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February 23, 1999


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Is Azhar a leader?

Prem Panicker

I read this dialogue in a book, once:

First chap: "I will have you know my competence has never been questioned!"

Second chap: "Questioned? What do you mean, questioned? I have never even heard it mentioned!"

That exchange comes to mind, when analysing the strategic skills of India's captain, Mohammad Azharuddin. For let's face it, no one ever claimed that he is India's answer to Mike Brearley, or even Ian Chappell or Richie Benaud. And what is more, he doesn't have to be. The issue -- and to my mind, the key question -- is, what sort of leader of men is he?

Ah yes, this piece is about Azhar, and before I go any further, let's get the usual flames out of the way. To wit: 'I don't like Azhar!' (adherents of this theory have never bothered to explain to me why I should take this dislike to the man -- but then, it is easier by far to make flat statements, not quite so easy to substantiate them). 'I am being paid to attack him!' (I swear I got this one in mail recently). 'I am jealous of the most successful captain India has ever produced!' (Yeah, right -- why, when I am so obviously passionate about celebrating success, must I take this unaccountable dislike to the man who supposedly brought us the most reasons to celebrate, is another of those inexplicable mysteries, like Mona Lisa's smile). And so on, and so forth.

Let's just take these flames as read, shall we? And to those readers out there who tend to get their truss in a knot the minute Azhar is spoken of in any but tones of utmost veneration, a gentle suggestion that they skip this piece, which I am afraid militates against their mindset -- there is so much else they could be doing, with pleasure and profit, like washing the car or walking the dog, whatever.

This particular article is addressed to those who can understand that an analysis is based on facts and perceptions -- not on the personal likes and dislikes of the person making the attempt. Further, that no one, least of all this writer, claims that his piece is the final word, carved in stone -- it is merely an opinion, which is something to be borne in mind by the flame-throwers.

With which, let's cut to the chase -- within the Indian team, within the Board of Control for Cricket in India, and within the enormous body of fans that support Indian cricket, there is a body of opinion that increasingly veers to the view that Azharuddin, as captain, has reached his use-by date.

A good place to start analysing that would be to ask -- what makes a good captain?

Strategic thinking? Inspiring personal performance? Perhaps -- but there is one quality I put much higher than those, and that is the ability to inspire blind loyalty.

For nine years, I have worked with the gentleman who is now Editor of Rediff. During these nine years, I have goofed, oftener than I sometimes care to remember. At times, my goofs have had dire repercussions. Yet, I don't remember one single instance when my editor, under fire for something I had done, shifted the blame to me in public. Sure, he would take me apart and rip into me, making me feel smaller than a Lilliputian's kneecaps -- but never, ever, in public, never before the world at large.

The best leader is the guy who knows to praise in public, and to criticise, when necessary, in private. The best leader is the guy who never, ever, shifts the blame onto his colleagues.

That kind of treatment instills, in a co-worker, loyalty of the fiercest kind.

Arjuna Ranatunga may have been way off base when he, in full public view, ranted and raved and poked an umpire in the chest -- but his team knows that it was done in defence of one of their own, and will die, or kill, for their captain if need be. In fact, on an earlier occasion, Ranatunga gave up his captaincy when Aravinda D'Silva was dropped on fitness grounds -- little wonder that the one-time Mad Max has, these days, sobered down, transformed himself into Lanka's most consistent match-winner.

Look, similarly, at the great contemporary captains -- Mark Taylor, and Hansie Cronje, to name just two. Taylor had patches of bad form far more sustained than any Azhar ever suffered through -- yet not for one instant was the team less than committed to him, less than one hundred per cent behind him. Cronje, again, is just an average player in a team that has authentic stars, yet he is acknowledged their unquestioned leader, he has the unquestioning loyalty of the entire team, every member of which is prepared to go the extra mile to deliver, when he demands it of them.

Now look at an example from our own annals. When Saeed Anwar is on two, at the Eden Gardens, Srinath finds his edge. The ball flies fast and at waist height towards the slips. Azharuddin pauses for a heartbeat, then lunges to his left, gets his hands to it and spills it.

Catches have been spilt before, and will be spilt again. Beneficiaries of such lives have gone on to make mammoth scores -- and Anwar is only the latest, surely not the last, to thus capitalise (remember a certain Kiran More, who had the closest view in the house as Graham Gooch, the man he let off, went on to add over 300 runs to his then score?).

Thus, the fact that Anwar was dropped was unfortunate, the fact that the beneficiary went on to play the innings that won the match for his side was another of cricket's cruel ironies -- but it was not the end of the world.

The real shocker came later. Anwar, perhaps in a spirit of levity, perhaps deliberately lighting a fire, said while accepting his man of the match award, that he owed it all to Azhar letting him off.

That kind of comment could have been dealt with, with wit and humour. A simple riposte on the lines of 'I am glad Anwar acknowledges that his knock was due to my generosity, and not his ability' would been the end of that, would have had Anwar himself nodding 'Touche!' at the clean hit.

But what happened was something else. The Indian captain came up with this eminently forgettable line: "I went for someone else's catch".

The someone else was VVS Laxman, standing at second slip. At a basic level, one would be inclined to ask, why did Azhar go for a catch if he was sure it was meant for his partner in the slips? But that error in judgement, if there was one, is not the real issue.

The issue is, can a leader of men, at any level, afford to throw his men to the wolves simply to save himself from flak? Can a man who, at the first sign of criticism, blames a colleague -- even, as in this instance, in the face of logic -- ever inspire loyalty?

Captains have been celebrated for going down with sinking ships, sans a murmur. Boys have been honoured in legend and in song for standing tall and proud on burning decks. No one, to date, ever erected a statue to a quitter -- and most definitely not to a leader who ran for cover, and deflected criticism onto his colleagues, when the heat was on.

If this were an isolated instance, it could be forgotten as an aberration, as the unthinking words of a person disappointed by a cruel result. But an isolated instance is precisely what this is not. Remember the tours of South Africa and the West Indies, when Azhar was under fire for gifting his wicket away, at times through run outs? On that occasion, again publicly, he accused Rahul Dravid of being responsible, of not responding to his calls and causing his dismissals.

That, to my way of thinking, is something a leader can not do -- shift the blame, deserved or no, onto someone else each time he feels the heat.

That this team is low on morale and motivation is obvious to anyone who watches the players for even half an hour. That this team does not play to potential, is a reason we of the media trot out after every defeat.

Maybe it is time to ask, why is the side constantly droopy-shouldered? Why is it the side doesn't play to potential?

Because morale is instilled by the leader. Ask Wasim Akram -- despite intense internal bickering, despite the pressures of a PCB-sponsored enquiry, despite the devastating Outlook revelations on the eve of a crucial game, he could attain results because he could hold his team together, get them to perform time and again, rally them when things weren't going too well.

I mean, if you look back at the Pakistan performance of the last three Tests, how many memorable ones have there been? Two (out of the four five-wicket hauls) brilliant spells from Saqlain. The same number from Akram. One inspired over from Akthar. One good knock from Moin Khan, a great one from Anwar. And with this, Pakistan wins two Tests out of three.

India has, for its part, a superlative spell from Prasad, two instances of brilliance from Srinath in the same Test, a devastating, once in a century performance from Kumble, a Test innings to remember from Sachin Tendulkar, a string of standout performances from rookie opener Sadagopan Ramesh (hey, weren't we saying that the opening slot is the problem and once that is solved, this team will fire?), one solid, standout knock from Saurav Ganguly, a superlative show behind the stumps in one essay by Mongia who also came up trumps, at a crucial time, with the bat as well... the ledger, in terms of individual performances, seems tilted a tad in favour of the Indians. So why haven't the results been commensurate with that?

Thinking back on the three Tests, seeing them as one entity, you realise that the problem has been a lack of focus. There have been patches when the Indians, with bat or ball, have looked focussed, committed. But those patches have been few, and far between -- the rest of the time, what has been evident has been a sense of drift. And it is difficult to escape the conclusion that 'drift' has been contagious, the team being infected with it by their captain.

The trouble has been that Azhar's leadership has not been motivational.

I remember watching South Africa in the field, last year, in a particular game. The side was easily winning the match in question. Cronje was bowling and Herschelle Gibbs -- who I would rate as a better, if less flamboyant, fielder than Jonty Rhodes -- made a slight misfield at point. No run was given away, mind -- but Cronje's anger was instant, and obvious. His glare conveyed the message that he was not going to be satisfied with the slightest let up. And at the end of the over, the continued anger was visible in the way he banged the ball into the keeper's glove and stalked off.

That slight misfield, that one run, even had it been given away, would have made no difference to the outcome -- South Africa at that point were running away with the game. But the captain cared -- cared enough to demand nothing but the very best. And he cared to show that he cared.

It needs that anger, that passion, that motivation from the leader to keep the rest of the team from slipping into a lethargy. Merely coming up with re-runs of 'We fielded badly, batted badly...' doesn't do it.

And while on that, grace is another quality that a team lives, or dies, by. At the end of the Eden Gardens game, Azhar said, 'We batted badly in both innings' -- I wonder if the captain, while saying that, thought of the feelings of a young man, just three Tests old, who had twice got the team off to good starts? Or of another young man, fighting for his place in the side, who overcame his own inabilities and some tremendous quick bowling to help the team in a position of absolute command? What, I wonder, would a Ramesh, or a Laxman, make of that indictment?

A captain has to be there. Visibly there, at the front, especially when the going is bad. For instance, when Tendulkar and Gaekwad did that walk-around of the Gardens to pacify the crowd, we looked for, but failed to find, the Indian captain. The Gardens is a ground that has done him proud, the spectators love him there, and some of his finest performances have come at that venue -- his presence would have had a calming effect, more so than the presence of an obviously upset Tendulkar. But that was not to be.

Those who watched the match, live or on television, would have been struck by another vignette. As wickets tumbled after a dream start in the last innings, there was a visible air of tension within the Indian dressing room. Several times, as Azhar played a chancy, hit or miss knock in the middle, the cameras panned to the dressing room, and concern was etched on every grim visage.

Then Azhar got out. Ganguly was fighting for survival out in the middle. And suddenly, the cameras panned to the Indian box again. To show coach and team members on the edge of their seats, vicariously playing every ball, surviving every moment, with their colleagues out in the middle. And to one side, the Indian captain, showered and freshly changed into natty black trousers and a yellow T -- drawing the terse comment, from Ravi Shastri: "Well, he is all ready to go!"

With that example before them, what kind of commitment can be expected from this team?

Srinath, after six overs of that dream spell, was in visible distress and wanted rest. He was asked to continue for the sake of the team. He shrugged off the pain, bowled his heart out, not even going off the short run, and did his colleagues proud with a spell that put India right back in the game.

Pause, now, to think of his feelings when he sat there and watched his batsmen -- more importantly, his own captain -- throw it all away with casual unconcern. The next time round, will he have the heart in him to come up with a similar, do it or bust, performance?

Strategy, tactics -- these things are secondary. Let us not forget there are 10 other players out there, and there is a coach in the dressing room. If something doesn't occur to the captain, any of the other players can, and in most teams, will point it out, come up with constructive suggestions. But for that to happen -- it goes without saying that it is not happening here, barring Tendulkar's peripatetic presence -- the captain has to have the faith, trust, loyalty of his team-mates. And that has to be earned, it is never given unsought.

In his famous piece in Sportstar, Azhar had talked with contempt about know-it-all journalists. He had sarcastically suggested that we be given mobiles so he could consult us after every over in order to find out what to do next.

Had he done that, the media would not, perhaps, have told him what to do next, who to give the ball to. What the media would have told him would be far more basic.

We would have said, Azhar, it is not enough for a player and, more importantly, a leader, to be an outstanding talent.

It is not enough to play innings of breathtaking perfection, every now and again. It is not enough to have even a Viv Richards remark, as he did to my friend and then colleague Krishna Prasad once, that of all the batsmen he had watched, Azhar was the one player he admired, and found he couldn't emulate.

What is needed in a player, more importantly in a captain, is passion. And pride.

It is not enough for a captain, especially, to merely want to win -- and no one doubts that Azhar would, like anyone else, like to win. To be inspirational, a captain has to have a heart that hurts at every defeat, a skin so thin that loss singes it, leaves a scar.

He must be able to feel -- and more importantly, he must be seen to feel -- every defeat as a personal slight, as a deep and lasting hurt.

Only then will his team respect him enough to push to their limits and beyond, to bring about victory.

And that, when all is said and done, is the real problem with Azharuddin's captaincy -- he just doesn't care enough.

Which is a frightening thought, as we get into the final stages of preparation for the last World Cup of the millenium.

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