IPL 2022: Pressure of captaincy takes a toll on Indian stars

Some thrive as leaders. Others appear to capitulate under the burden, writes Sumit Chakraberty

By Sumit Chakraberty

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The burden of captaincy seems to have affected the performance of Punjab Kings skipper Mayank Agarwal (left). (BCCI)
The burden of captaincy seems to have affected the performance of Punjab Kings skipper Mayank Agarwal (left). (BCCI)

Published: Mon 9 May 2022, 6:19 PM

The Indian Premier League has not only uncovered and developed batting and bowling resources, but also given an opportunity to fulfill leadership potential. Rohit Sharma became the captain of India in all formats after leading Mumbai Indians to five IPL titles since taking over its captaincy in 2013. One would never have known the astuteness of former India opener Gautam Gambhir as a leader if not for the two IPL titles he won during his stint at the helm of Kolkata Knight Riders.

But the pressure of captaincy in such a highly competitive league, where every mistake is magnified, have also taken a toll on the performance of a number of Indian stars.

India all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja caved in under the weight of expectations after taking the baton from the redoubtable MS Dhoni, winner of four titles for Chennai Super Kings. You might have thought Jadeja would find it easier to lead the side, with guidance from Dhoni behind the stumps. But spoon-feeding doesn’t work for a leader, who has to learn to rely on his own judgment and instincts for a myriad of decisions on and off the field, and take responsibility for them.

Jadeja had a disastrous start with four losses in a row. Blunting of CSK’s bowling edge because of injured opening bowler Deepak Chahar’s unavailability and poor luck with the toss didn’t help. But Jadeja’s captaincy was also to blame, exemplified starkly by his choice of part-timer Shivam Dube to bowl the 19th over in the second game against Lucknow Super Giants (LSG). That 25-run over helped LSG overtake CSK’s tall total of 210.

Tellingly, a gun fielder like Jadeja spilling easy catches and his poor show with bat and ball after outstanding performances for India just before the IPL season revealed his mental state. After six losses from eight games, he made the brave call to hand the baton back to his mentor, and CSK won two out of the next three games with the unflappable MSD in charge again. Jadeja may well return as a better captain in the next season after stepping away and thinking deeper about the role. But for now, this gives him the best chance to regain his form and characteristic joie de vivre.

Another player whose performance has fallen off a cliff after becoming an IPL captain is India opener Mayank Agarwal. After playing second fiddle to his Karnataka mate KL Rahul in previous seasons, Agarwal took over the captaincy of Punjab Kings this year. His brief was to pull PBKS out of the bottom half of the table where they had languished for seven seasons in a row. Coach Anil Kumble, the former India leg-spinner who also hails from Karnataka, had apparently decided the way forward was to adopt a more attacking approach, taking a cue from the success of Eoin Morgan with similar tactics for England.

It meant Agarwal had to set an example with a willingness to raise the risk level as an opener in the powerplay. This has had a dire effect on his batting which was one of the mainstays for PBKS. He averaged 40 with a strike rate of 140 in the last season. In 2020, it was even better with a strike rate of 156 and an average of 38.5, which is as good as it gets.

This season, his average has dropped below 20, at a poor strike rate of 127.5 to boot. He appears caught between playing smart cricket, according to the situation, and being overtly aggressive.

PBKS had mixed results with the new approach, tallying six losses in 11 games. It didn’t help that a game which was in the bag slipped out when Rahul Tewatia of Gujarat Titans smacked newbie Odean Smith for sixes in the last two balls of the match.

Agarwal’s friend Rahul, on the other hand, has had a reversal of fortunes in the other direction. He had a horrendous run as a captain for Punjab Kings and then for India in a Test and three ODIs in South Africa. Those setbacks appear to have taught him good lessons because he has now led LSG to the top of the IPL table, helped no doubt by the presence of the canny Gambhir in his corner as an advisor.

As for his own performance, Rahul has been a prolific scorer in every season since 2018. Captaincy did make him over-cautious though, causing his strike rate to go below 140 in the last two seasons for Punjab.

But at LSG, it has climbed back to 145, while maintaining a batting average of 50. He’s now leading from the front as an opener as well as a captain thinking on his feet with aggressive tactics on the field. That augurs well for his role as vice-captain of India with the possibility of becoming the captain after Rohit’s tenure.

A new captain who has taken to it like a fish to water is Hardik Pandya, captain of another new franchise, Gujarat Titans. He had a forgettable season last year after his return from a long injury layoff, averaging 14 at a strike rate of 113 as a specialist batsman, because he wasn’t yet ready to resume bowling. That might have prompted MI to let him go.

This year for GT, however, his fitness and form appear to have revived. He is averaging 42 at an acceptable strike rate of 134 in his new role of batting up the order. He had a decent run with the ball too until a groin strain forced him to revert to being a pure batsman. His captaincy was spot on, which took GT to the top of the table.

But then Pandya appeared to get ahead of himself by opting to bat first in a day-night game despite the likelihood of dew, because “we wanted to make sure that we put our batters under pressure.” Well, GT’s batting failed and they lost the next game too, allowing LSG to take pole position in the table. Pandya is learning the hard way that it’s unwise to fiddle with momentum.

Two young captains who tasted early success in previous seasons but have gone into a decline are Rishabh Pant and Shreyas Iyer. Both of them got opportunities to captain Delhi Capitals, thanks to coach Ricky Ponting, the former Aussie captain who was also instrumental in Rohit getting the captaincy of Mumbai Indians earlier. Iyer took DC to the final in 2020, but got injured and replaced by Pant last year, who also had immediate success as DC became the table-topper.

This year Iyer moved to KKR after DC chose to retain Pant as captain. KKR are in the bottom half of the table as a string of losses followed early wins. Team selection has floundered with an abysmally out-of-form Aaron Finch opening the innings while his compatriot from Australia, Pat Cummins, can’t find a regular place in the playing eleven despite being the world’s No.1 Test bowler. Iyer’s own form with the bat has been middling as fast bowlers have targeted his vulnerability to the short ball.

Meanwhile, at DC, Pant is yet to play a match-winning innings of note this season, despite several promising cameos. This has contributed to DC’s diminishing chances of making it to the playoffs. Both Pant and Iyer may be better off concentrating on their batting which will be crucial for India’s prospects in the upcoming T20 and ODI World Cups. Time will tell if captaincy helps or hinders the progress of these young Indian stars.

Sanju Samson of RR is another one juggling between his roles of captain and batsman. He has mostly maintained a high strike rate this season but got out to ill-chosen shots too often after getting a start. That might impact his prospects of playing for India in the World Cup later this year. But his selfless batting has helped RR who are in the top half of the IPL table, thanks to having both the IPL 2022 top scorer, Jos Buttler, and top wicket-taker, Yuzvendra Chahal, in the team.

It’s a moot point how IPL captaincy affects the performance of players. Some thrive as leading others helps them think about how to improve their own game. Others appear to capitulate under the burden. It depends on an individual’s mental model.

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru. Write to him at chakraberty@gmail.com

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