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Leadership and the Tale of Two Skippers 

We often end up discussing subjects and then jump to conclusions. We think we have reached to an answer but eventually it all comes down as our opinions and they are bound to vary. Sourav Ganguly or MS Dhoni, who is India’s greatest cricket captain? Here’s my analysis which derives my opinion. Another much coveted trophy in our wardrobe. This time it’s the Champions Trophy. There were times we came close to it but never before we could say it that it’s all ours. In 2000, at Nairobi we almost had it till Chris Cairns snatched it away from us and in 2002, it was the rains in Colombo which ensured that we shared the Gold with Sri Lanka. But not this time, even if the rains threatened, we ensured it’s all ours. This came in the backdrop of some haunting times in Indian cricket. The sound of familiar signature trumpets sounded as knell for Indian cricket and IPL, a tournament deemed to be fun, glitz and dollars was marred by some bewildering controversies. The yellow brigade – Chennai Super Kings led by the charismatic Dhoni were once again the favourites. They did reach the finals but the Manchester United of cricket were at the centre of all the hullabaloo. Such was the scenario that Dhoni’s name too got dragged in the dirty match fixing and conflict of interest allegations. Irrespective of the unwanted noise, Dhoni went on to make history becoming the first international cricket captain to win all the major limited overs trophies – the World Twenty20 Championship in 2007, the World Cup in 2011 and now the Champions Trophy 2013.

Dhoni hits six in the world cup 2011 final against Sri lanka to win the cup
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Irrespective of his contributions, without Dhoni, the teams he plays for isn’t the same. That’s the impact our Captain Cool makes to the side and he may or may not be India’s best captain, but his presence as a leader does make a huge difference to all the teams he plays for. Is he India’s greatest captain? If stats were the bible then ‘yes, he is’. He has just won the Champions Trophy and in the recently concluded Australia’s tour of India, Dhoni surpassed Ganguly’s tally, and became the Indian captain with most number of Test wins. Adding to this, Dhoni also has the T20 World Championship, ODI World Cup, saw the team to the number one ranking in the Test rankings and as a skipper for CSK, he has won two IPL trophies and a CLT20 trophy, not to forget he ended up the runners up thrice. This demonstrates his success as a captain who has led his troops successfully in all formats of the game. But does ‘most successful’ necessarily mean ‘the best’? While our generation debates on Dhoni and Ganguly, many fans pundits from yesteryears give the title to Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, fondly called ‘Tiger’ for his ability to be fearless and for the way he stood up to the opposition in the days when saving matches for India would near today’s feat of winning series. Therefore, statistics don’t present us a clear picture while comparing different eras. Ricky Ponting till a few months back, till Graeme Smith took over, was Test cricket’s most successful captain with most number of wins, but as a captain, is he rated ahead of the likes of Sir Clive Lloyd, Allan Border, Mark Taylor, or Steve Waugh? In the previous decade while Ponting was registering wins, experts hailed Kiwi skipper Stephen Fleming as the best of that era therefore one has to look beyond statistics and trophies to judge the ‘best’.
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Ganguly and Dhoni are both Cancerians, having their birthdays on 8th July and 7th July respectively. However, both have contrasting styles of leadership. While Ganguly comes across as an extrovert, a man who doesn’t hides emotions and wears his heart on his sleeves, Dhoni on the other hand is cool in his approach, impeccable when comes to conceal emotions and more often than not, his demeanour has won his team some toughest matches, the most recent being the Champions Trophy final. Having studied cricket the way IIT topper would approach Mathematics, I truly believe that Dhoni’s numbers have benefited largely due to Ganguly having established a winning team. Dhoni deserves the credit to carry forward Ganguly’s good work. Back in late 2006, I wasn’t enjoying India’s run under Rahul Dravid and Greg Chappell, when I told few of my cricket maniac friends that I would love to see Dhoni lead the team because of his smartness and composed aggression. They laughed then and I still poke fun at them for taking me lightly. I have been an admirer of Dhoni since I first saw him play for India A in Nairobi 2004 and was overjoyed when he took over the national captaincy from Rahul Dravid, and then Anil Kumble.
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Almost six years on, I rate Dhoni higher than Ganguly when it comes down to inspire a team with his own performances and his ability to remain focused and composed even in the most trying circumstances. Though strategically both Dhoni and Ganguly are more instinctive, Dhoni holds a Midas touch advantage, where things work in his favour more often than not. Be it a gamble with Joginder Sharma or most recently Ishant Sharma’s miracle over. Many dismiss him saying that he is ‘lucky’, but that’s good for him and the team, isn’t it? Australian captain Michael Clarke didn’t see Ponting playing the 2015 ODI World Cup, so when the latter struggled in the 2011-12 tri series, he was dropped and Clarke spoke to his mentor and former captain and reasoned out why he did so. Ponting, understood, co-operated, wished the team ‘luck’ and moved on. That’s something, which Dhoni hasn’t done successfully. The abrupt axing of stars like Ganguly and Dravid from the ODI team in 2008 wasn’t dealt well and more recently VVS Laxman’s retirement came in as a huge shock. It was pretty evident that the stylist Hyderabadi batsman didn’t have his skipper’s support. Similarly there have been a few talented youngsters who haven’t got their share at the grandest stage while a few have been extremely lucky. The selection parameters have often come across bias.

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It’s a known fact that Mohinder Amarnath as a selector wanted Dhoni to be replaced as a Test captain. During a conversation with him during India’s tour of England in 2011, Amarnath spoke on Dhoni’s defensive style of leadership, “Dhoni has always been a very defensive captain, maintaining a safety first approach. When the team is doing well it doesn’t matter but when the results are not on your side, things begin to look ugly.” In one of my conversations with Mark Waugh during India’s disappointing tour of Australia in 2011-12, the former Aussie star was very critical of Dhoni’s leadership in Tests especially outside the subcontinent and felt when things drifted away; Dhoni took a backseat and waited for the opposition to make mistakes. “…I truly feel they lacked good leadership and out of all Indian captains I have seen or played against, I would go to an extent saying that Dhoni has been the most disappointing. Indian skippers have always been defensive especially when compared to their Australian counterparts, but still they haven’t been looked as rudderless as Dhoni. Azharuddin was a smart skipper, while Tendulkar led by example. Ganguly was by far the best Indian skipper and his positive leadership made a huge difference in our 2001 tour and later when Indians toured here in 2003-04. Captaincy is always not just about winning matches, but also about how you approach a game and manage the team. Ganguly did that pretty well,” the junior Waugh said. With eight back-to-back away Test loses and then a home series defeat against a spirited English side, Dhoni at times has looked ordinary when his team has been under pressure. Even the senior Waugh, Steve regarded as one of the greatest leaders favoured his old nemesis Ganguly. “Sourav was probably more eager to win in Australia. He motivated the team. There was an iron-steel material in him. Dhoni is a different captain – cool and relaxed. It’s not bad and players get confidence from Dhoni. But for beating Aussies in Australia, captain needs to be more fired-up. He needs to inject into the team an aggressive mind-set which Sourav did.”

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Harbhajan Singh during the last year’s IPL mentioned that Ganguly is a special captain and the best ever because of his ability to identify talent, sense their usefulness and give the young players responsibility. Virender Sehwag always at his candid best also gave his opinion on his choice for the best Indian skipper. “Ganguly has been the best ever captain India ever had. He took over as captain of the Indian cricket team when it was going through a very bad patch. Indian team was struggling to come out of the match fixing scandal. He had a responsibility to put together a new team and he did a splendid job,” said Sehwag. Harbhajans and Sehwags were the ones who had immensely benefited from Ganguly’s faith, hence their affection for their ‘Dada’ might be biased but even former Indian skipper and Ganguly’s first captain Azharuddin gives it to Ganguly. “Ganguly was the best India captain who made a major turnaround in Indian cricket in bad times. Dhoni has improved it further to yield highest dividend,” said Azhar after India’s World Cup win in 2011.
Azhar in 2011 WC
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With all numbers pointing towards Dhoni, why is it that Ganguly is so much celebrated? It is true that he took over the team at the most difficult time of Indian cricket and went on to build a solid team. The 2003 World Cup performance was a testimony to that. The other truth is also the fact that his team performed much better outside of India. As the leader he instilled faith in his team that they can win in foreign locations. Ganguly’s side has challenged tough oppositions in hostile conditions while Dhoni’s team has quite often looked ordinary outside subcontinent. But that’s not all which makes Ganguly special.   While Dhoni has been an exceptional leader of a team, Ganguly has been a leader of men. I completely agree with cricket expert Harsha Bhogle’s assessment of a good captain. Insecurity and frustration are a part of a sportsman’s life, especially the younger ones. A leader has to try to constantly push them towards the zones of ambition and confidence. Harsha in a recent ESPNCricinfo column has given examples of good leaders, who have successfully done the above. Excerpts form Harsha’s piece:

“…With another captain, two of Pakistan’s greatest-ever talents might have been lost, as some others have been. The key to Imran’s leadership was to understand the world these extraordinary players sought to inhabit and the hurdles they perceived on the way. Wasim Akram could bowl every ball but needed to learn when to bowl it; Inzamam-ul-haq was beset with self-doubt, unaware of how good he really was.

So too with Ganguly, who was able to understand the person behind the wild talent of Harbhajan Yuvraj Singh or Sehwag. They needed reassurance, and once given that, they went on to great success. Dhoni has tried that, with a little less success, with Rohit Sharma, for example. Ian Chappell did that with a generation of Australian cricketers, as did Mark Taylor. Mike Brearley and Nasser Hussain, in contrasting styles maybe, were able to understand too the insecurity that accompanies a competitive but short-lived profession…”

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Harsha is spot on. Ganguly understood his men, he didn’t just notice talents; he converted a talents, gave them directions which changed the fortunes of Indian Cricket. Soon Indian cricket team went on to be a focused Team India. However opinions differ and if Ganguly has his supporters, so does Dhoni. Tendulkar has famously said, “Dhoni is the best captain I have played under. He is very sharp and always alert. He reads the situation well and is open to sharing ideas.” The master doesn’t say much and when he does, he means it and the cricketing world takes it very seriously. Another of India’s celebrated captains, Ajit Wadekar under whom India saw the historic triumphs of West Indies and England in 1971, has said, “It’s never good to compare captains but I think Dhoni is the best skipper India has had.” Pre Ganguly era, it was always a ‘nice India’, very friendly and a calm bunch. Ganguly injected some dose of nastiness and aggression too, making his side, a tough bunch. The aggression was controlled and it gave a message, ‘we are here to compete and win!’ It was what India needed then and from an average cricket team, India announced themselves as a world-class unit. Ganguly’s eye for talent and passion to compete were one of the reasons for Indian cricket’s way up. And once up, they needed a Dhoni to be there, an exceptional cricketer, a calm and a stable character who could steady the ship. So the need was for different leaders for different times and both have been a blessing for Indian cricket. Dhoni, tough but calm hangs in there, believing things would get better and will never throw his hands up and say it’s going bad. That’s a mark of a great captain. While Ganguly embodied passion and enthusiasm, was the guardian who stood for his boys. Rightly called ‘Dada’ – the complete no nonsense man.

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The stark difference between the two captaincies has to be that Ganguly was given a team that needed to be moulded and built, he took over at a time when Laxman, Dravid, Sehwag, Harbhajan, were not the superstars that they were when Dhoni was captain and no one knew a Yuvraj, Zaheer or a Dhoni. Tendulkar, who wasn’t in great touch had then stepped down and the sport being in the hole of match fixing, those were the darkest days for Indian cricket. Though the oppositions have also weakened up, Dhoni’s biggest challenge is yet to come. With Dravid, Laxman gone; Zaheer, Harbhajan past their prime and now with Tendulkar and Sehwag at the twilight of their careers, the big question is can he manage to build a world-class team that he once had or had inherited? Dhoni has begun well with the Champions Trophy win with a very young side and that too at a time when Indian cricket is again amidst the clutches of match fixing. But the word here is ‘young’ and not ‘inexperienced’. The boys who did the job for Dhoni have been around for some time and unlike the earlier editions, India did go into the tournament as the best team. The only team that stood close to India were the runners-up England, who too don’t sport the same look without a man named Kevin Pietersen. Dhoni’s name getting dragged in the CSK controversy and the conflict of interest issue will not help the cause. His being quiet about the whole issue had sparked a lot of ire. The current results have quietened the critics for now. Ganguly, who has been a centre to several controversies, has always managed to stay away from such dirt.

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Times are different and from underdogs we are amongst the best. Summing it up, Dhoni is a great captain but Ganguly to me is the greatest of all Indian captains, and Dhoni’s successfully coping of the coming up crisis (be it building up a new Test team and handling the fixing issues) would determine his position in the list. Whatever it is, be it the composed six off Dhoni’s bat that sealed the World Cup in Mumbai or Ganguly’s jersey whirling scene at the Lord’s balcony, they will all be etched in the annals of Indian cricket and hearts of cricket lovers forever.

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Leadership and the Tale of Two Skippers

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