Mohammed Azharuddin vs Sourav Ganguly vs MS Dhoni - Who is India's best captain in recent times?
After leading the Indian cricket team to yet another overseas defeat, questions have once again started to arise whether Mahendra Singh Dhoni is indeed India's best captain or not. With India down 1-2 in the ongoing series versus England and facing yet another humiliation, experts debate whether Dhoni can be termed the most successful Indian captain in recent times beating Sourav Ganguly and Mohammed Azharuddin for the honour.
Azharuddin starts a new trend
Former India captain Azharuddin must be mighty pleased after former Australian skipper Ricky Ponting called him one of India's best captains. The third most successful Indian Test captain, after Dhoni and Ganguly, the former Hyderabad batsman had captaincy thrust upon him in 1989 of a team which boasted of much senior players like Kapil Dev, Ravi Shastri and Manoj Prabhakar. Results were along expected lines - he could force only one win in his first 17 tests.
The next 4 years saw his team whitewash England and Sri Lanka before a disastrous campaign in England in 1996 led to his removal.
He got back his captaincy before the losses to Zimbabwe and New Zealand took their toil. However more than the losses, this phase is best remembered for his 2-1 win against a mighty Australian side led by Mar Taylor and Ponting thinks this series "changed the complexion of Indian cricket. The players who hadn't been regarded as strong contenders suddenly showed what they are capable of."
2000 saw Indian cricket embroiled in a match-fixing controversy, and Azhar was forced to retire after 99 Tests and with a win percentage of 29.79 in 47 matches (winning 14 and losing 14) as captain. He became India's most successful skipper until then. He brought together individuals and made them into a unit. Under him youngsters like Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and Anil Kumble blossomed into fine cricketers - the same players who would be responsible to take Indian cricket to newer heights after the turn of the millennium.
Ganguly’s contribution and winning away from home
It was at this time, Ganguly was handed the captaincy. The match-fixing controversy took centre stage rather than the on-field heroics of the players. He had his task cut out as he had to rebuild a team or else see Indian cricket plunge to darkness. He took this as an opportunity, centred the team around senior players and along with some excellent youngsters started churning out some unforgettable performances.
By defeating the world champions at home in 2001, drawing overseas series against England and Australia, and defeating Pakistan in their home turf after 50 years, Ganguly was creating a habit - the winning habit. Indian cricket was on a rapid rise and it can be said that it was the only team that were capable of showing some fight against the powerful Aussies.
Before he was handed the captaincy, India's record on foreign shores was dismal to say the least. Azhar tried changing this unfortunate reality, but it is under Dada, as he is fondly called, that the team really flourished abroad. 18 of the 28 tests he captained abroad were either drawn or wins. By doing this, he helped the Indians conquer their biggest demon yet.
By supporting youngsters like Dhoni,Yuvraj Singh, Zaheer Khan, Virender Sehwag and Harbhajan Singh he was laying the foundation for bigger feats. Until the 90s, winning consistently in Tests wasn't much on the radar, but his 21 triumphs, which saw him surpass Azhar, transformed the mindset of the players. If not for his unceremonious sacking by then coach Greg Chappell, Indian cricket under him without a doubt would have climbed higher peaks.
Dhoni carries forward the baton
Although Dravid and Kumble succeeded Ganguly, Dhoni is regarded as his successor as the two Bangaloreans were at the helm for a smaller period of time. After winning the 2007 t20 World Cup and notching up 4 consecutive Test match wins, much was expected of this man from Ranchi. He had to follow a rich legacy and initially he did not disappoint.
However, the humiliations received in England and Australia in 2011, where he lost 8 matches on the trot, changed all those perceptions. Under him, India have suffered 4 successive Test series defeats abroad, losing to South Africa and New Zealand early this year. The win at Lords in the ongoing series was only India's first win ashore in 16 Tests and questions have started to rise whether Dhoni, who beat Ganguly’s record of 21 Test wins is indeed as good as the records suggest.
The misleading records
Records are just that - "mere records". They do not convey the true performances of the team under the captaincy of Dhoni. From the 27 matches he has captained abroad he has won only 6 - two of which came against Bangladesh and West Indies; contrasted that to Ganguly’s 11 wins on foreign soil. A majority of the current Indian captain’s wins are at home where he has notched up a whopping 21 victories in 30 games. If Ganguly had to play most of his matches in the subcontinent then it is without doubt his records would have been higher.
Dhoni also has the unique distinction of being India’s worst Test captain overseas, losing as many as 13 games in 25 games. Under Azhar and Ganguly, the team did not lose 8 matches on the trot - what makes it worse is that the debacle came after winning the World Cup at home earlier in 2011. It's argued that if the Bengal Tiger too would have won the Cup if they were playing in familiar conditions rather than the bouncy wickets of South Africa, where he guided them to the finals.
However under them, India never achieved the number 1 ranking. Although they did consistently put up a fight, they faltered often. The question then of who is the best skipper will continue for a long time.
Leading from the front
A captain is best known for the way he handles pressure and leads his troops when the group is down. A look at the Jharkhand cricketer’s overseas performances reveals a clearer picture. Both the former captains are way above him when it comes to batting with Azhar scoring 5 centuries and Dada averaging 43.41. MSD is yet to score a hundred abroad while averaging 33.44.
Another point worth mentioning is that when the ex-captains played abroad, the pitches were bouncier and more challenging than it is today. A study of the pitches today would show how they have slowed down over the years, thus making their contributions more memorable.
Unfair to compare
All said and done, it is unfair to compare the captains of 3 different eras. Azhar started the trend by winning the Hero Cup in Australia and reaching the semis of the 1996 World Cup. It was under Ganguly however where the team became fearless when it came to competing against higher ranked teams. The passion and desire to win was displayed everytime his boys took the field. A case in point is when he took off his shirt after the NatWest series triumph, which was an outbreak of the pent up emotions which came to the fore after winning possibly one of the toughest matches when no one gave them a chance.
Dhoni in that respect has had the going easier. He inherited a team which knew how to compete and who wouldn't think twice before giving a piece of their mind to the opposition. The 2011 World Cup winning captain will leave behind a legacy which he can be proud of. Under him, India has won two World Cups, the Champions Trophy and the Test Mace and his contributions can in no way be ignored.
Azhar tried his best to change the fortunes of Indian cricket; Ganguly became the best captain of India and Dhoni is the captain of the best Indian team - the jury is still out on this verdict - whoever said cricket was a simple game?