Post the exile of Steve Smith and David Warner from professional cricket in 2018-19, two IPL franchises were in disarray. Rajasthan Royals - re-entering the IPL after a 2-year ban themselves - and Sunrisers Hyderabad; lost their captains and batting anchors.
While both teams were at a loss, a general perception in cricketing circles was that Warner’s absence is bound to hurt a team more than Smith’s. One of the best openers in IPL’s history, Warner had led the team to a title in 2016, playoffs the next year and had bagged the orange cap as well in the process.
Image - Williamson led his team from the front in IPL 2018
The onus then rested on Kiwi skipper Kane Williamson to lead the team in Warner’s absence. Defying all theories, Williamson stepped up with the bat – winning the orange cap- and his leadership helped take the side top of the table to eventually finish with a runner’s-up medal.
Seven times in 12 IPL editions so far, a foreign captain has led his team into the final, five times an Aussie and twice a Kiwi. 432 off the 757 (57%) completed IPL matches have featured one foreign captain at least. These captains, while bringing something new to the table, have to overcome various cultural and psychological barriers to effectively lead the team and leave their mark on the tournament.
Earning a place in the side
Since its inception, finding a place in an IPL side has become increasingly difficult. Improving confidence levels and competitiveness has resulted in a tournament where almost every player has to bring something unique to the table.
For a non-Indian player, the competition is far more intense as there are only four slots in the XI for them. In Williamson’s case, owing to the presence of guns like Warner, Rashid Khan, Trent Boult and Shakib Al Hasan, he played only 15 IPL games in the three editions leading up to the 2018 season – two less than the matches he played in the 2018 season itself.
While leading a side, a foreign player not only has to produce results but also ensure that his contribution through his primary skill does not dwindle. While some have been phenomenal as a player and a captain like Warner in 2016, Williamson in 2018, Shane Warne (leading Rajasthan Royals) in 2008 and Adam Gilchrist (leading the now terminated Deccan Charges) in 2009, others were impactful only with their captaincy like George Bailey (leading Kings XI Punjab) in 2014 and Gilchrist and Warne themselves in later years.
Putting the franchise above their own self, some captains in the past like Ricky Ponting, after starting as a skipper for Mumbai Indians in 2013, dropped himself after the first six games while continuing to lead from the sidelines. Following suit, his Aussie compatriot, Gilchrist too made way after leading KXIP in eight matches in 2013 largely due to team balance and the wealth of batting resources on the bench.
After a terrific season in 2018, Williamson was announced as the man in charge of SRH for the 2019 edition. However, with Warner back and an explosive Jonny Bairstow – bought in the auction ahead of the season - at their disposal, the Kiwi found it tough to find a place in the side and played only nine matches. Unsurprisingly, Warner is back at the helm for the 2020 season.
Team bonding and tactical planning
Ponting played a few games in the first season of the IPL and then focused on his career for Australia until he returned as a leader of MI in 2013, who until then had not won a title. Talking about his initial days at MI, Ponting in his book – ‘At the close of play’ – writes, “I arrived a week before the first game, keen to get on with it. However, a number of players were still elsewhere, completing other commitments, so the squad did not come together until a day or two before our first game. It’s hard to start changing the way an organization goes about its business when the people who make up the group aren’t yet in the building.”
Cricket is a team sport where camaraderie and gregariousness have been key ingredients in all successful teams of the past across formats. Moreover, it is imperative that a captain should get to spend time with his players to identify character and skill that will help him uplift the team’s performance. While it is a challenge for captains and management across franchisee cricket, it is tougher for foreign players who do not get as much time with the local players as Indian captains do. In a lot of editions, like Warne in the first season, a captain comes in just that year through the auction, with no control on his squad selection, and being clueless about a lot of domestic players. He then needs to focus on assessing the player’s ability while trying to get them to gel together as a unit.
When Shane Warner took over as captain of the Royals, he had to prune 50 players - locked in through a ‘Moneyball’ style planning by the owners - to choose a final squad of 16 for the tournament. Perceiving net sessions to be ungainly, Warne divided the squad into four teams, simulating match situations to identify the battle-hardened players. During this process, he was able to recognize players like Ravindra Jadeja and Swapnil Asnodkar that were crucial to their success in the first season. While providing such fair opportunity to all, the Aussie earned the respect of the squad as well, something that helped him ease the cultural differences.
Image - Warne with 'Rockstar' Jadeja after winning the trophy in IPL 2008
Ponting, unlike Warne, was keener on using data-driven analytics that drives individual assessment of match-ups and strategic selection of teams. “I wanted to know every bit of detail on every batsman in the IPL and the team had access to a databank that was even more complex than what I had used as captain of the Australian team”, Ponting said.
Others thwarted the challenge in their own way. Gilchrist advised the team to flow under the radar in the 2009 season while motivating them collectively to pointed messages like – “Guys, we're all in it together and yeah, we're all going to enjoy this together."
As for Williamson, Simon Helmot, SRH’s assistant coach noticed the calm Kiwi skipper to have different players beside him in the team bus at different times, getting to know the team better and understanding them.
After putting forward his final 16, Warne faced pressure from his owner for one player. Impressed by his stats that led to his inclusion in the 50, the owner asked Warne to rethink his decision not to include him and at least keep him with the squad as a supernumerary. Warne, keen on setting the right example, did not give in and even threatened (only as a bluff) to quit. Having assessed his players through choices under pressure, hype, karma, match awareness, anticipation and expectations, Warne did not want to ruin the trust through a perceived act of hidden favouritism.
In a league like the IPL, it is understandable for new captains to not get enough breathing room from the owners, who are looking for quick results. While a foreign captain has lesser opportunities to build the trust of the team owners, he also has to ensure that he gets along well with the senior Indian players who are closer to the other Indian players in the squad.
“We realized that the senior Indians expected preferential treatment and the youngsters were treated like, you know, pick up my bag! So I figured I had to gain the respect of the whole squad of 50 by quickly laying down exactly the same ground rules for everyone.” Warne mentions in his autobiography – ‘No spin’. Talking specifically about an ex-Indian player who wanted a bigger room than others, Warne recalls informing him that the facilities are going to be the same for everyone. While setting a common ground for everyone, Warne did nurture his ego in some other way for the team’s cause. As an Indian ‘name’ the other guys looked up to, Warne made him feel involved in the leadership by asking him about other players and their perception about the captain and support staff.
Gilchrist too attributed the team's turnaround in the 2009 season to factors including the role of the owners who agreed to his requests for some changes in personnel. Gilchrist also brought Australian fielding coach Mike Young and fitness trainer Steve Smith on board.
As for managing Indian players, the Australian wicketkeeper got lucky that VVS Laxman, even after having captaincy taken away from him after a poor first season and eventually losing his place in the side midway through the 2009 season, took it upon himself to mentor the Indian youngsters in the team and thus did not allow a potential headache for the newly appointed captain. “VVS epitomizes what this franchise is all about", Gilchrist mentioned after the winning the title.
Image - Gilchrist with his arms around India's present and future legends
With 46% wins as compared to 52% for their Indian counterparts, foreign captains have been largely successful in the IPL so far. While franchises are keen on building their Indian strength, key players like Warner, Williamson, Steve Smith and even Eoin Morgan might find themselves in leadership roles in future seasons as well. When they do, the viewers and the owners need to understand the challenges they face and thus weigh their success through a different scale.