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India vs England 2014: Alastair Cook, MS Dhoni, pigeons and pressures — the demands on cricket captains

MS Dhoni (left) and Alastair Cook... Captaincy can be a very tricky proposition © Getty Images
MS Dhoni (left) and Alastair Cook… Captaincy can be a very tricky proposition © Getty Images

Twice on the first day during The Oval Test, the pitch was invaded by pigeons. And twice the birds were coaxed away from the wicket by the captains. Arunabha Sengupta looks at the two different incidents, and talks about the myriad issues that the cricket captains have to grapple with — many of them away from the pitch.

Do we always appreciate the myriad issues that a cricket captain has to grapple with?

Form, performance of the team, record at home and away, the millions of vocal fans, their expectations, disappointments and their ripples, and the hundreds of even louder ex-cricketers with their desperate critical efforts to stay in the public eye way after their cricketing days. And of course there are sponsors, dignitaries, media personnel varying from serious journalists to plebeian paparazzi. These are of course part and parcel of the game. However, the challenges go way beyond the pitched battle of the 22-yards, post day press conferences and end of the match presentations.

In 1954, Len Hutton, the England captain, had played out of skin to score an epic, series saving, 205 at Kingston. Aged 37, he had batted for more than a day, in the torrid Caribbean heat. He had trudged back at tea, head down, feet almost refusing to make the distance to the dressing room and yearning to change his sweat soaked shirt. As he had approached the gate, he had been congratulated by a voice. He had nodded in response, murmuring ‘Thank You’ without really looking at the man. Moments later, having put his tired feet up and gratefully sipping a cup of tea, he had been stunned when someone had come running into the dressing room and accused him of having insulted the Chief Minister. It had been clarified that the man who had congratulated him at the gate had been none other than the Jamaican Chief Minister Alex Bustamante himself. Hutton had apologised profusely, saying that he had no idea it was the Chief Minister and Bustamante had accepted it gracefully. Yet, the press had made a big issue out of it.

And those were the good old days when the media focus was hardly as glaring and ridiculous as today.

There were two distinct moments on the first day of The Oval Test when some of the unseen challenges faced by the captains of the international cricket teams came to the fore, subtle but conspicuous enough if one was sufficiently alert to spot them. First MS Dhoni stood there, willow in hand, and then Alastair Cook. The pressures of public image ensured that the bats remained vertical, blade pointing downwards, whereas every practical consideration screamed for a playful waft. The captaincy considerations just did not allow them the liberty.

Pigeons stop play

Dhoni was waging a lone battle, withstanding the vagaries of conditions and perils of the swinging ball, and the sixth wicket had just gone down; the score hovered around a meagre 50. The saga of disappointing batting failures had by now plumbed the depths of embarrassment, and he stood alone as at the other end batsmen came and departed with metronomic regularity.

Suddenly, to add to the threats of Stuart Broad and James Anderson, there landed a flock of pigeons, crowding in close to the wicket on the off side, refusing to budge even if balls were hit with considerable force in their direction. And one solitary bird, perhaps going by the name Jonathan Livingston Pigeon, hovered a bit too close, on the strip, bang in the middle of the green tinged 22 yards. Play was held up as players persuaded the bird to move. And Dhoni walked up, looked down at the feathered pitch invader, and walked alongside it, coaxing it away. The willow remained limp in his hand, not even a gentle poke in the direction of the bird to hasten the flight. Instead Dhoni walked and the pigeon was cajoled into walking to a deeper position in the field where the ball would land on it from the hand of the bowler.

Not long after that it was the turn of Cook. Dhoni’s heroics notwithstanding, India had been bowled out for 148. The Indian captain’s contribution had been 82. And as England started their innings, there was another instance of avian intrusion on to the playing strip, as if in protest against the match being reduced to a no contest within a few hours. Was it the same JLP who stood on the pitch? One cannot say for sure. Cook now followed the footsteps of his counterpart, walking with the protestor, coaxing it to trot away to a safe distance. The bat, once again, remained vertical and motionless.

The intentions of both the skippers were noble. Throughout the history of the game, the birds have had a rather tough time while getting into the thick of things during an intense game of cricket. The captains were just ensuring their safety.

Way back in the 1930s, Jahangir Khan of Cambridge University hit a sparrow while bowling to Tom Pearce of MCC, thereby killing the poor creature. The stuffed bird is still on display in the Lord’s museum. Other birds have been fatalities as well.

At Adelaide in 1969-70, Greg Chappell’s ball to John Inverarity had proved the undoing of one of the beautiful seagulls so common in the Australian cricket grounds. In 1985-86 when Kapil Dev’s drive claimed another seagull, an unwanted victim in the infield during the Adelaide Test, leading to visible dismay of the great all-rounder.

During the 1953 match between Worcestershire and Leicestershire at New Road, Gerald Smithson’s drive accounted for a wagtail deep near the boundary. Pigeons themselves have had a history of suffering deaths on the cricket ground. Tom Hearne had killed one while bowling for Middlesex against Nottinghamshire at Lord;s. And then Jacques Rudolph’s throw while fielding for Yorkshire against Lancashire at Headingley claimed the life of another of the lovely birds. The very species used as carriers since forever have been slow to get the message.

There are ways of preventing these casualties. In the 1950s, Fijian cricketer Petro Kubunavanua, was once disturbed by a swallow while fielding at square leg. He had caught it with his lightning like hands and had put it in his pocket till the next break. However, such measures will not work today in the world of political correctness and environmental watchdogs even if it is for the sake of the birds. With the glare of the media focused on them, the players especially the captains have to be conscious of all the repercussions.

What would have happened if either Dhoni or Cook had raised his bats and tried to shoo the bird away? Hundreds of opportunistic shutters would have clicked the moment, recording the circumstantial evidence for every possible use. The instant would have been captured a national cricket captain, dressed in gladiatorial outfit, protected by helmet, pad and gloves, raising his heavy bat to threaten a helpless, harmless, puny pigeon. No matter what the real motivation behind it, this picture would have found its way to the front pages of dailies, featured slideshows in websites, tweeted and shared across the social media, across groups and beyond the cricket world, discussed and dissected by millions who never saw the actual action on that day.

Captions would have been devised harmless jibes at first followed by caustic ones. Puns, quibbles, innuendoes and hyperboles would come into the fray before it cascading to a world beyond the game into the dangerous zone of the environmental activists. From “Let us hit something that does not move about” and “As long as it is not flying about we fancy we can hit them”; the punchlines would transform themselves to the biting “You are not welcome to take the focus away from me”; to more sinister, humourless “Captain wields his bat against a defenceless bird”. And soon the activists would be tweeting the same picture with words equivalent to “Bloodsport I like my pigeons with batter and Cooked.”

So, the effects of a raised bat could be far-reaching and disastrous … making the skipper the sworn enemy of the environmentalists and symbol of animal cruelty on RSPCA web sites, and finding Greenpeace activists lying on the pitch in protest some of the American demonstrators perhaps a bit uneasy on finding out too late that Test matches are five day affairs.

In such circumstances, we can hardly help admiring Dhoni and Cook for having the presence of mind and awareness of the big picture to keep their bats sheathed and inert as they walked alongside the feathered friends in the peaceful placating pleasantly persuading tread. We often do not give them enough credit – these men with countless headaches, and many of them way beyond the confines of the 22 yards.

Catch all the coverage of India’s tour to England here

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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