Best India Captains debate: What if I say both Shastri & Azhar are correct?

Last Updated: Sat, Jan 14, 2017 00:13 hrs

If you’ve been following the latest buzz in the Indian cricketing fraternity, not only would you be aware that Mahendra Singh Dhoni has relinquished his role as the captain of the Indian limited overs cricket teams, but also the controversy with Ravi Shastri’s comments. Instead of taking time out to reflect on the legend of Dhoni’s captaincy, we now have a war of words brewing between two former teammates, Shastri and Mohammed Azharuddin, centered on another former teammate Sourav Ganguly. Wondering when they all played together? Remember the Australian tour of 1991/2? Sourav’s debut series, Azhar the captain and Shastri his deputy.

First thing first, both men seem to agree on Dhoni’s captaincy. Dhoni is arguably India’s greatest captain in all formats. The man with the Midas Touch. Cool as a cucumber, earning the moniker from Sunil Gavaskar as "The air-conditioned captain". Nothing flustered him and he was spot-on with his bowling and fielding changes. His moves hardly ever failed. When India were chasing and Dhoni was in, more often than not he would win you the game. The way he paced his innings was impeccable. Along with Michael Bevan, he is the greatest finisher of all time. You can rest your hopes on his shoulders, or rather his bat and be assured of a victory. Not to forget his keeping skills, he has one of the quickest pair of hands behind the stumps. A stumper in the true sense. Even the rival Aussies, known for their hard nose and unforgiving approach, felt he would fit perfectly in their set up.

Here’s a look at Dhoni’s illustrious captaincy record:

Now to the controversy. Ravi Shastri had said that Dhoni is the greatest Indian cricket captain of all time.

You had the likes of M.A.K. Pataudi, Ajit Wadekar and his own former captain Kapil Dev mentioned in his list. However, the controversy is about someone who was not mentioned on that list. Media picked it to be a deliberate snub of Sourav Ganguly, even arguing it was because of Shastri’s prior history with the latter. The same media has managed to extract a comment from Mohammed Azharuddin, a former India captain himself and statistically one of the best. His argument, directed towards Shastri’s comments, termed it 'stupid' and weighed more on the stats.

So let’s deep dive on both their views. Take a look at the table below for the statistics.



*M.A.K. Pataudi did not play ODIs

If stats were the only consideration, Ganguly and Azhar top the table. They certainly have a better record over all the other Indian captains who were mentioned, with the exception of Dhoni of course. Then why do captains like Kapil, Wadekar and Pataudi often figure in the argument for India’s best captains?

Pataudi first became captain at the tender age of 21 (then the youngest cricketer ever to become a Test captain) and he was the first Indian skipper to win a Test series abroad. His Indian team beat New Zealand in an away series in 1967/8. Imagine a country which made its cricket debut in 1932 but didn’t win a single series abroad for the next 35 years? They rarely won a match. They were the minnows and were regularly whipped. Do you think that this sport would grow to such an extent in the country, such that India would be ruling the cricket world right now, calling all the shots? Well, it was Pataudi who first brought in the change with his aggressive captaincy. He taught Team India how to win.

Wadekar was the first Indian captain to win successive Test series with away wins in West Indies and England. He followed that up by winning a series against England at home. He managed a young prodigy in Sunil Gavaskar, developed players like Gundappa Vishwanath & Farook Engineer into match-winners and his greatest creation was to have unearthed the spin quartet of Bishen Bedi, E.A.S. Prasanna, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and Srinivas Venkataraghavan. He had a formula to attack with spin and used them effectively in winning matches. He instilled a winning culture, something that Indian cricket never had before.

Kapil forever will be remembered as the man who won India its first-ever World Cup. That team, Kapil's Devils, a ranked underdog, stunned the mighty West Indies in the final. The cricketing world took notice and soon cricket became a religion in the country. That win was also instrumental in India hosting the first-ever Cricket World Cup four years later, thoroughly cementing the nation's prowess in hosting mega cricketing events. That Kapil’s team had just two world-class players -- Gavaskar & Kapil himself and a bowling line-up of dibly dobly medium pacers, similar to the ones Martin Crowe led at the 1992 World Cup. These dibly doblies against the likes of Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Viv Richards and company in the final? I still can’t fathom how they won.

These Indian captains, may statistically not be the best that we’ve had, but they’ve all been path-breaking in their own right. The first one to win an away series, first to win successive series and the first to lift the World Cup. Their place in Indian cricketing folklore is cemented forever. They broke the ground for cricket to ascend to the place it occupies now in the country. It would be even more impressive to note that they won without many star players in their teams. They created stars out of ordinary players and that to me is the hallmark of great captains.

In sharp contrast, the team that Ganguly inherited, was arguably the best ever. A batting line-up that included Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Ganguly himself and V.V.S Laxman.

A bowling line-up that included two of India’s finest fast bowlers in Javagal Srinath & Zaheer Khan, and not to forget the spin twins in Anil Kumble & Harbhajan Singh. There was hardly a weak link. Barring a couple, the core of the team was already established even before Ganguly ascended to the captaincy. Not to mention that Ganguly had some infamous run-ins with Greg Chappell, teammate Dravid and opposing team captains.

Azharuddin led India through most of the 90s. His era coincided with managing the prodigy that was Tendulkar. Once again India returning to using spin as their main weapon and by unearthing a three-dimensional spinning trio led by Kumble. Note, Harbhajan also made his debut when Azhar was the captain. Azhar also brought in a capable fast bowling strike force in Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad. Azhar’s captaincy eerily resembled that of Wadekar’s, not surprisingly that it was the latter who was the manager for most of Azhar’s teams. Except that Azhar’s teams didn’t win much abroad and were once famously called “Tigers at home, paper tigers abroad”.

Match fixing apart, both Azharuddin and Ganguly are great captains in their own rights. Why do I say so? Look at all the captains that followed them. Tendulkar followed Azhar, and inherited the same team, yet couldn't produce the results. Likewise Dravid, Sehwag and Kumble followed Ganguly, once again inheriting the same team and failing to produce the results. The players mentioned are all individual superstars, yet they couldn’t find the statistical success that Azhar and Ganguly enjoyed. That should tell you that not only do you need good players, you should also know how to lead them. On that note, Ganguly and to a lesser extent Azhar, were indeed great captains.

Stats do not lie, but it was an Indian cricketer who famously quoted in his Sidhuisms that “Statistics are like miniskirts. What they reveal is suggestive and what they conceal, is vital”. On that note, my deep dive has resulted in noting that both Shastri and Azharuddin were correct, provided you view their points the way it has to be.

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