“Captaincy,” the late Richie Benaud had famously said, “is 90 percent luck and 10 percent skill…but don’t try without that 10 percent.”
Unfortunately, what was once the undeniable truth has not stood the test of time. Cricket’s rapid spin-off and the overwhelming influence of franchise-based T20 competitions on the game’s ecosystem have forced a rewrite. Captain is now, “90 percent marketability and 10 percent luck…and you can even try it without 10 percent of the skill.”
Again, it is the Indian Premier League that is the standard bearer of this major change that cricket could have missed. Both organically and disturbingly, this IPL trend has gone mainstream and has infiltrated the national team as well.
After the surprising dismissal of Virat Kohli, KL Rahul is now seen as a skipper for all sizes. Lack of options will be a factor in the event 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 very inexperienced skipper. Before boarding the flight for the ongoing tour, Rahul had only led one first-class race.
In Johannesburg during the second Test, only the second time in his life, Rahul was in charge of men in cricket whites. When Kohli gave an unreliable report on the morning of the match, the reins of India were in the unknown hands of the newly promoted vice-captain. It would be unfair to blame the young stand-in for the loss, but there were whispers of India’s lack of intensity and ideas as South African skipper Dean Elgar shielded everything the Indian bowlers threw at him.
Rahul is a top quality product of the country’s cricketing system who appreciated and recognized his decisiveness but failed to see him as a leader until now. He has been a regular on the Karnataka team, a U19 India World Cupper, an old hand from India A but no selector or coach he has played under the shadows of Mike Brearley in him. If 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, that saw a leader in him. It came as no surprise. Franchise sides are not known to sit with the book The Art of Captaincy while looking for captains. Team owners frequently refer to the process of determining their next captain as a search for the “face of the team.” It’s a polite way of conveying that in T20 cricket the brain bank could very well be housed in the dugout. One could always hire a bank full of former captains and relieve the skipper by outsourcing tactics and team composition.
Eyeballs are important
Marketability is a critical factor for IPL teams as they complete their major purchases. So Rahul’s past captaincy record wouldn’t have bothered the Punjab Kings decision makers. He was a regular of Team India, a batsman of all sizes, had pan India fans and an intimidating social media presence. He ticked all the required boxes and a few more to be an IPL captain. He was also part of the Bollywood circuit. Rahul was, as the marketing suits like to say, a youth icon.
So, was his elevation to a position of responsibility in the Indian team because of the results he achieved with Punjab Kings? That is not possible. In his two-year stint with the franchise, Rahul has not completely transformed his team. His team won just 40 percent of their matches, finishing sixth in the eight-team league during Rahul’s reign in 2020 and 2021.
Those two unforgettable seasons as captain of the underperforming Punjab Kings saw no drop in Rahul’s stock. Once it was announced that the young cricketer with several high profile brands under his belt was ready to switch teams for the IPL 2022 season with 10 teams and two new owners with deep pockets, the market was buzzing. Will he go to Lucknow or Ahmedabad? According to reports, the owners of both franchisees stood by with a checkbook in one hand and a pen in the other.
That was until reports emerged that Ahmedabad had decided to contract the Mumbai Indians’ unheld star Hardik Pandya as their captain. Benaud’s rewrite turned out to be true. Hardik and Rahul, who once infamously sat on the same couch for a hit television show, have a lot in common. They are undoubtedly talented and have skills to be among the best in the world. They are proven game changers blessed with a great match temperament.
However, the two have never been seen as captains. Hardik isn’t even the first choice captain in his family. When Hardik was an Indian star of all sizes, with a Test hundred and a worldwide reputation as a bat and ball enforcer in white ball cricket, it was his brother Krunal who led Baroda. In his long stint with the Mumbai Indians, Hardik was never projected as a court captain.
These virtually non-existent leadership credentials from the likes of Rahul and Hardik have not stood in the way of owners of IPL teams. But that’s the credo on which IPL business works. It’s a league with no relegation, fixed salary caps and guaranteed exponential growth in the teams’ annual television earnings. In the IPL economy, having a salable star in the tent is non-negotiable. If you win, that’s good, but losing isn’t a disaster either. This is a competition where Kohli can go eight years without a title, even with AB de Villiers and Chris Gayle by his side. Royal Challengers Bangalore has always had stars that could fill the Chinnaswamy Stadium and companies that lined up to be associated with their iconic players. The prize cabinet was empty, but the treasury was not.
Fortunately, it is not the same in Indian cricket yet. And that’s why Rahul’s rapid climb up the hierarchy in all three formats, without even a murmur of protest from the fans or pundits, is disturbing. So confused 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 what it takes to lead India? The jury is out and looks around the room without a clue. There is no data to explicitly answer that question. India has really taken a leap of faith with Rahul.
So far, he has not emerged as a leader in South Africa. He excelled as a batsman in the first Test, but that was never in doubt. In the second test, he showed no spark as skipper and in the third, the stump mic caught him saying something completely illogical. While Kohli expressed his dismay at the presenter’s alleged bias, Rahul escalated the matter to the highest possible level with one unfathomable comment. “The whole country is playing against eleven guys,” he was heard to say. The whole country?
Meanwhile, South Africa, a country where cricket isn’t even the most popular sport, was busy keeping the virus under control.