Thursday, April 16, 2009

Rajasthan’s royal skipper - Shane Warne

As good as he was with the ball in hand in crunch situations, it was as a captain that Shane Warne turned out to be a game-turner. By far, he was the most perspicacious of the eight IPL captains in the league’s inaugural year. He is, arguably, the best captain Australia never had; or, to be precise, the best captain it chose not to have, writes Nirmal Shekar.

After it was all over, after a team that was written off at the start of the tournament had scripted a fairytale finish worthy of blue-blooded cricketing royalty, when you looked back on it all, the irony was inescapable.

Last year’s inaugural Indian Premier League Twenty20 tournament was a stage made-to-order for strapping young twenty-somethings with over-sized adrenal glands — men such as Yuvraj Singh and Rohit Sharma, to name only two.

What chance of triumph and glory would the merciless actuarial table of T20 cricket have given an ageing troubadour looking forward to his 39th birthday in a competition as frenzied and skill-flattening as the Indian Premier League?

These questions seem obvious until, of course, you come up with the protagonist’s name. Then, suddenly, the pieces fall in place magically and all illogic disappears like morning dew on a clear summer day.

For, rules that apply to ordinary mortals, even the ones that apply to the good and the great, don’t hold good in the case of Shane Warne.

Aged 38, well past his prime and after having retired from international cricket, you’d have thought Warne might have been an expensive misfit in a T20 championship. Yet, this was the man who turned out to be the single most influential figure in the hugely successful first year of the League.

It was a bit like a reluctant Jose Carreras descending on a Hard Rock concert stage and stealing a march over Kid Rock, Metallica and Oasis.

As good as he was with the ball in hand in crunch situations, it was as a captain that Warne turned out to be a game-turner. He is, arguably, the best captain Australia never had; or, to be precise, the best captain it chose not to have.

By far the most perspicacious of the eight IPL captains in the league’s inaugural year, Warne revelled in his role even as his under-rated team, Rajastan Royals, written off as the weakest side in the competition a week into the event, surprised everyone with a string of high-quality performances leading up to a dramatic last-ball victory over Chennai Super Kings in the final.

At $400,000, Warne was by far the best value-for-money player in the competition. But then, the virtues that the great Aussie brings to the field can hardly be represented purely in dollar terms.

There is no putative algorithm for successful leadership, especially in sport, an area of activity that makes room for a wide array of personalities at the top. However, Warne surely possesses a rare mix of attributes that turned him into a genius as a captain. A natural risk taker who backs his instincts, Warne was a hugely inspirational figure, standing on whose shoulders the Royals scaled regal heights.

As in life, in sport too, the best of leaders make things happen instead of waiting for things to happen. And there was no captain quite as pro-active as Warne in the IPL last year.

“Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious and multi-form,” wrote the late David Foster Wallace in Play.

If indeed genius were contagious, everyday reality would be a much more life-enhancing for a lot of us average blokes. But life does offer, from time to time, the illusion that another man’s genius can rub off on us. This is especially so in a cooperative venture like team sport.

Eons before modern civilisation, hundreds of thousands of years before management gurus came up with their mantras and business schools started flourishing, successful alpha males led hunter-gatherer bands through persuasion rather than coercion with ‘collaborative decision-making’ being the norm.

Even in pre-historic times, surely, there is unlikely to have been one successful brand of leadership. For, human personality differences are not exactly a modern phenomenon.

But goal-directed cooperation in the context of modern professional team sports has made way for a fascinating variety of helmsmen, not the least in cricket where the quality of leadership matters so much more than in a sport such as football or hockey. From the imperious Douglas Jardine down to the Socratically wise Mike Brearley and from an awe-inspiring Don Bradman down to a lovable larrikin such as Warne, the game has been able to fit in a range of personalities in leadership roles.

“Broken marriages, conflicts of loyalty, the problems of everyday life fall away as one faces up to (Jeff) Thomson,” wrote Brearley.

Thommo’s lethal pace apart, an English captain may have had to deal with quite a number of other vexing issues in that era. If this is true of almost all captains at all times then the brash new age of Twenty20 cricket — which has robbed on-field decision makers of valuable time — has come to favour the instinctive leaders.

Then again, apart from the speed and quality of Warne’s on-field decision-making, it was what the Aussie genius brought to the Rajasthan Royals’ dressing room that may have made a huge difference in the end.

“You can divide leadership into two aspects,” Brearley said in an interview to The Times (London) a few years ago. “One is telling, ordering even, having a clear idea of what you want and getting people to do it. You might call those masculine qualities.

“And there are the more feminine qualities you might call receptivity. This is consulting people, finding out what they think, their feelings, whether they have different ideas you can learn from.”

Ask any Rajasthan Royals player and he would be willing to swear that Warne blended those two aspects of leadership wonderfully well.

If a leader, as Napoleon said, “is a dealer in hope” then Warne brought hope in lorry loads to the Royals’ camp.

“Some people had branded us underdogs but we had self-belief,” said the charismatic Australian spinner midway through the 2008 tournament.

It was a rare brand of self-belief — instilled in them by their heroic captain — that saw young players such as Ravindra Jadeja, Siddarth Trivedi and Swapnil Asnodkar come up consistently with nerveless displays on the big stage.

“The best part about the IPL is, as well as having four or five different cultures in your team, unearthing some of the young Indian players,” Warne told BBC Sport after last year’s final.

If Warne enjoyed the process of uncovering new talent, then there is little doubt that every one of those young Indians simply adores the great man and will always cherish the days they played alongside one of the game’s greats.

Looking back, it is a bit of an irony that all this celebration of Warne’s imaginative leadership and his ability to inspire youngsters and help them raise their levels should have come after his retirement from the international game.

For, Warne did lead Australia in 11 One-Day Internationals in the late 1990s when Steve Waugh was injured and his team won 10 of those matches. And he might have gone on to lead his country in many more matches but for what the Australian Cricket Board described as “a catalogue of reckless conduct.”

It is a ‘catalogue’ that the Royals’ management is unlikely to take into account as the great man and his boys set out to defend their title in South Africa. For Warne — flawed, sinning, warts and all — may well be irreplaceable.

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