February 24, 2005

Time to elevate Md. Kaif as vice-captain

By H Natarajan

It’s a historical truism in Indian cricket that the national side’s vice-captaincy has not got the importance it deserves. The captaincy stakes are vociferously debated, the coach’s appointment heatedly discussed and the selection committee formation widely deliberated, but the vice-captain’s choice is an apology of a whisper at best.

The deputy’s role is critical, but because the vested power has a futuristic ring, its immediacy is naively under-valued. A smart choice, born out of the selection committee’s vision, will groom the candidate during his apprenticeship. Ideally, the candidate should be much younger than the general so that he gets to spend a meaningful time learning the ropes as an understudy – strategising with the core croup, handling a multitude of pressures, learning man managerial skills, saying the right things at the right places, avoiding media minefields, etc. A correct choice combined with a meaningful gestation period will help the transition from vice-captain to captain a painless and seamless one.

Paradoxically, it was India that made one of the smartest moves while appointing Tiger Pataudi as vice-captain of the 1961-62 tour of the Caribbean. The thinking of the then selection committee was that Tiger was a leader par excellence and had all the requisites of a general. Doubts, if any, were cast on his age and lack of experience - he was still into his first international season and had played a total of just three home Tests against England.

But Pataudi’s appointment was an investment with an eye on the future. But one bloody day in the sunny Caribbean paradise brought about a violent change in Indian cricket. A near-fatal skull injury in the game against Barbados ended the international career of captain Nari Contractor and instant elevated the wet-behind-the-ears Pataudi as captain – the youngest then in all Test history at 21 years and 77 days. The young boy, who had missed the first two Tests of the series, had to take command and lead an army of seniors that included the likes of Polly Umrigar, Chandu Borde and Vijay Manjrekar. Tiger, however, proved to be an ornament to the game. There may have been more statistically successful Indian captains since his time, but Tiger is still widely accepted as the most cerebral Indian captain ever.

It’s time our selectors show foresight in picking a youthful vice-captain with the team’s future in mind. This is not an indictment of Rahul Dravid’s credentials to be a worthy captain. He has many plusses – a thinking approach, a healthy hunger for books to educate and enlighten himself, the intelligence to update himself with the current, a non-partisan attitude, the aura of a commander who leads by personal example and a media-savvy personality. Besides, he is one guy who commands respect from his team-mates, opposition, administrators, media and the public. But it does not make much sense in Dravid serving as a deputy to a man who is almost of the same vintage. In fact, Ganguly is a year and half younger than Dravid and made his Test debut alongside the Karnataka man in 1996. Dravid is 32 now and could exit international cricket around the same time as Ganguly. India could face a major leadership vacuum then if preparations do not start now in earnest to groom the successor.

The selectors would do well to decide on a new vice-captain. India have a few choices: Virender Sehwag, Irfan Pathan and Mohammad Kaif. All three are still very, very young but with copious international experience against all opposition. Sehwag’s devil-may-care approach to batting may not exactly be in his favour should he demand discipline as captain from his mates.

Pathan is a Derby thoroughbred – in my opinion the most exciting talent in world cricket. He will earn respect by the sheer weight of his performances and consistency. I dare say that he will be an exciting all-rounder with passage of time. The ingredients are unmistakable. He also shows the willingness and the desire to learn and grow. They are all big plusses in his favour, but then there is always a question mark over a bowler-captain. Not too many bowlers in the history of the game have made great captains – Richie Benaud and Imran Khan being two notable exceptions. Bowler-captains either over-bowl or under-bowl themselves, both of which are not in the interests of the team. Pathan is one young player whose place looks granite-strong, but elevating him to the vice-captain’s slot has the above-mentioned risk – but it’s a risk worth taking nevertheless.

To me the best bet for the vice-captain’s post is Mohammad Kaif. What a cricketer! He has the pedigree as the captain of India team that won the under-19 World Cup. Many of the younger players have grown with him looking up to him as a leader. There is no player who gives as much as him on the field as Kaif – to me he is in the Jonty Rhodes mould. A bundle of positive energy, he conjures up catches that does not seem apparent to ordinary mortals. He is emerging as a guru of crisis management; his many, many innings, batting way down the order in absolutely disastrous situations, vouches eloquently for that. He is as tough as they get without being a brat. He plays hard without crossing the line. He is a worthy ambassador. And he is only 24.

For my money, Mohammad Kaif is Mr Perfect for the role.