Why a captain’s backing is important for bowlers

Bowlers, more than batsmen, need their leader’s support to be effective and reach personal goals

Ravichandran Ashwin takes the wicket of Ross Taylor during the second Test match between India and New Zealand in Kolkata. Photo: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP
Ravichandran Ashwin takes the wicket of Ross Taylor during the second Test match between India and New Zealand in Kolkata. Photo: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP

Stuart Binny has played just six Test matches and Amit Mishra 20, but both must have realized that to have a successful career as a bowler, one always needs to be backed strongly by the captain.

In his debut Test at Nottingham in England in 2014, Binny bowled his first over (the 16th of the innings) and conceded one run but was called again for his next over when the England innings was into its 40th over.

In three Test matches under Mahendra Singh Dhoni on that tour, Binny bowled 32 overs, while Virat Kohli used him for 40 overs in two Test matches in Sri Lanka in 2015. In fact, Kohli also chose Binny ahead of Varun Aaron for the new ball against South Africa the same year in Bengaluru.

“In my time, Ravi Shastri’s career was a classic example (he benefited immensely from a captain’s backing). Sunil Gavaskar picked him for the New Zealand tour (1981) and after a couple of years, he was opening the innings against Pakistan,” says former left-arm spinner Maninder Singh.

Many experts say a bowler’s performance varies with the captain. The home records of two of India’s most potent spinners, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, under Dhoni and Kohli are almost the same—but they are very different abroad. 

While Ashwin always looked slightly negative even in India under Dhoni, he appears a more attacking bowler under Kohli thanks to the field placements by the two captains. “Look at how Dhoni used Ashwin during the last IPL (Indian Premier League. Ashwin didn't bowl in all the matches and in some, was introduced as late as the 16th over). I remember Ashwin saying, during an away tour, that his job was to contain runs,” says Maninder Singh, suggesting that Ashwin’s poor overseas record was also due to Dhoni’s captaincy. 

Praveen Kumar, who has also played six Test matches , would share this sentiment. In fact, “PK” always rues the fact that despite performing well (27 wickets at an average of 25.81), he was never given a second chance.

Narendra Hirwani, who played more matches abroad than at home in his 17-Test career, may have the same regret of not having a captain who could believe enough in him.

While Harbhajan Singh’s career took a gigantic leap forward because of Sourav Ganguly’s trust in him, even the likes of Sunil Joshi (15 Test matches) and Venkatapathy Raju (28 Test matches) went on to play a significant number of matches for India because they had captains who supported them despite moderate returns.

Unlike batsmen, who are not dependent on their captains for personal milestones like hundreds and double hundreds (Sachin Tendulkar might disagree here—skipper Rahul Dravid declared the innings in Multan in 2004 with the batsman unbeaten on 194), bowlers often need the captain’s help.

“You will rarely see a bowler getting all five wickets of a top order. You need tail-enders to get a five-wicket haul and this is decided by captains only,” says former India opener and cricket commentator Aakash Chopra.

While it’s essential for a bowler to have his captain’s backing, a captain’s top priority is always to win matches. He needs to be selfish, for himself and his team, so the relationship with a bowler is often symbiotic.

“A captain is often judged by his ability to handle a bowling attack and get the best out of his resources,” says former New Zealand captain and ex-India coach John Wright.

No captain can afford to jeopardize results even if he hates his strike bowler. Two of Pakistan’s greatest fast bowlers, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, barely spoke to each other during their playing time but their performance rarely deteriorated under each other’s leadership.

“The captain-bowler relationship is dynamic in cricket. You are supposed to play a variety of roles for your captain depending on the nature of the surface, match situation and other factors,” argues Wright.

There have been occasions when a captain has tried to convey to the selectors that he was not happy with a particular selection (wicketkeeper Dhoni bowled himself ahead of all-rounder Abhishek Nayar in a Champions Trophy game in 2009) and treated the bowler indifferently. Some critics argue that Murali Kartik’s career never took off because of Ganguly’s lack of faith in left-arm spin, though he had the luxury of Anil Kumble and Harbhajan at their peak at the time.

Ultimately, it is the captain’s prerogative to set a particular kind of field for each bowler. It is he who decides which bowler takes the new ball, who should bowl with and against the wind, and who should get a longer spell or a shorter burst. “Sometimes it may look tough on a particular bowler but he needs to be positive all the time as he may not be aware of the logic behind all the decisions made by a captain,” says Wright.

Amit Mishra.
Amit Mishra.

In almost eight years, leg-spinner Mishra has played just 20 Test matches with a reasonable tally of 71 wickets—an example of a bowler without a captain’s backing.

Former England captain Mike Brearley puts it in perspective in his seminal book The Art Of Captaincy: “A captain is more likely to bring the best out of a player if he believes in that player. Naturally, he will not feel the same confidence in all his players. However, I think that the team members are entitled to expect from the captain a respect for their ability, and, even more, a respect and consideration for them as people. Much of what follows stems from this fact.”

Vimal Kumar is the author of Sachin: Cricketer Of The Century and The Cricket Fanatic’s Essential Guide.

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