Saturday, November 15, 2008

On Ganguly's Legacy and the "Great Man" theory of Leadership

Saurav Ganguly's retirement from international cricket spawned many finely written tributes, most of which emphasized his role as a Lutheran figure who transformed Indian cricketers from a bunch of designer track bullies to the world's second best team. Apparently it was he more than anybody else who made the Indian team believe that it could win abroad on a regular basis.

These claims are backed by facts that are very impressive on the surface. 15 of India's 31 overseas test triumphs have been in this decade. Writers who subscribe to the "Great Man" theory of Leadership believe that great leaders arise when there is a great need. The emergence of the leader in Ganguly happened at a time when Indian cricket was at its lowest ebb what with the 3-0 loss to Steve Waugh's Australia and the implication of certain players in the match fixing controversy. Since Ganguly's appointment as captain coincided with the reversal of India's abysmal cricketing fortunes, the "Great Man" theory dictates that he be hailed as a "great" captain. Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

A closer examination of Indian cricket history reveals that the "Great Man" theory exaggerates Ganguly's legacy a great deal. It was just over two decades ago that the Indian cricket team was a fairly formidable force both at home and abroad. In a span of 10 months in 1985-86, India won three overseas test series against SriLanka, Australia and England rather comfortably. At that point India was probably the second best team in the world after West Indies. The key to their success was balance. A great opener in Sunil Gavaskar, a strong middle order with Vengsarkar, Amarnath and Azharuddin, a hard hitting allrounder in Kapil Dev and a very well balanced bowling attack led by Kapil again. Things began to fall apart in the late eighties with the retirements of most of the stalwarts in this team. By the early nineties, only Azhar remained and the batting replacements for the rest simply weren't good enough, with the sole glorious exception of Tendulkar.

So, between 1989 and 1996, the Indian side was a very indifferent one, heavily reliant on one man Sachin Tendulkar to put the runs on the board everytime it toured abroad. No wonder we won zilch outside the subcontinent during that period. 1996 was a transformational year. Three very good batsmen debuted for India that year - Dravid, Ganguly and Laxman. They filled a gap that had remained ever since the retirements of the batting bulwarks in the eighties. Indian performances outside the subcontinent improved remarkably from that year onwards.

Now, the natural question would be - why did the Indian team win so little abroad between 1996 and 1999 despite the much improved batting order? Why didn't we start winning until Ganguly took over captaincy? I attribute that mainly to chance more than anything else. We should have won in England in 1996 when we were clearly the better side after the first test loss (Dravid and Ganguly did not play in the first test). We were up against a very strong SA side in 1996 (possibly the best eleven South Africa ever assembled since its return post apartheid) and yet we nearly managed to win the third test at Johannesburg. We were very unlucky with the umpiring decisions in Australia in 1999. The series was nowhere near as one-sided as the 3-0 scorecard suggests.

Now, let's examine Indian overseas results after Ganguly took over captaincy. 7 of the 15 wins overseas since 2000 have been against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. The Indian team of the mid/late nineties didn't get to play that many games against these teams. 2 more wins have been versus Pakistan, a country we didn't visit during the nineties. The series draw in Australia in 2003-04 was against an Australian team in transition, with McGrath and Warne injured. And we lost series in West Indies, Srilanka and South Africa with Ganguly at the helm.

So, it's quite clear that the "Great Man" theorists have got it wrong here. Yes, we are performing better overseas than we used to. But the seed of this improvement was planted in 1996 and not in 2000.

Moving away from cricket, we find "Great Man" theorists at work everywhere. Alan Greenspan is often hailed as the greatest of all central bankers on the basis of the remarkable performance of the American economy during the eighties and nineties. What's often overlooked is that Greenspan's period at the helm was also marked by the personal computer revolution and the internet which drastically improved the productivity of the American economy and helped rein in inflation. Funnily, Greenspan gets the credit for what was largely the handiwork of the impersonal force of technology.

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