Captaincy will decide the winner of the IPL

This goes against prevailing wisdom — that of all formats of the game, it is in the shortest that the captain has the least role to play.

This is a difficult phase for the sums man in a team. He has to reduce everything to: “If A beats B and C loses to D by less than 20 runs and we win by three wickets and hope that F wins but by a margin of 12 runs or by one wicket….” Someone is making just these calculations as you read this. Others are making deals with the Almighty.

Bottom-placed Chennai Super Kings have lost most matches, seven, in the league so far. It must be a strange place for Mahendra Singh Dhoni to view the tournament from. He has admitted it is all over for his team, and expressed unhappiness over some of the younger players (“lacked spark”).

Dhoni under the lens

This is unusual for Dhoni, and indicates just how badly the results have affected him. He is not usually given to blaming the younger players. CSK are hit by withdrawals and injuries, but they seldom looked a champion side. Questions will be asked about Dhoni’s own form, and his captaincy decisions. Is the end of the team the end of their captain too?

Perhaps there is a call here for Dhoni to give up the captaincy and play with the kind of freedom that has been missing from his game. His legacy is secure, after all. Kolkata Knight Riders has shown the way, elevating Eoin Morgan and taking the responsibility off Dinesh Karthik’s shoulders.

Captaincy might well decide the winner of this year’s IPL. This goes against prevailing wisdom — that of all formats of the game, it is in the shortest that the captain has the least role to play. For one, the game moves too fast, and those sitting in the dugout might have a better picture overall. For another, the top bowlers like to set their own fields, and don’t depend too much on the captain’s inputs.

But for these very same reasons, the captaincy is crucial too. When things move fast, it is the man in charge at the pitch who is in the best position to make the calls. Mistakes are made, which is only human. An unfit Andre Russell bowls the last over in one game, a super fit A.B. de Villiers is held back when his team is chasing in another. All captains make mistakes. A good captain makes fewer of them.

Sometimes the captain can make the right call which leads to the wrong result (for his team); occasionally it is the other way around, when a blatantly wrong decision leads to a surprisingly positive result. It is like a spinner getting a wicket off a rank bad ball. Such things happen.

But as the tournament progresses, and the knockout picture depends on inches and decimal points and the odd moment of brilliant out-cricket, the captain’s role becomes increasingly important. Field placings are crucial; captains must understand angles and arcs on the field. Where do you place your fastest fielders, how many do you need behind the wicket? That might sound basic, but you will be surprised how many get it wrong.

The placement of fielders is one of the most fascinating aspects of a short game. The formation can change by the over, as the batsmen change ends, and as the restrictions come and go. What is logical in the first six overs is not so in the next six or the six after that.

Rahul impresses

Of the five Indian captains in the IPL this year, Kings XI Punjab’s K.L. Rahul has been impressive. He opens the batting, keeps wickets, and has to make the final calls in tight games. He seems to be enjoying it, and that’s always a good sign. This is also the only team where both captain and coach (Anil Kumble) are from India.

There are too many things happening for one man to retain everything in his head, hence the support staff. The captain-coach relationship can be fascinating too. Few coaches are likely to go against a strong captain when it might mean a loss of earnings the following year.

Will Stephen Fleming, one of the best in the game, tell Dhoni, for instance, that the time has come for him to step down? They go back a long way, and have been a successful pair, after all.

It was said in a different context, but David Warner’s reaction to the defeat against Kolkata is symbolic: “I want to bite my tongue,” he said, “to stop from saying something harsh.” To whom?

The pressure is on the captains now.

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