“Captaincy,” the late Richie Benaud had famously said, “is 90 percent luck and 10 percent skill… but don’t try it without that 10 per cent.”
Unfortunately, what was once the undeniable truth has failed the test of time. Cricket’s rapid corporatisation and the overwhelming influence of franchise-based T20 leagues on the game’s ecosystem has forced a rewrite. Captaincy now is, ‘90 percent marketability and 10 percent luck … and you can try it even without 10 percent of the skill.’
Once again, it is the Indian Premier League which is the flag-bearer of this significant change that cricket could have done without. Both organically, and worryingly, this IPL trend has been mainstreamed, and has infiltrated the national team too.
Following Virat Kohli’s surprise resignation, KL Rahul is now being seen as an all-format skipper. Lack of options will be a factor in case the 29-year-old is named Test captain for next month’s series against Sri Lanka. Before that, India will start a full international series, 3 ODIs against South Africa, under the highly-inexperienced skipper. Before boarding the flight for the ongoing tour, Rahul had led only in one first-class game.
At Johannesburg during the second Test, Rahul, only the second time in his life, was in charge of men in cricketing whites. With Kohli reporting a dodgy back on match morning, India’s reins were in the unfamiliar hands of the newly-promoted vice-captain. It would be unfair to blame the young stand-in for the loss, but there were whispers about India’s lack of intensity and ideas when South Africa skipper Dean Elgar shielded everything the Indian bowlers threw at him.
Rahul is a top-quality product of the country’s cricket system that appreciated and acknowledged his batting skills, but didn’t see him as a leader so far. He has been a Karnataka team regular, an U19 India World Cupper, an India A old hand, but no selector or coach he has played under saw shades of Mike Brearley in him. In case they had, Rahul would have been captain more often.
Finally, it was the perpetually-struggling Punjab Kings, the IPL side that has seen 10 captains and nine coaches in 14 seasons, which saw a leader in him. It didn’t come as a surprise. Franchise sides aren’t known to sit with The Art of Captaincy book while head-hunting for captains. Team owners regularly refer to the process of deciding their next captain as a search to find the ‘face of the team’. It’s a polite way of conveying that in T20 cricket, the brain-bank could well be housed in the dugout. One could always hire a bench full of former captains and unburden the skipper by out-sourcing tactics and team composition.
Marketability is a crucial factor for IPL teams when they finalise their big-ticket buys. So, Rahul’s past captaincy record wouldn’t have bothered the Punjab Kings decision-makers. He was a Team India regular, an all-format batsman, had pan-India fan-following and an intimidating social media presence. He ticked all the mandatory boxes and a few more to be an IPL captain. He was also part of the Bollywood circuit. Rahul was, what the marketing suits love to say, a youth icon.
So, was his elevation to a position of responsibility in the Indian team because of the results he gave with Punjab Kings? That can’t be. In his two-year stint with the franchise, Rahul didn’t quite transform his team. His team won just 40 percent of their games and finished sixth in the eight-team competition during Rahul’s reign in 2020 and 2021.
Those two forgettable seasons as captain of the underperforming Punjab Kings didn’t see a fall in Rahul’s stock. Once it was known that the young cricketer with several high-profile brands under his belt was ready to switch teams for the IPL 2022 season that had 10 teams and two new deep-pocket owners, the market was buzzing. Will he go to Lucknow or Ahmedabad? Both franchises’ owners, reports said, were ready with a cheque book in one hand and pen in the other.
That was until reports emerged that Ahmedabad had decided to sign Mumbai Indians’ non-retained star Hardik Pandya as their captain. The Benaud rewrite was proving to be true. Hardik and Rahul, who once infamously sat on the same couch for a popular television show, have a lot in common. Undoubtedly talented, they have skills to be among the best in the world. They are proven game-changers blessed with a big-match temperament.
However, the two have never been seen as captaincy material. Hardik isn’t even the first-choice captain in his family. When Hardik was an all-format India star, with a Test hundred and a global reputation of being an enforcer with bat and ball in white-ball cricket, it was his brother Krunal who led Baroda. In his long stint with Mumbai Indians, Hardik was never projected as a captain-in-waiting.
These virtually non-existent leadership credentials of the likes of Rahul and Hardik haven’t come in the way of IPL team owners taking punts on them. But that’s been the cred on which IPL business works. It’s a league with no relegation, fixed salary caps and guaranteed exponential rise in the teams’ annual television revenue income. In IPL economics, having a sellable star in the tent is non-negotiable. If you win, it’s good but losing too isn’t a swim-or-sink calamity. This is a league where Kohli can go without a title for eight years even with AB de Villiers and Chris Gayle by his side. Royal Challengers Bangalore always had stars that could fill up Chinnaswamy Stadium and corporates queuing up to be associated with their iconic players. The trophy cabinet was empty but the coffers weren’t.
Thankfully, it’s not the same in Indian cricket yet. And that’s the reason Rahul’s rapid climb up the hierarchy in all three formats, without even a murmur of protest from the fans or pundits, is disconcerting. So mixed up are the minds that follow cricket’s hectic calendar and so blinding is the IPL glow that cricket’s gatekeepers forgot to raise the red flag.
Does Rahul have it in him to lead India? The jury is out and is looking around the room cluelessly. There’s no data to answer that question emphatically. India has well and truly taken a leap of faith with Rahul.
So far in South Africa, he hasn’t come out shining as a leader. He did excel as a batsman in the first Test, but that was never in doubt. In the second Test, he didn’t show spark as a skipper and in the third, the stump microphone caught him saying something utterly incongruous. With Kohli expressing his displeasure about the host broadcaster’s alleged bias, Rahul, with one inscrutable remark, escalated the issue to the highest possible level. “The whole country is playing against 11 guys,” he was heard saying. The whole country?
Meanwhile, South Africa, a nation where cricket isn’t even the most popular sport, was busy keeping the virus in check.