Down the years, teams that have won the IPL have had successful captains. Shane Warne, MS Dhoni, Gautam Gambhir, Rohit Sharma, to name a few, shaped their sides into match-winning units with their leadership.
The IPL is considered the world’s best T20 tournament because of the high quality of talent overall and the intense competition for spots. Captains have the challenge of not just formulating tactics but also building a unified group from a pool of 20-plus players who comprise Indian and overseas stars and young, uncapped newcomers. Their ability to bring the best out of a diverse group of players in tight match situations is what has earned Warne, Dhoni and Rohit the tag of great IPL captains.
We take a look at seven of the eight captains in this year’s IPL and their styles. (KL Rahul, the Kings XI Punjab captain, is not included because he has never led before in the IPL and has captained in only one senior level match.)
Dhoni owes much of his reputation as arguably the best T20 captain in the world to the Super Kings franchise, which bought him in the first IPL auction. Since then Dhoni has grown to become the final voice on cricket at the franchise, above even N Srinivasan, the owner. The Super Kings have made the playoffs every season, won the IPL three times, played eight finals and remained the most consistent team in the league.
Man-management skills Dhoni possesses the ability to rally his players to adapt to his style, and he can manage his resources efficiently. Many players who have flourished under his IPL captaincy have gone on to play for India: Manpreet Gony, Sudip Tyagi, Mohit Sharma, Deepak Chahar among them. Winning the IPL in 2018 with a “Dad’s Army” is a testament to how Dhoni can mould the available resources into a winning unit. The team’s slowness in the field has been somewhat mitigated by Dhoni’s emphasis on them making up with better catching.
Instinct or data? Dhoni has always been in the former camp – to the point where he has sometimes done exactly the opposite of what a data-led approach would recommend. A good example came in last year’s IPL when he asked Harbhajan Singh to bowl to Sunil Narine in the powerplay, counter to most teams, who looked to unsettle the Kolkata Knight Riders’ pinch-hitter with pace.
As a wicketkeeper, Dhoni reads the pitch and sees angles better than other captains. He sets his fields diligently, positioning his fielders based on the pitch and the batsman at the crease.
Remember the time? One example will not do justice to the legend of Dhoni and his tactics, but his getting Rayudu to open in the 2018 IPL took everyone by surprise. Rayudu delivered, scoring 602 runs at a strike rate of nearly 150.
The same year, Dhoni did not give a single over to his premier spinner, Harbhajan, in an all-important Qualifier clash against the Sunrisers Hyderabad. “I have a lot of cars and bikes at home but I don’t ride all of them at the same time,” he said when asked about it in the press conference. Dhoni has also sent the likes of Deepak Chahar and Harbhajan ahead of himself to counterattack after a top-order collapse.
Where he could do better At times Dhoni seems to get rigid with his plans and does not look to innovate. This could mean he risks becoming predictable in unfamiliar conditions.
What people say “You always got the feeling that he was one step ahead – whether he was or wasn’t was another thing, but you got the feeling he was.”
– CSK’s batting coach Michael Hussey
In his own words “After the first ball is bowled, it’s only chaos. What you are trying to do is you are trying to manage the chaos. It’s not like a script that happens.”
Rohit has won a record four titles with the Mumbai Indians, who appointed him captain in 2013. For tactical acumen he is second only to Dhoni, and like Dhoni he is calm in the face of pressure, but where the latter is all about instinct, Rohit is big on planning.
Man-management skills Rohit’s leadership is based on simplicity, and he is not the sort to impose himself – an approach that has worked with players like Sachin Tendulkar, Lasith Malinga, Kieron Pollard, Harbhajan, the Pandya brothers, Jasprit Bumrah and others. As a captain, Rohit has given his players room to express themselves, and he has helped ensure the core group stick together.
Instinct or data? Rohit is well known to be an intense tactician and a meticulous planner. He spends time with the analyst carving out plans for each batsman, which helps him make informed decisions on the field, particularly when it comes to match-ups and lines and lengths his bowlers need to pitch at each venue.
Remember the time? Rohit has had his fast bowlers bowl bumpers at 140-plus to Chris Gayle and Narine, and deployed Bumrah against Glenn Maxwell and Krunal Pandya against AB de Villiers – evidence of planning. He also has surprised oppositions a couple of times with some X-factor selections: most famously, starting with uncapped Indian legspinner Mayank Markande in 2018; then replacing the successful Markande to play Rahul Chahar in 2019. Perhaps Rohit’s best-remembered move was in the last ball of the 2019 IPL final against the Super Kings, when he had Lasith Malinga bowl a slower ball to his Mumbai team-mate Shardul Thakur.
Where he could do better Possibly the only area of concern is his own batting record in the IPL, which is significantly less impressive than his T20I record, where he strikes around nine runs higher, at 138.78. This has perhaps been down to the fact that for long he was not sure whether to open or bat at four – a question that has seemingly been answered in favour of opening.
What people say “Rohit is an instinctive leader, for sure. But at the same time Rohit gathers a lot of information as well, I think that’s his strength.”
– Mahela Jayawardene on Sony Ten Pit Stop
In his own words “I believe in a theory that when you are captain, you are the least important person. Others become more important in the larger scheme of things. It works differently for different leaders but as far as I am concerned, this theory works for me.”
If captaincy is defined by titles, Kohli has done dismally in the IPL, while remaining his team’s best batsman. He is also still the best candidate for the job, as the franchise chairman Sanjeev Churiwala said recently. Kohli has said he wants to continue to lead by example and improve his players and make them more accountable, responsible and better.
Man-management skills “Intent” is a word Kohli commonly uses while addressing media conferences. He is intense and expects the same intensity at all times from his players, at times forgetting that not everyone can turn it on the way he does, regardless of how many hours they spend working on their skills. However, over the last few years, Kohli has become more subtle about expressing himself as captain: instead of confronting, he now cajoles his players and gives them the space to grow, while not losing sight of the notion that in order to bring the best out of a player, you need to keep them on their toes.
Those who have worked with Kohli, though, believe he needs to spend more time with the squad, and get to know particularly the Indian players better as people, which could come in handy in match situations.
Instinct or data? Kohli reads the game like few can, and he can visualise outcomes and adapt quickly. He is not big on numbers, though not closed to it, and relies more on his reading of match situations and players. Occasionally he can be impulsive and go contrary to plans. In team meetings he is known to talk about opposition bowlers’ strengths, go-to balls and field placements, which his batsmen can utilise to plan accordingly.
Remember the time? Kohli’s self-belief as a batsman is reflected in his leadership. Unlike Dhoni, who can quickly adapt to changing match situations, Kohli can be impulsive. However, in the 2019 IPL, he showed more clarity of thought. One good example was how he utilised Yuzvendra Chahal and Navdeep Saini. Chahal was tossed the ball to take care of overseas batsmen frequently, while Saini was let loose on the Indian batsmen, who were discomforted by his extreme pace and vicious inswing.
On a sticky pitch against CSK in Bengaluru, Kohli brought Saini back into the attack in the seventh over to bowl to Dhoni. The bowler very nearly trapped Dhoni lbw with an inswinger after which Chahal kept things tight in the middle overs. Saini returned at the death and held Dhoni in check by bowling back of a length outside off stump, denying him his usual scoring areas.
Where he could do better While Kohli has shown he can think on his feet, his grasp of match situations is occasionally questionable. And unlike successful IPL captains like Dhoni, Warne and Gautam Gambhir, Kohli fields in the deep, as one of the most athletic fielders around in the death overs. That is the phase of a match where Royal Challengers’ bowlers have struggled consistently and could perhaps do with counsel and an arm around the shoulder. Umesh Yadav, Saini, Mohammed Siraj have all shown they can dominate batsmen, but not regularly.
Kohli could do with a little more focus on how to extract the best out of his players, how to convert an ordinary player into a consistent match-winner, and how to rely on his instincts and plans and experiment a bit more with combinations, which could provide more belief to his players.
What people say “Virat has a different style of captaincy. He likes to be right in front every time, he likes to be leading from the front and be aggressive all the time. It is his style and it has suited him. Dhoni and Rohit keep the dressing room calm, while Virat makes sure that everyone is on their toes and they all keep pushing themselves.”
– Parthiv Patel, Royal Challengers’ wicketkeeper-batsman
In his own words “I don’t care whether I am going to be judged on this [not winning IPL] or not.”
Appointed regular captain in 2015, Warner led Sunrisers Hyderabad to their first IPL title in 2016 and the team then made the playoffs the following year. The team’s best batsman, Warner has earned the respect of his peers and shares a good rapport with his leadership group, which also includes fast bowler Bhuvneshwar Kumar. Warner will return to lead the side for the first time in two years, having featured as just a player in the 2019 season.
Man-management skills Luckily for Warner, the Sunrisers have never had too many senior players in their squads, and Warner has been a role model for the younger players, who have seen up close not just his intensity with the bat but also his thorough commitment in the field, where he is one of the most electric fielders. In addition to Rashid Khan, Warner has encouraged a lot of youngsters who have played a big hand in Sunrisers’ growth, including Siraj, Mustafizur Rahman and Siddarth Kaul.
Instinct or data? Warner balances the two about equally. There have been occasions when he has looked at match-ups to dismiss batsmen. Getting Kumar to outwit an in-form Aaron Finch (his Australian opening partner) of the Gujarat Lions with an inswinger in 2016, for instance. Or, in the final that year, bringing on uncapped left-arm spinner Bipul Sharma to get rid of AB de Villiers at a crucial stage.
Remember the time? In that 2016 final, Warner went against the tide in deciding to bat first after winning the toss, although the data suggested that it was wiser to field first at the Chinnaswamy, and the Royal Challengers were a strong chasing side back then. “We knew how well Virat went in that edition,” Warner said, looking back at the final earlier this year. “It was about backing ourselves. We won the toss and elected to bat first. I felt as a team our best attribute was defending the totals.” It was certainly a gamble, and in the 13th over of RCB’s chase, with the score at 140 for 1, Warner might have had some doubts about whether it would pay off. Standing at long-on and long-off, he remained in constant discussion with the bowlers and when Kohli fell in that same over, he held Mustafizur Rahman back for the death and continued with Bipul, who rewarded him with de Villiers’ wicket.
Where he could do better Warner as captain has no real major drawbacks. He has missed captaining in the last two seasons due to off-field incidents and now has two IPL tournaments in the space of eight-odd months to showcase what Sunrisers have missed. Batting positions and overseas picks have been thorny issues for the side over the last two seasons and it will be interesting to see how Warner deals with them.
What people say “Both the players [Warner and Kane Williamson] lead from the front as captains and I am sure it will continue in that way in whatever capacity these guys play. Also, I don’t see much difference in approach, but all I know is they are willing to do everything for the team
– Bhuvneshwar Kumar, in the Times of India
In his own words “I don’t see it as a redemption tale, I just see it as an honour to captain the Sunrisers. I’ll put my thinking cap on and try my best to move us forward to another IPL title [he was captain when Sunrisers won the title in 2016].”
Smith has a win percentage of 65.5 as captain in the IPL, having lost just nine times in 29 matches. He has had multiple captaincy stints with three different franchises; in fact, his first match as IPL captain was way back in 2012, when he was not a regular in the Australia set-up. He captained the Rajasthan Royals to a playoff spot in 2015, and missed winning the title for Rising Pune Supergiant by one run in 2017.
Man-management skills Smith replaced Dhoni as captain at Supergiant in 2017, at a tough time for the team, which had finished seventh in 2016, and got them to squeeze through into the playoffs. Although it was not easy to step into Dhoni’s shoes, Smith did a good job. A number of young players came to the fore under his captaincy, among them Rahul Tripathi, Washington Sundar and Lockie Ferguson. Smith also backed senior pros Jaydev Unadkat and Manoj Tiwary by giving them specific roles in the team that allowed those two players to have their best IPL seasons during his tenure.
Instinct or data? Smith strikes a good balance between the two. Royals are known to be scientific in their approach to picking players at auctions, as well as in planning for games. Smith’s stints with Australia, Royals and Supergiant have featured many strategies that have been role-specific and optimised for maximum success.
Remember the time? The 2017 campaign had multiple instances where Smith played to his team’s strengths. Grooming Sundar to be a powerplay specialist for Supergiant paid off, particularly when Sundar took 3 for 16 against Mumbai Indians in the first Qualifier. Another time Smith took a leaf out of Dhoni’s book by placing three men straight down the ground for Pollard, which saw Pollard caught the very next ball while trying to hit Imran Tahir over deep extra cover.
Where he could do better Like Warner, Smith has not had recent IPL captaincy experience. He has three gun overseas players to help him out, but it remains to be seen whether he can rally youngsters and inexperienced Indian players to a title win. The Royals have not made the finals since the first IPL, in 2008, and Smith needs to be well up on the tactics front and also lead from the front with strong performances.
What people say “MS is one of the greatest minds I have interacted with. And he is the best wicketkeeper in the world. The one mind ahead of Dhoni’s is Smith’s.”
– Sanjeev Goenka, Supergiant’s owner, to Hindustan Times in 2017
In his own words “My record probably is better when I’m captain than when I’m not. That sort of pressure doesn’t really bother me.”
Karthik was appointed captain by KKR in 2018, his debut season for the franchise. He was 32 then, one of the most experienced players in the squad, but had only led 18 times in the IPL, as interim captain during his stints at five other teams. It did not help that he was taking over from Gambhir, who had been the captain for seven seasons, during which the Knight Riders won the IPL twice and the Champions League T20 title once.
Man-management skills One of Karthik’s strengths is his approachability. Players have talked about the ease with which they can communicate with him. He has also not been averse to copping the blame when things go wrong, which allows players to trust him. Take the incident where Andre Russell criticised the team management over his place in the batting order in the first half of last year’s IPL, when the Knight Riders successively lost matches. Karthik soothed ruffled feathers one on one with Russell before things could descend into a blame game.
Instinct or data? Unlike Gambhir, who was more instinctive, Karthik is big on planning, does his homework, and seeks information from the backroom staff on match-ups and strengths and weakness of the opposition.
Remember the time? Karthik’s tactical strengths came to the fore against Chennai Super Kings in 2018. When Dhoni came to bat around the 12th over, Karthik brought Mitchell Johnson back into the attack, not giving Dhoni any time to settle. He then bowled Johnson out before the death, surprisingly reserving the final three overs of the innings for the spinners, Piyush Chwala, Narine and Kuldeep. Dhoni, accustomed to speed at the death, couldn’t take the attack to the spinners, who combined to give away 31 runs. KKR chased down the 178-run target with more than two overs to spare.
Where he could do better Observers have spoken of how Karthik’s tendency to overthink as a batsman occasionally affects his leadership too, which can lead to him losing faith in players or his own decision making. Take the example of Yadav, who is no longer the go-to bowler he was under Gambhir. During Karthik’s captaincy, Knight Riders have played 30 matches in the last two seasons; Yadav has missed five of those, and in ten of the 25 matches he has played, he has not finished his quota of four overs.
Those who have seen him up close believe Karthik could be more inclusive in taking on ideas from players before making his decisions.
What people say “Just to remind you that under DK’s captaincy, we were one game away from the finals in 2018 and missed making the playoffs in 2019 because of NRR.”
– Knight Riders chief executive officer Venky Mysore, in the Gulf News
In his own words “As a leader, I think having different opinions and dealing with it is one of the most important things.”
At 25, Iyer is the youngest captain in the IPL. In 2018, the Daredevils bought Gambhir solely to get themselves an experienced captain, but the experiment was short-lived. Local boy Rishabh Pant has led Delhi in the Ranji Trophy, but when picking the captain, the team management, led by Ricky Ponting, went with Iyer, who had been the Emerging Player in his debut season in 2014.
In 2018, the Daredevils finished bottom of the table but beat Chennai Super Kings and Mumbai Indians in their last two matches. A year later the team, rebranded the Delhi Capitals, reached their first playoffs since 2012, under Iyer’s leadership.
Man-management skills Iyer has never been short on confidence, and his cricketing success has boosted that. He has been able to connect with players, including senior ones and overseas pros, easily. A lot of the talking in team contexts is done by Ponting, but on the field Iyer has been given the freedom to express himself and he has done well.
Instinct or data? By his own admission, Iyer relies on instinct. But then he has Ponting in the camp, who takes data seriously, so Iyer can afford to take that kind of approach in what remains a learning phase for him.
Remember the time? Iyer brought his reliance on gut feel into play in the last match of his first season as captain, in 2018. Mumbai were chasing 174 for a win and needed 18 runs off the final over, with an in-form Ben Cutting on strike. Both of Iyer’s two primary bowling options, experienced England quick Liam Plunkett and Haryana medium-pacer Harshal Patel had gone for at least 15 in one of their previous overs. Figuring that Cutting was comfortable reading Plunkett, Iyer backed Patel, who also had a better slower ball. The first ball was short and slow, going down leg, and Cutting hit it for a six. Patel followed it up with another short and slow delivery, this time wide outside off. Cutting tried to drag it to the leg side but mistimed the shot while reaching for it and was caught at deep midwicket. He wrapped up the game in the next ball to eliminate Mumbai from the IPL.
Where he could do better Iyer is something of a straight talker, in the Ponting mould. As he grows into the leadership role, he might need to learn to temper that tendency, but without losing his honesty.
What people say “He’s definitely become more comfortable in the role now, and has matured immensely. I’m very happy with how he’s shaped up as a leader, and all the international cricket exposure he has had is going to improve him further.”
– Ricky Ponting
In his own words “When I got the Delhi Capitals captaincy in the middle of the 2018 season, I was not prepared for it. But I took it up as a challenge. Then in 2019 when I got to know that I was going to captain for the entire season, that helped me prepare mentally. I enjoyed it immensely, and in some sense it made me a better player. It helped me grow.”