nought. The unthinkable had happened- the crowd was silenced and then they rose in deafening applause yet again to accompany the legend’s walk back one last time. Bradman would finish with a career average of 99.94, another four runs in his last innings and it would have been a perfect 100!

The Don’s Statue, National Sports Museum, Melbourne Cricket Ground

The other memorable farewell from the game of cricket was for one of my sporting idols. Saurav ‘Dada’ Ganguly redefined the way India played cricket, especially away from home in tests. Who can forget the Eden Gardens test win against Australia and that unabashed shirt waving in the hallowed Lord’s balcony after the Natwest Final? So when Dada decided to call it quits after the home Aussie test series in 2008, it was indeed the closing of a great chapter in Indian cricket. Saurav started his career with a test ton and would end his innings with a duck, but what I remember from that farewell test is how Dhoni handed over the captaincy reigns to Dada towards the end, and as the last wicket fell, Dada finished his career in the way we all remember him the most, as a leader!

Not all farewells are stuff of dreams. Some are infamous. Take the 1994 World Cup for example. After winning the World Cup in the most magical manner in Mexico ’86 and breaking Azzuri hearts in Italia ’90, US ’94 was positioned as Diego Maradona’s parting shot. It seemed to be setting up nicely for him as the Argentines started with a bang with an easy win vs Greece with the stud getting a goal too. But the world would fall apart after that- Diego would fail a drugs test and be suspended and sent home. His country would also fall apart and exit in the knockouts. What a sad way to go for one of the game’s greats!

Moving to the world of tennis, I started watching the game due to Becker. Those booming serves, the theatrical dives, Boris had an aura which went beyond just his game. And Wimbledon was his backyard. Well, before Sampras dethroned him anyways. But there’s that romanticism about Boris and his relationship with London SW19. 1999 was the year. Boris would start the tournament the way only he can. Playing a local wildcard Miles Maclagan, he would come back from two sets down to win in his own signature style. Two wins would follow against much younger opponents in Nicolas Kiefer and Lleyton Hewitt. Chance for one last dream, maybe? Maybe not! The second Monday saw Boris come across Pat Rafter, the second seed. Rafter would bull doze Boris for a straight set win. Sampras and Federer ruled Wimbledon for the next two decades, but somehow Becker and those days would be hard to match, at least for this hopeless Becker fanatic.

Michael Phelps swam for one last time in the Rio 2016 Olympics- 23 golds over five memorable Olympics, setting a record which would be difficult to match ever. Kobe Bryant would finish his illustrious career with a scarcely believable 60 points game. And the greatest golfer of all time, Jack Nicklaus would receive a 10 minute standing ovation after crushing his final tee shot to close out the greatest career in PGA history.

There are a few adieus around the corner. Federer seems to be reaching his peak well into the mid-thirties while the sunset is near. How about a CSK win with Dhoni lifting the cup one last time in the IPL? And Messi has to win one time for Argentina before hanging his boot- Russia ’18 anyone? Till then, let’s enjoy the symphony.

Comfortably Dumb

The debate is on- “In Arsene We Trust” vs “Arsene Out”. A passionate Gunner’s prophecy on the ‘Professor’

An ode to Arsene- from a winner to a whiner!

I was an avid football follower as a kid- but interest would generally peak in the World Cup year. There weren’t a plethora of TV channels those days. So my love for club football was fueled by a small radio I got as a birthday gift. Saturday evenings changed forever- holding that archaic device close to the ear- following Sports Roundup on BBC and soaking in the EPL spirit.

Brazil is the team I support (no, worship!). So it was no surprise that I began rooting for the club whose playing style most resembled the Sambas- Arsenal. One big reason was also the manager- a misfit ‘Professor’ who had plied his trade in Japan before making the big move to Highbury. Good matches are made in heaven, but imagine the coincidence when the name of the manager also matches with the club he leads- so no surprise that Arsenal flourished under Arsene.

When Arsene ‘numb’ed us….

Here was Wenger- a visionary who looked much beyond the game itself, into other aspects of sports fitness- on eating habits and training methods- ages before his times. There was also a sense of magic the way the team played- slick passes, one touch play- so easy on the eye and different from the long ball game of the Brits. And the fierce determination and passion he drove among the players. Here was a team who could ‘wow’ you with their skills but also rough out 1-0 away wins on ice cold December evenings.

Wenger created a legacy by leading ‘The Invincibles’ in 2003/04 to an unbeaten EPL run- a feat which may go unmatched in history given the fierce rivalry in the league these days. Wiltord’s away goal at Old Trafford to clinch the EPL title, that glorious run into the Champions League final in 2006- those were the days!

He stayed the course and led the ship well even during troubled times when Arsenal moved from Highbury to the Emirates. With an eager eye for spotting talent early and using a shrewd ‘Money-ball’ approach, Wenger would buy early, buy smart and manage the club remarkably well during tough financial times.

There were many heart-warming moments during the ‘Comfortably Numb Days’- but I am sharing a link of a goal which best embodies Wenger’s philosophy- A Wilshere goal vs Norwich city.

When Arsene ‘dumb’ed us….

As an Arsenal fan, I am in minority these days- there are a few of us left and we are worried we will be extinct soon!

And I start reflecting on why this happened? When Wenger moved- from numbing us to ‘dumbing’ us.

A good friend once said, ‘You are only as good as your ambitions. Set high ambitions, actions follow’. Well, I guess no one told this to Arsene. In the last five years, he is like the lazy employee in the office who is happy with an ‘Achieved Expectations’ rating every year. A fourth place in EPL and a ‘Last 16’ spot in the Champions League seems to make him happy, with an occasional FA Cup win thrown in- while the fans hope for more, much, much more.

The Emirates move meant we had to manage our financial books very tightly for some time- but Arsenal under Arsene got engulfed in this ‘Money-ball fallacy’- when the bottom line became more important that the ‘trophy line’. From a buying club, we became a selling club- why else will you sell your best players- the likes of Van Persie to your closest rival in the league? When you pay peanuts, you get monkeys! Or, you may get a Walcott, Ramsey, or Ospina- nothing better.

They say, ‘It’s foolish to do the same things again and again- and expect different results’. Arsene has been doing just that for the last few years, so no wonder Arsenal have stagnated.

There are a few who have mastered the ‘Art of Leaving’- some went ahead of time like Borg, some timed it perfectly- like Dada and MSD. But some are just too unwilling to let go- Arsene has created this club brick by brick in the last 20 years- his managerial stay more than the combined experienced of the other 19 EPL managers put together! So the swansong is indeed difficult. But when you stop inspiring, it’s the clearest sign that you have to go.

Another EPL season draws to a close. A season which promised so much for Arsene and Arsenal, but we flattered to deceive again.

The debate is on- “In Arsene We Trust” vs “Arsene Out”. He has given us wonderful memories, shaped a generation, so bidding adieu is tough. But the time has indeed come now.

So Au Revoir Arsene- thanks for numbing us!


A Passionate Gunner