Weekly sports newsletter: skipper of KL Rahul India, captain of Hardik Pandya IPL… What?

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“The captaincy,” said the late Richie Benaud, “is 90% luck and 10% skill… but don’t try without that 10%.” Unfortunately, what was once the undisputed truth has failed the test of time. The rapid corporatization of cricket and the overwhelming influence of franchise-based T20 leagues on the gaming ecosystem has forced a rewrite. “Captain” is now “90% marketing and 10% luck…and you can try it even without 10% of the skill”.

Once again, the Indian Premier League is the standard bearer for this significant change that cricket could have done without. Both organically and ominously, this IPL trend has been widespread, it has also infiltrated the national team.

In the coming week, India will start a full international series, 3 ODIs against South Africa, under KL Rahul, who before taking flight for this current tour had only led one first leg class. In Johannesburg during the second test, Rahul, for only the second time in his life, was in charge of men in white cricket. With captain Virat Kohli signaling a dodgy comeback on the morning of the match, India’s reins were in the unknown hands of the newly promoted vice-captain. It would be unfair to blame the young substitute for the defeat, but there were rumors about India’s lack of intensity and ideas when South African skipper Dean Elgar protected everything the Indian bowlers threw at him spear.

Rahul is a premium product of the Indian cricket system which appreciated and recognized his batting skills but did not view him as a leader. He was a regular for the Karnataka team, a U19 India World Cupper, an India A old hand but no selector or coach he played under the shades of Brearely in him. In case they did, Rahul by now would be used to wearing the captain’s armband.

Finally, it was the perpetually struggling Punjab Kings, the IPL team that saw 10 captains and 9 coaches in 14 seasons, who saw him as a leader. It didn’t come as a surprise. Franchise teams aren’t known for sitting with the Art of Captaincy book when looking for captains. Team owners regularly refer to the process of selecting their next captain as a search to find the “face of the team”. It’s their polite way of conveying that in T20 cricket, the brain bank might just be housed in the dugout. You can always hire a bench full of ex-captains and offload the captain by outsourcing team tactics and composition.

Marketing happens to be the crucial factor for IPL teams when finalizing their major purchases. Thus, Rahul’s old captaincy records were not considered when the Punjab Kings sat down to decide their pack leader. He was a Team India regular, an all-format batsman, had pan-Indian fans and an intimidating social media presence. He ticked all the mandatory boxes and a few more to be IPL captain. He was also part of the film circuit. Rahul was, what marketing suits love to say, an icon of youth.

So, was his rise to a position of responsibility in the Indian team due to the results he gave with the Punjab Kings? It is not possible. During his two-year stint with the Punjab franchise, Rahul hasn’t quite transformed his team. His team won only 40% of games and finished 6th in the 8-team competition under Rahul’s reign in 2020 and 2021.

Those two unforgettable seasons as captain of the underachieving Punjab Kings saw no downfall in Rahul’s stock. Once word got out that the young cricketer with several big name brands under his belt was set to switch sides for the 2022 IPL season which featured 10 teams and two new owners with deep pockets, the market was buzzing. Will he go to Lucknow or Ahmedabad? Both franchises were ready with a checkbook in one hand and a pen in the other.

That was until reports surfaced that Ahmedabad had decided to sign unfulfilled Mumbai Indians star Hardik Pandya as captain. Benaud’s rewrite was so true. Hardik and Rahul, who once sadly sat on the same couch for a popular TV show, have a lot in common. Unquestionably talented, they have the skills to be among the best in the world. They are proven game changers with a great game temperament.

However, Hardik, like Rahul, was never a captain. He’s not even his family’s first-choice captain. When Hardik was India’s all-format star, with a hundred Tests and a worldwide reputation as an enforcer with bat and ball in cricket cricket, it was his brother Krunal who ran Baroda. During his long stint with the Mumbai Indians, Hardik was never projected as captain-in-waiting.

These virtually non-existent leadership credentials like Rahul and Hardik didn’t stop the IPL team owners from attacking them. But it’s credit that IPL’s business runs on. It’s a relegation-free league, with fixed salary caps and a guaranteed exponential increase in the team’s annual TV revenue. In the IPL economy, having a sellable star in the tent is non-negotiable. If you win, that’s good, but losing is also not a calamity. This is a league where Virat Kohli can go without a title for 8 years even with AB de Villiers and Chris Gayle at his side. RCB has always had stars who could fill the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore and companies lining up to be associated with their iconic players. The trophy cabinet was empty but not the chests.

Fortunately, it is not the same in Indian cricket yet. And that’s why Rahul’s rise up the ladder as India’s official No. 2 in all three formats without even a whisper of protest from fans or pundits, is baffling. Minds following cricket’s busy schedule are so mixed and the glow of the IPL is so blinding that the cricket keeper forgot to raise the red flag.

With both captains – Rohit Sharma more than Virat Kohli – aging and injury-prone, the vice-captain could find himself in the hot seat in crucial matches. It could be a crucial WTC, World T20 or World Cup game. Does Rahul have it in him to lead India? The jury is out and looking around clueless. There is no data to emphatically answer this question. India did take a leap of faith with Rahul.

So far in South Africa, he has not shone as a leader. He excelled as a batsman in the first test, but that was never in doubt. In the second test he showed no spark as a skipper and in the third the stump microphone caught him saying something completely incongruous. With Kohli expressing his displeasure over the host broadcaster’s alleged bias against the visiting team, Rahul, with an inscrutable remark, took the issue to the highest possible level. “The whole country is playing against 11 guys,” he says. The whole country?

Meanwhile, South Africa, a nation where cricket isn’t even the most popular sport, was actually busy controlling the virus and tracking updates on embezzlement from a former popular president.

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Sandeep Dwivedi

National Sports Editor

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