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O Captain My Captain – A Paean to the Spirit of India’s Cricketing Leaders

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The Origins

In the 19th century, cricket arrived into India on the ship of the British. Like all other leisure activities of the time (polo, hunting, etc.), cricket began as a sport for the elite, and hence, was governed by the Victorian sensibilities of the English. Eventually, it made its way into the royal grounds of the Indian nawabs and carved a place for itself in their quotidian. From this point onwards, through princely patronage and local sports clubs, cricket erupted within the local fields of India. Britishers like Governor Harris saw cricket as a safety valve to release the pent-up aggression between different religious communities, and consequently, cricket teams were divided into Hindus, Muslims, and the ‘Rest’.

India at Lords, 1932

Under the captaincy of C.K. Naidu, the Indian cricket team visited England in 1932 and played her first international match at Lord’s. Although the team lost the match, India cemented its place amongst the ‘elite’ nations of cricket by becoming the sixth nation to attain Test status. For the rest of the ‘30s and ‘40s (and a little part of the ‘50s), cricket in India took a backseat in the face of movements calling for independence from British colonialism; and the Partition of 1947. In 1952, India was stumbling but did manage to record its first Test victory, against England in Madras. However, all of that changed in the 1960s with the presence of an exquisite playing XI, and the arrival of a brilliant captain, Tiger Pataudi. Since then, under the aegis of several other dynamic captains, cricket in India has grown to a size today where it’s too big to fail. Each captain brought something new to the table; and their contributions alongside the evolution of India’s culture have made for a very interesting innings. Rather than an exhaustive exploration of every individual to don the mantle of captaincy, we chose to break it down into a few eras that each brought a culture of their own. None of this is to diminish the work done by those not referenced here, but merely to highlight the impact these eight leaders have had.

Royalty

Mohammad Mansoor Ali Khan Siddiqui Pataudi was the 8th Nawab of Pataudi and, like his father before him, a breath-taking batsman. He became the captain of the Indian cricket team in 1962, after the sitting captain Nari Contractor was ruled out of the Fourth Test in Barbados due to an injury. Tiger roared change into the Indian cricket team. He firmly believed that it did not matter if a player was either from Maharashtra, Delhi or Calcutta — if they had been chosen to be a part of the playing XI, then they were representatives of India. In a period when the country was still crawling out of the shadows of colonialism and the factionalism it had left behind, this was a very novel idea. Today, Pataudi is credited  by cricketers who played under him (Bishan Singh Bedi, Farokh Engineer) for single-handedly softening the lines of communalism within the dressing room, and in turn for having laid the foundation for the brilliant team that was to follow. 

Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, Credit The Indian Express

Pataudi’s status as a Nawab (and until 1971, as one with tangible privileges and power) afforded him a certain automatic authority in the dressing room. However, it was his natural charisma and playing prowess which afforded him the respect he needed from his players as a captain. His English education had diluted the shiny veneer off of the British and Australian players; ones who were seen to be automatically better. Pataudi changed that. He made his players realise that the foreign players were not any more or less mortal than them; and this change in perspective was extremely visible on the playing field and in their self-confidence. 

Conversation between Pataudi and Imran Khan about the changing style of cricket

During his eight years of captaincy, Pataudi led the side to victory nine times, one of which was India’s first overseas Test victory against New Zealand. Upcoming cricketers were inspired by his success despite his handicap; and would often mimic him by sporting long hair and thick sideburns, and by batting in gully cricket with one eye closed. In 1970, he was replaced as captain by Ajit Wadekar.

The First Little Master 

The ‘70s in India were the era of Indira Gandhi, the era when privy purses were abolished and the “common” Indian felt equal to the former princes. It was then that Indians learned to believe in the power of their skills and consequently, started winning on the global stage. In this decade, under Wadekar’s captaincy, the Indian cricketing scene was cracked open by a phenomenal batsman named Sunil Gavaskar. Sunny, as he came to be affectionately referred to, was an English-educated, middle-class boy from Bombay, who had a penchant for stacking up runs. Gavaskar reflected that attitude. Under his captaincy, the playing XI did not merely believe that they were good enough to play against the English, West Indians, and Australians — they started to believe that they were good enough to challenge their dominance.

An ode to Gavaskar composed after his showstopping debut series in the West Indies

Gavaskar’s enthusiasm and sheer passion spread like wildfire amongst an Indian public who formerly were quite satisfied with hockey victories. He became the first Test player in the world to score 10,000 runs and with this feat successfully stamped India on the cards of cricketing history. While Gavaskar was revered as God for his playing prowess, he was also raised onto a pedestal where material concerns like money and property threw him in a bad light. Unlike the players of yore, the first little master understood the commercial value of cricketers in India. He wrote articles while playing, published an autobiography, signed contracts with most of the major manufacturers of sports equipment, and even acted in advertisements and films. He became the first Indian cricketing millionaire.

Gavaskar reflected the growing economic prowess and concern of the Indian public; but was (un)fortunate enough to be seen as being above the Indian public. He was the first cricketing God for Indians, and his influence is visible even today; both on the field and off of it. 

Despite helming the national team for prolonged periods, Gavaskar’s tenure was marred with inconsistency and controversy. His success with the bat could not be met with the cap.

83

The year of 1983 changed Indian cricket forever. By now, the baton of cricket captaincy had passed on from Gavaskar to Kapil Dev; and the self-belief instilled by Gavaskar was prominent. Kapil Dev had been on the field for a few years now, and he carried on his shoulders the set of dreams of a new section of the Indian public. He had arrived from Chandigarh which, at the time, was not the metropolis it is now. The swashbuckling all rounder represented a new spark in the Indian dressing room. It meant representation for a major player who was not from Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi, Kolkata or Mumbai. Kapil Dev, unlike Gavaskar, was an uncomplicated God for the Indian public. He was aggressive on the pitch, and sweet and humble off it. He infused a sense of positivity amongst the playing XI which, alongside their self-confidence, carried them towards making history by winning the 1983 Prudential World Cup against a seemingly insurmountable West Indian mountain.

Kapil Dev lifting the World Cup

The World Cup victory was a game-changing moment. For an Asian nation to just reach the summit, but also unseat the legendary Clive Lloyd led West Indian side was unfathomable. No one really expected the Indians to make any headway, what with their limited experience in the ODI format. However, Kapil’s Devils blazed through the various matches, and ended up reaching the finals to play against the terrifying Windies who had won the previous editions. Expectations for Lloyd’s side to retain their title became even firmer when the Indian batting line-up was all-out for a miserly total of 183. However, the tables were turned on all the spectators when India’s bowlers took the field and dismissed the mighty West Indians for just 140. India, not Australia, not England, became the home of the playing XI which beat the unbeatable on the ultimate stage. 

Post Match Interview of the 1983 World Cup

Winning the World Cup changed both the status of cricketers and cricket in India. Kapil’s Devils became national heroes overnight, and on their return were awarded a hero’s welcome. Alongside this, the presence of televised matches allowed more spectators to start perceiving these men as celebrities. Sponsorships and advertisements started rolling in; and hereby settled the era of cricket wedded to commerce. The 1983 trophy also changed the way cricket as a sport was perceived by Indians. By beating West Indies, India established herself as a dominating force in global cricket and earned the respect of teams like England and Australia; so much so, that the 1987 World Cup was hosted on the subcontinent in collaboration with Pakistan by India.

Azhar

The 90s saw the emergence of the undisputed God of Cricket: Sachin Tendulkar. But it was not Sachin who oversaw this success.

Mohammad Azharuddin was a cricketer from Hyderabad whose batting style had many laud him as the finest of his generation. He was as un-orthodox as you please; he would take risks and chances where most experts would choose to duck — and he yielded results. Azharuddin built on the legacy of his predecessors, setting a captaincy record for the most test and one day wins. Once hailed as the most beautiful batting talents the country had ever produced, the legacy that Azharuddin left behind was a black mark on the history of Indian cricket. Before he could complete his 100th test match, the CBI brought match-fixing charges against him. 

Azhar and Sachin File Photo, Courtesy: Reuters

It shook the nation. Azharuddin denied the allegations, but few believed his story. With Indian cricket only seeming to go up, these charges were a sobering moment. It became impossible to watch a match without wondering if a particular catch or a partnership or a loss was predetermined or not. Were they really our heroes, or were they merely paid actors set to execute a script? It’s really no surprise that Azhar’s life became the subject of a Bollywood film.

Despite being the decade which witnessed Tendulkar’s rise to glory, the ‘90s were a tough period to be a cricket fan in India. India lost face at the global stage; and the playing XI lost in spirit and in results. Perhaps more disappointingly, the dream team of Tendulkar’s captaincy and Kapil Dev’s coaching, witnessed abysmal results. India needed a hero, but the one who was forced to assume the position could not be the one.

The Golden Era

Then came Dada. With Tendulkar’s tenure being wholeheartedly disappointing, Sourav Ganguly arrived on the field of Indian cricket at a time when the nation needed a leader. The suave left handed batsman and more than capable medium pace bowler hailing from Calcutta was lovingly referred to as ‘Maharaj’ by his family. The present BCCI president took on the mantle of captaincy with a vigour, a determination to instill results back into the Indian team. Ganguly had a supporting cast of household names – Dravid, Laxman, Kumble, Srinath, and Tendulkar himself. He usher the Men in Blue kicking and screaming out of the clouds into the spotlight. 

Ganguly was a winner. He threw zonal based selections in the bin, emphasizing on talent over anything else. Alongside the legends of his generation, the god of the offside also ushered in a wave of new talent who would go on to form the backbone of Indian cricket for the next decade – Zaheer Khan, Mohammad Kaif, Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, and, of course, M.S Dhoni.

Ganguly, Irffan Pathan, and Dhoni Celebrating. Image Credits: India Today

Yet, Ganguly was never the obvious choice. Selectors at the time were hesitant to give him the responsibility, citing his tendency to take singles and drink too much coke as disqualifying factors. His results soon spoke for themselves, with India taking home test victories in the West Indies, Australia, Pakistan, and famously, England. The image of Ganguly, shirtless and swinging his shirt in the final of the 2002 Natwest ODI series has been cemented into cricketing scriptures.

Older fans will herald Ganguly as the man who truly left behind a team and system that could see India be the cricketing behemoth. Although he fell out of favour in unsavoury circumstances following a publicized dispute with coach Greg Chappel in 2006, there is little one can doubt about his success. He took a struggling side from eight to second in the ICC rankings, won a record number of tests overseas, oversaw the development and career of a generation of talent, and bred aggression into a once timid Indian side. He wasn’t too bad with the bat either, remaining the 8th highest ODI run getter even today. Had Ganguly not played in a time when the Australians boasted conceivably the greatest team the game of cricket has ever seen, perhaps the history books would laud him even more.

Captain Cool

Ganguly did many things, but on the biggest stage his team fell just short. Dravid, who took over the mantle after him, had fleeting success. In 2003, India was bested in the final of the world cup. In 2007, they tumbled out of the group stage. The only success India had at ICC tournaments since 83 was a washed out champions trophy final in 2002. For a nation obsessed with the game, victory at the highest level was becoming a necessity.

Dhoni was a surprise. He entered the playing XI at a time when players from Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Kolkata still held the reigns — however, his arrival changed that. Post-Kapil Dev, Dhoni was the first captain of the Indian cricket team who symbolised the dreams of young cricketers from smaller towns. He put Ranchi on the global map; and he made certain that the elite bubble of the dressing room and the BCCI would burst. His arrival and eventual success aided the spread of cricketing facilities and training centres all across India. He demanded fitness, and led by example to show its importance. 

But Dhoni’s greatest claim to fame was his knack for stepping up when the moment demanded it. Under his tenure, India won every ICC Trophy there was to grab. Captaining a youthful Indian team in 2007, the then long locked wicket keeping batsman spearheaded a victory in the first ever T20 World Cup. In the dying moments of the game, when India’s arch rivals Pakistan had the cards in their favour, Dhoni handed the ball to Joginder Sharma – a 34 year old fast-medium bowler from Rohtak Haryana who had barely played international cricket. The rest, well if you don’t know, you probably wouldn’t be reading this. Had India not won that match, the state of cricket today could well be markedly different. For better or worse, Dhoni’s victory in 2007 did help birth the IPL — another tournament where his Chennai Super Kings team has been head and shoulders above the rest.

Dhoni hands the ball to Joginder Sharma.

Today, detractors of Dhoni will call the decision to bowl Joginder Sharma a moment of luck. Yet closer analysis of that tournament points to the obvious tactical genius that Dhoni held. In the semi-final, Joginder Sharma performed the exact same task to dismiss the Australian team. Throughout his career, ‘Captain Cool’ knew what he was doing. He didn’t need to scream or shout, he out maneuvered and out played every adversary that came his way. 

MSD had incredible success as a wicketkeeper-batsman, a feat which often gets overshadowed by his luminous captaincy. Besides Virat Kohli, Dhoni is the only batsman (among those who have scored more than 10,000 runs) to have an average above 50 in ODI cricket. When his country needed him most, it was Dhoni who played an unbeaten knock of 91 to win India the world cup after 28 years. 

Dhoni’s stint as captain is arguably one of the finest the world has ever witnessed. He became noted for taking decisions which left critics and spectators alike stumped; only until they added another feather to India’s hat. He is the only captain to have led his team to victories in 3 different international formats: the 2007 T20I World Cup, the 2011 ODI World Cup and the 2013 Champions Trophy. Under him, India rose to #1 in the ICC rankings, becoming the inarguable world champions. Yes, any of the captains in this list can have an argument made for their greatness. But with Dhoni, there is no argument to be had. 

Haan Dilli Se Hu Bhench*d

According to Nielsen, Virat Kohli is the world’s fourth most marketable athlete. Only Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Lebron James rank higher than India’s talisman. Kohli is the face of the Indian youth, Indian cricket, and arguably, even India. Turn on any channel or look outside any window, and his face will be there. Foreign cricket channels will throw his picture in a thumbnail whenever they can, the media will lap up every word he says, and brands will pay through the roof for his endorsement.

A fantastic piece by The Athletic on Virat Kohli’s brand value

There’s a simple reason really. Virat Kohli is inarguably one the greatest batsman the world has seen. He’s a numbers machine, who is constantly ranked at the very top of each format. As a captain though, he is almost diametrically opposite to his predecessor.


Far from captain cool, Kohli’s captaincy has been characterised by an unparalleled sense of aggression. The delhi boy who is the face of a Bangalore franchise, ‘Cheeku’ never shies away from a challenge. Facing pressure from an Australian side who routinely sledge their opponents into weakness, Kohli fought back with venom from his bat and his mouth. When the world saw his response to the terrifying Mitchell Johnson in 2014, they knew this man would not back down. Although he often comes under fire for his verbal wars with his opponents, Kohli’s passion can never be questioned.

However, what cements his place amongst the cricketing legends is his mastery with the bat. He is the only batsman to average at least 50 in all three international formats. In the past decade, he earned 5,775 more international runs and 22 more international hundreds than anyone else. He consistently rises to the challenge during high-pressure matches and delivers victories with a flourish. No opposition wants to defend a total with an in song Virat Kohli chasing it down. 

As captain, Kohli has demanded rigorous fitness. The punjabi boy frequently laments his decision to give up butter chicken and chhole bhature, but the superb physical side to his batting and fielding game demand it. Under his captaincy, India finally quashed their woes in Australia, winning the elusive Border-Gavaskar trophy for the first time in 2018. Although yet to replicate the success that Dhoni managed at ICC tournaments, Kohli’s win rate as a captain remains the highest of any. His biggest test is ongoing. Should India win the first ever test championship, his legacy will be cemented. 

Older cricket enthusiasts often lambast his attitude, decrying it to be against the ‘gentleman’s game’ that cricket is supposed to represent. But Kohli’s captaincy isn’t for them. It’s for a new India, a young India that believes in itself and isn’t afraid to be passionate or arrogant about its success.

The Underdogs

On January 21, 2021, after India beat Australia in the fourth Test of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, Australian cricket head coach Justin Langer stated that his team’s defeat at the hands of the Indian side has taught him one massive lesson which is to “never ever, ever underestimate” the “really tough” players from India. Retaining the trophy is a meritorious triumph in and of itself. However, beating the Autralians at the Gabba with a roster that can be best described as a B team is straight out of a fairy tale. 

To be frank, there just isn’t enough that Ajinkya Rahane has done to declare him a captain on par with the rest on this list. But for this singular achievement, it would be unfair not to mention him. Having inherited the captaincy after India were dismally bowled out for 36 runs in the first test, Rahane was not just facing an uphill battle. He was facing Everest in the dead of winter. With a battalion of players that seemed to shrink with each session of play, Rahane’s team had virtually no expectations on them. The Aussies were angry after 2018. This time they had their trump cards in the form of Steve Smith and David Warner to reclaim the trophy. 

Not on each match, not on each day, but in each session emerged a new hero. Rahane’s team had no single saviour, it was a collective effort where each soldier carried the load when their time to do so arrived. Led from the front by Rahane himself, a convincing victory at Melbourne made the fans start to believe a little. In the face of certain defeat at Sydney, the most gritty display of defensive batting spearheaded by the wounded Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari saw India scrape a draw in the most unlikely of scenarios. But as Tim Paine reminded the Indian spinning maestro while he was at his crease, the Gabba awaited.

For 32 years, the walls of the Gabba remained impenetrable. The soldiers India had at their disposal for the fourth test were not the ones meant to take up arms. The starting pace bowlers, spinner, middle order anchor, and captain were all absent. As a simple draw would have India retain the trophy, most pundits and journalists urged the team to pursue the easier result. Stay down in the trenches and don’t give up ground.

Until Day 5, that objective seemed the best bet India had. But the sessions on the final day showed a new urgency. The players started to see the cracks in the fortress, and began to fire all their guns at it. Gill’s initial heroics set the foundation. The artillery of Starc, Hazelwood, and Cummins had been weathered by a seemingly unbreakable Cheteshwar Pujara. In retaliation, the fearless and unpredictable Rishabh Pant fired everything he had in his tank to tear down the walls of a ground that visitors dread to set foot in.

At the heart of it all? A temporary captain who seemed reserved and passive to casual onlookers, but played with an aggression and desire to win that the man he replaced would be proud to see. Against all the odds, Ajinkya Rahane’s India brought hope, jubilance, and life to fans who were in dire need of it. For that alone, this brief spell of leadership deserves a spot.

Experience Further

Over the decades, success in cricket has elevated India’s status in international affairs. In 2021, India commands 70% of the global cricket revenue and annually generates almost $1BN in sponsorships. Consequently, the BCCI’s influence on the ICC is considerable. Today, cricket is significantly interwoven into the patchwork of the Indian culture. Cricket diplomacy between India and Pakistan is a common phenomenon which has served an interesting role over the decades. It allows both the countries to express their displeasure in a safer space; it also allows them to come together over a shared passion. Cricket has grown to be representative of modern India.

What better way to close this than the chant for India’s latest hero.

About Us

Anant Shah

Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

Kartik Sundar- Founder

Kartik Sundar loves nothing more than opining on cultural content. An avid writer for many publications, the decision to start one of his own came from recognizing a substantive lack of critical discourse around Indian culture today. He graduated Ashoka University with a degree in History & International Relations and wishes to complete further education with a focus on media and cultural studies.

Who We Are

We at inCulture are looking to shed light on what we see as an emerging new Indian culture as well as paying dues to the traditions that have been integral in shaping the current space. We want to try and create a space where critical reflection on cultural events, individuals, works of art, or practices can be fostered. Rather than exist as a cultural news outlet that merely serves as a bulletin board for the latest releases, inCulture will look to curate multi-medium pieces that seek to inform readers about aspects of our culture that make you think beyond an immediate reaction. In particular, we strive to look critically at Indian culture by investigating it under four distinct categories – film & theatre, music, spaces, and society.

Disclamer

All views and opinions expressed in the articles, videos are personal to the Author/Editor(s) and don’t mean to offend any individuals, organisations, institutions or communities.

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