File image: Indian captain Ajinkya Rahane (right) gestures as he talks with umpire Bruce Oxenford during play on day two of the fourth Test between India and Australia at the Gabba, Brisbane in Australia on January 16, 2021. (Image: AP Photo/Tertius Pickard)
Even as strong man Donald Trump was demitting office as President of the United States, in distant Australia, Team India was playing out a perfect symphony of collective leadership. Trump’s superman role didn’t last long and ended in ignominy. By contrast, the Indian cricket team, after losing its captain and most charismatic player, battled injuries, hostile conditions and the world’s best opposition, to emerge deserving winners of the series.
Somewhere there’s a leadership lesson for the world, one not restricted to the sporting arena, but even more relevant to the spheres of politics and business. Parsing the success of the Ajinkya Rahane-led team, what is most striking is how each man pulled his weight. Simple as it sounds, that underlying philosophy became the team’s biggest strength.
When there is no super boss looking over your shoulder, people tend to take their responsibility more seriously. Thus, on the night of the fourth day of the third test, R Ashwin was already rehearsing how he would need to bat to save the test. By the time he dragged his pain-wracked body to the pitch next afternoon, he had already worked on this very eventuality and also the process he would employ to take the team to safety.
The new leadership style came from the top. Stand-in captain Rahane was handed a lemon: a team that had just been bowled out for its lowest ever score, was going to be missing a world class batsman and an outstanding fielder, and had its frontline fast bowlers rendered hors de combat. Rahane didn’t dwell on these losses nor sought any concessions for them. First up, he went out and showed the stuff he’s made of.
The century in his first innings as new captain was significant not just for the runs and its contribution to India’s win, but also for how it helped him stamp his authority on the game. The Australians knew they were in for a scrap and his teammates knew they were up for the challenge. But at the close of his century, Rahane went one better. Responding to his partner Ravindra Jadeja's call for a quick single, the captain fell marginally short of his crease and was run out when in full flow. It was a tricky moment. In the past, words and bats have been flung for such misdemeanours involving captains.
Rahane though, is made of different material.
Before departing he turned and patted Jadeja urging him to continue his own innings. Again, on the fourth day of the third test when pacer Mohammed Siraj was heckled and abused by a section of the crowd, the team huddled in the centre with the umpires. All the while Rahane had his arm around the young pacer’s shoulders. The message was clear: we are in this together. Even at the end, after the series had been won and the team was taking a lap of honour around the Gabba, Rahane let Rishabh Pant, Shubman Gill and the others hog the limelight.
You would give your life for such a leader. As the tour proceeded that’s what Ashwin, Hanuma Vihari, Cheteshwar Pujara, Mohammed Siraj, and all the others did at various moments of the series. Champions all, they also emerged as leaders in their own right.
As a consequence, throughout those three test matches the team remained remarkably calm, not letting the opposition or even the off-field events get under its skin. There was no snarling or screaming. Just a quiet determination to get the job done. A wicket wasn’t an opportunity to let out a wild roar nor a batting milestone a moment to celebrate overly. The focus was on the result of the game, and it is almost as if each member, young and old, recognised that.
What we’ve seen this past month has all the ingredients of what is termed collective leadership: a common vision pursued by a group of people who work in unison towards the shared goal. It isn’t about a leader and followers, but about different people taking the lead at varying stages based on their strengths. In the last innings of the series we saw young Siraj, all of three tests old, taking on the responsibility of helming the inexperienced bowling attack. In those final climactic moments when the series hung in the balance, young Pant, for long treated as the baby of the team, put his hand up to guide the team to an unbelievable win.
The pandemic provides us with the kick in the pants we needed to reassess our notions of leadership. The neighbourhood bully and the supreme leader are actually two sides of the same coin. They exist for themselves. Even the resident genius is limited as a leader by the sheer scale of their own abilities. None of them is best suited to lead teams or institutions. After all neither Don Bradman for Australia nor Sachin Tendulkar for India were the countries’ best captains.