After the Delhi-Chennai game on Friday, we no longer have to die wondering if India missed out on having Virender Sehwag as captain. MS Dhoni is far from perfect, as he showed in England and Australia, but it still looks like he’s the best we’ve got — with the possible exception of Gautam Gambhir, who will have a chance to show on Sunday that his leadership has matured so rapidly, even with the limited opportunities he’s got, that he can already be better than Dhoni.
At this point, the cliche-mongers will come out with one of their hoary old ones: ‘A captain is only as good as his team’. Obviously, the result of a game will depend on a number of factors, but in cricket, strategy plays a big part, and the captain’s role is therefore more crucial than in, say football, where the off-field planning and coaching have more influence.
And in T20, captaincy assumes even more significance because you don’t usually get a second chance, as there is no time to recover from a mistake. In fact, the three eliminator/qualifier games leading up to the final were primarily won or lost by the captains.
On Friday, Sehwag lost half the battle even before the match got under way, by leaving out the highest wicket-taker in this year’s league: the tall South African, Morne Morkel. The logic, as conveyed by Mahela Jayawardene in an on-field interview, was that Irfan Pathan was out of action with an injury, his place was taken by the off-spinner Sunny Gupta who can’t bat as well as Pathan, and therefore Morkel had to be replaced by the West Indian Andre Russell who can bat better than Morkel. This convoluted logic shows just how a captain can get simple things wrong by analysing so much that he misses the most important point. The point about having Morkel was to take wickets; without him, the likes of M Vijay flourished. This is Russell’s first time in the T20 league in India, and he has struggled to adapt to these conditions. He bowled economically in Friday’s game but did not get a single wicket, and scored just 16. With a line-up like Sehwag, Warner, Jayawardene and Ross Taylor, to leave out Morkel for the limited batting abilities of Russell didn’t make any sense.
Delhi did well to top the league, and Sehwag came across as a relaxed captain whose team members enjoyed playing with him at the helm. He made a few smart moves too along the way, because he’s not a dumb cricketer by any means. But when it came to the crunch, the fatal weakness in his strategic thinking came to the surface, not once but twice. In the first qualifier against Kolkata, he picked only one spinner in the side when he knew the pitch in Pune was going to be slow and spin-friendly. He could easily have left out Irfan Pathan and taken the talented young left-arm spinner Shahbaz Nadeem who turned a game around in Jaipur earlier in the tournament. I suppose, having paid a bomb to acquire Pathan in the auction, which raised eyebrows at the time, he felt he had to stick to his formula of having an ‘all-rounder’. Pathan was an all-round failure, however, being cannon-fodder at his declining pace and contributing little with the bat. Ultimately, it was the Pathan factor that messed up Sehwag’s winning composition in the two most important games in the end, and Delhi failed to reach the final despite having the strongest team in the tournament, with the possible exception of Mumbai.
But Sehwag was not the only one handing out matches to the opposition this week. Harbhajan Singh did his bit to ensure Chennai sailed through with a decidedly weaker team on paper.
Mumbai got off to a dream start with two wickets in the first two overs. Dhaval Kulkarni was making the new white ball swing like a banana split. But Bhajji generously took Kulkarni off the attack, and allowed Michael Hussey and S Badrinath to build a platform from which Dhoni and Dwayne Bravo took off in the end — tearing the hapless Kulkarni to shreds after he was brought back to bowl when the ball had stopped swinging.
When it was Mumbai’s turn to bat, whatever little chance they had was squandered by holding the dangerous Kieron Pollard back until it was too late. We do have to make some allowance, though, for Bhajji’s handicap, of having to accommodate superstar Sachin Tendulkar at the top of the order, despite his sub-20 average and strike rate of 115 (way below the minimum eight runs an over required, especially in the first six overs).
With so many blunders coming their way, Dhoni and Gambhir hardly had to stretch their grey cells on their way to the final. But there were indications that these two will not be so erratic, and will also think on their feet. Gambhir resisted the growing pressure to drop the struggling Yusuf Pathan, who came good in the qualifier against Delhi with a match-winning knock. Dhoni, too, resisted the temptation to replace the out-of-touch Hussey with Faf du Plessis who was such a force before the late arrival of Hussey. As it turned out, it was the experienced Hussey who pulled the chestnuts out of the fire in the game against Mumbai, combining with Badrinath to resurrect a floundering innings. Both captains have used their spinners well, so the final could hinge on who is really the cooler captain of the two. Dhoni has the stronger team overall, but Gambhir has enough resources to force a win too.