David Warner is a cricket comet that streaks across the IPL system every year – in his 12 annual visits (and 148 games) the T20 legend has smashed 50 half centuries, more than anyone else.
Yet his bright run was snapped when SRH stripped him of captaincy and dropped him from the eleven. The decision of the team management (Tom Moody, Trevor Bayliss, VVS Laxman, Muttiah Muralitharan, Brad Haddin) apparently left Warner “shocked and disappointed”.
Considering the unfolding dynamics of power within the IPL, a sudden purge of this nature is not surprising. The IPL demolished cricket’s traditional power structure when team owners replaced the “Board” and high profile ex legends were appointed in key positions.
This reduced the captain’s role and this season we saw them getting marginalized, clear evidence of a shift in the traditional power structure. One glaring example was Ricky Ponting handing Rishabh Pant a public dressing down instead of having a quiet word with him in the dressing room after a defeat.
Ponting’s rebuke confirms a home truth of T20 cricket: as the game shrinks so does the role of the captain. No more the boss, he is pushed into a corner and his mandate is limited to ‘execute’ plans decided by the all powerful coach, the master strategist and defecto leader.
In a silent back room coup, the coach assumes power specially when teams have young, inexperienced captains like Delhi Capitals and Rajasthan Royals do. The situation in other teams is not as stark but the trend – of powerful coaches overshadowing the captain – is evident in the IPL.
If captains are forced to cede territory there is a reason. T20s, unlike Tests, consist of a set of predictable passages of play. The game unfolds to a pattern of power plays, middle overs and the death. The coaching unit breaks down each segment and plans are made for specific situations in advance.
The space for on-field decisions decreases as teams have set roles for players: there is clarity about powerplay and death bowling, and the finishers know when to swing their bats. Teams go into T20 cricket with pre-cooked, well rehearsed plans.
In this, data plays a crucial role: the captain is told what to do based on a massive amount of ball-by-ball analysis. Bowling changes and field placements are dictated by experts who discover trends and patterns. It is data that creates interesting ‘matchups’, one on one contests between players. If Suresh Raina is in the middle, the opposition fast bowler will run in and bowl short.
But questions arise over data driven decision making. Isn’t it better, non believers ask, if players are allowed to express themselves freely and allowed to play with an uncluttered mind? According to them data should only make suggestions but not lay down strategy.
Regardless of how this plays out, the T20 captain is under fire from two sides. Pre-match preparation is data dominated and during play the dugout plays a prominent role. The coaches can also impose their will during the two strategic time outs.
Earlier the captain was the C in C, the man in control. Now he is one in a crowded control room, sharing space with coaches and computers. But while this is the general trend, there are two instances where this does not hold.
At RCB, King Kohli is the supreme leader who no coach or data analyst will mess with. Then there is CSK where Thala MSD’s writ runs large. In both franchises, the captain is the old fashioned autocratic boss who runs the team and the coach is the 12th man.