I think it was Mark Twain who once said that he had, of late, read so much about the evils of smoking that he gave up reading!
Sachin Tendulkar, captain of the Indian cricket team, should know how Mr Twain felt when he wrote that. For in the last six months, there has been so much written about how the "pressures of captaincy" has effected Sachin's batsmanship, that he in all probability has given up reading.
It is not my intention to deny that there is a question mark surrounding Sachin's captaincy - in fact, I remember questioning some of his decisions as far back as the triangular series in Sri Lanka last year, when he led the side for the first time, and getting flamed by mail from fans who felt that the criticism was unmerited.
Today, I notice, from the mails I get, that the wheel has come full circle - you are more apt to get flamed if you support Sachin's captaincy, than if you oppose it. After a long, arduous season that has brought little joy to followers of Indian cricket, there seems a growing groundswell of opinion that it is time to review the whole question of captaincy, and to look for alternatives.
Those who hold the view that Sachin should not skipper the side tend, in general, to make two points. One, that he is perhaps the best batsman in the country today (a view that Rahul Dravid fans will tend to dispute with some heat and not a little justification), and that captaincy has affected his batting. And two, that Sachin Tendulkar is not the mastermind everyone thought he was when he was deputy to Mohammad Azharuddin, that his cricketing wisdom is debatable, and that it makes more sense to free him of a responsibility he seems unfitted for, and let him concentrate on what he does bestt.
Let's take those two points in order. Has captaincy affected Sachin's batsmanship?
There really is only one way to tell - and that is by looking at what he has, or has not, achieved with the bat in the season gone by. My colleague, Shailesh Soni, has been working on compiling for you a table (check the links at the end of this article) incorporating every single innings Sachin Tendulkar has played, in both versions of the game, since becoming captain. What follows is only a quick summary:
Sachin has appeared in 12 Tests since becoming India's cricket captain. In the 20 innings he has batted in, he has been not out on one occasion, scored a total of 662 runs with the help of four 50s and one century (the fact that he has got these runs with the help of 93 fours and two sixes means nothing much, really - just passing trivia).
And he has got these runs at an average of 34.84 per innings - which does not compare all that well with his lifetime average of 50.23. Having said which, it pays to keep in mind that no batsman consistently scores at around his lifetime average in every season - as the saying goes, only mediocrity can always be at its best.
Also as captain, Sachin Tendulkar has played in 30 ODIs. Batting in all 30 of them, he has remained not out twice, accumulated 1194 runs off 1435 balls with 124 fours and 11 sixes, notching up six fifties and four hundreds at a strike ate of 83.20 and an average of 42.64.
And that average compares more than favourably with his life time average of 40 - in other words, Tendulkar's average for the season has actually bettered his career average.
So where, precisely, does this whole perception that captaincy has affected his batting get its justification from? Certainly not from Sachin's performance with the bat during his tenure as captain, as far as I can see.
Logic, too, is against this argument of "pressure of captaincy". Look at it this way - when you go out to bat at your regular place in the lineup, you strap on, together with your pads and gloves and stuff, an awareness of what is expected of you in that situation and in context of your own natural abilities. And that awareness is a constant - you are not any more responsible just because you happen to be captain, just as captaincy does not confer on you any more abilities with the bat than you had while just a player. In other words, when you go out there with the bat, it is as a batsman pure and simple - you do not take guard muttering to yourself that you are the captain of the side.
All of this, then, brings us to the logical second step: a look at Sachin's record not as batsman but as skipper of the side. And the immediate yardstick available is that of statistics. In the period of his captaincy, Sachin has led India in 12 Tests of which India has won three, lost four and drawn five. In the same period, he has skippered the side in 30 ODIs, of which India has won 10, lost 19, and tied one.
It is not by any yardstick an outstanding record. Neither, though, is it an outstandingly poor one for a person aged 24 and in his first year in the top slot - and leading, besides, a team that is in the process of being broken down and put together again.
So am I arguing that Sachin Tendulkar deserves to remain the captain of the side?
The answer, I submit, is yes - with some reservations, and a couple of conditions.
My reservations stem not from what he has achieved, but from what he has failed to achieve. Both in South Africa and in the Caribbean, both in Tests and one-dayers, there have been too many instances of games lost or drawn that should have been won - and though one man cannot take the entire responsibility for a team's performance, Tendulkar as captain does have to shoulder the major burden of blame for the fact that the team's results have not been as good as they could have been.
During his early days as captain, Tendulkar started out being aggressive to a fault. Towards the end, he has tended to err in the opposite direction. And therein lies a problem.
Mind you, it is easy to see why Tendulkar's instinctive aggression has been tempered. For one thing, he has not had the luxury of leading a settled team - in fact, during the season just ended, he has met as captain of India players who he hasn't met on the domestic circuit in his entire career, and that is shocking in itself. For another, the entire nation has expected, and continues to expect, miracles of him - and somewhere along the way, Sachin's reluctance to be associated with defeat has taken over, tempered the aggression and replaced it with a safety first mindset.
Two, Sachin's strategic acumen is not, demonstrably, of the greatest. Go through the scorecards of India during his captaincy, and you will see what I mean. There is never an attempt to innovate, to do the unexpected thing. Bowling changes are by rote - the two quicks first, then Kumble, then the reserve medium pacer, then the second spinner, then himself. And this is irrespective of pitch and weather conditions, or the form or quality of opposing batsmen, or even the state of individual games. And the same holds true of his batting dispositions - a lineup is decided upon, and adhered to rigidly, regardless of the state of an individual game.
Compare this with arguably the best ODI captain in international cricket today - Arjuna Ranatunga. In some games, his medium pacers operate well beyond the 15th over. In others, he has his spinners on as early as the sixth over. And always, fielding dispositions are tailored to the needs of the individual bowler - and also of the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing batsmen.
One instance suffices. On a bouncy pitch at the Wankhede, Ranatunga had a point, a wide gully, and a wide and deep third man for Sachin Tendulkar taking the bowling of Chaminda Vaas and Sajeeva D'Silva. Obviously, the Lankan captain had worked out that early in his innings, the Indian skipper loves to take the rising ball and hit up and under, aiming for the boundary behind point. And Tendulkar, in the event, perished in that trap. When Sanath Jayasuriya was batting, however, Tendulkar had just a slip and a shortish square leg - giving the batsman all the room he needed to lash at deliveries outside off with absolute impunity, as there was no fielder to take even the uppish slashes.
There is one other deficiency in Tendulkar's captaincy that has, in recent times, begun to occasion concern - and that lies in the fact that he appears incapable of utilising all his available resources. For instance, when last did you see him utilise the bowling services of Saurav Ganguly? Of Ajay Jadeja? Of Rahul Dravid who, in course of a recently aired live phone-in programme on the Tamil vernacular television channel Sun TV, was asked by a viewer whether India had good all-rounders and who, in response, said, "We do, but we can always use more - and I, in fact, have been spending lots of hours in the nets improving my batsmen, because I would love to contribute as much as I possibly can to the side"?
Sri Lankan coach Bruce Yardley, in a recent interview to Rediff, made the point that Lanka's strength owed to the presence of two bowling all-rounders in Vaas and Dharmasena, and two batting all-rounders in Aravinda D'Silva and Sanath Jayasuriya. India, for its part, is in the peculiar position of having batsmen who can bowl the odd tight over or four in between and provide variety to the attack - but being led by a captain who appears to have a chronic case of myopia when it comes to the utilisation of such resources.
I've read reams of analysis arguing that there are personality problems between Tendulkar and Ganguly, and that this is the explanation for the latter's under-utilisation. Frankly, I suspect that there is, in such articles, a lot of kite-flying - unless either Ganguly or Tendulkar actually come out and say something, I'd be inclined to take such media speculation with a sackful of salt.
So if I say that Tendulkar should be retained as captain, yet find so many negatives in his leadership, aren't I being contradictory?
Not really. What I am saying is that while Tendulkar's performance is okay given that this is his first year in the top job, there is lots of scope for improvement. And this improvement can come about in two ways.
The first is for him to spend time with senior cricketers - the names of Gavaskar, Shastri and Mohinder Amarnath come immediately to mind, not merely because of the respect they command but also because all three are skilled readers of the game. Tendulkar needs to have the trio take him through videos of India's games under his leadership, discussing his decisions, listening to their reading of the situation, gathering ideas and opening his mind to the fact that captaincy can never be hidebound and rigid if it is to succeed.
And the second is for the national selectors to give him a deputy skipper who will help him by taking responsibility for at least part of the process of formulating strategy - and Anil Kumble is not it.
As with Sachin, so with Kumble - the point to begin would perhaps be a quick review of his performance under Sachin's captaincy. In 12 Tests and 21 innings, Kumble has bowled 568.1 overs, taken 49 wickets and conceeded 1477 runs at an average of 4.08 wickets per Test. In the same period, he has bowled 272.2 overs in 30 ODIs, taking 53 wickets for the personal cost of 1122 runs at an economy rate of 4.41 and an average of 1.6 wickets per Test.
One thing is immediately obvious - while it is too soon to write off Kumble as a Test bowler, the fact is that increasingly, he is not quite the unhittable one day bowler he used to be a couple of years back (the Saeed Anwar blitz, in which he blasted three sixes and two fours in one single Kumble over at Madras the other day, being merely the latest indication of this fact). International batsmen have increasingly worked out that the trick, with Kumble, is to play him like you would a slow medium pacer, rather than a spinner - and suddenly, the economical Kumble who used to throttle opposing batsmen during the crucial middle phase, thus forcing them into error, has become a thing of the past.
In turn, this in tandem with the fact that he seems to have lost the edge of his batting ability in recent times means that he can no longer take his place in the side - especially in the limited overs situation - for granted. And that is one strike against his continuing as deputy skipper.
A more important reason is that if you watch videos of India's performances in the last six months, you cannot help but notice that Kumble, increasingly, does not contribute much to onfield discussions involving his captain and bowler - a marked contrast to Sachin's early days as captain, when Kumble and he seemed to have long discussions at the end of every over.
Why? It could be that Kumble, finding his own skills losing their edge, does not feel the confidence required to contribute to such discussions. After all, when you yourself are being hit about, you don't really feel confident about telling one of your colleagues how to bowl. Again, it could be that increasingly, Sachin Tendulkar finds that Kumble has little to contribute to his own thinking, and therefore prefers for the most part to ignore his deputy.
Whatever the reason, the fact is that we are faced with a situation where Sachin Tendulkar does not have a deputy he can lean on, and depend upon to fill the gaps in his own thinking. And that makes for shoddy leadership.
So who could take over from Kumble? It is tempting to say Mohammad Azharuddin (who, in fact, led India to its only tour win in the Caribbean, against Guyana, in a four day game with some very opportunistic captaincy) - but let's face it, Azhar never was a mastermind even in his own days as captain. More to the point, his level of interest in the game these days is, by his own admission, much less than it should be.
Who, then? Again, an objective, and close, scrutiny of videos of Indian games of the recent past indicates that there are two people Sachin has been looking to for ideas, and who he has been involving in his discussions - wicket keeper Nayan Mongia, and star batsman Rahul Dravid.
Of the two, Mongia appears the better choice - he has played enormous amounts of cricket, reads the Indian bowlers perhaps better than even his captain does, and is quick to go up to both his bowlers and his captain with little suggestions on strategy. There is, however, one thing that militates against Mongia being given the deputy's slot - and that is that he is a bit too prone to fits of the sulks (remember how, in the Caribbean, Mongia very pointedly turned his back on Saurav Ganguly when a second run could have been walked, just because Ganguly had, a few overs before, turned down a sharp single Mongia had called for?), and the last thing India needs now is a deputy skipper who could put his team-mates' backs up.
That leaves Rahul Dravid in a shortlist of one for the deputy skipper's slot.
Sure - the temptation is to think that just because Dravid has, in the course of his first year of international cricket, replaced Sachin Tendulkar as the side's most complete batsman, we are promptly elevating him to a pedestal he does not deserve to fill. A good batsman, after all, does not necessarily make a good skipper, or even deputy to one.
But there are several arguments for Dravid's elevation - and the first is his mindset. The Sun TV phone-in I mentioned earlier is perhaps the latest instance of something I have noticed about Dravid over the last few months - whenever he is asked about a good innings he has just played, his reaction is immediate: "Yes, I am pleased I played well, but I need to not just score runs, but start winning matches for the country. Ultimately, that is what I would like to remember - not the number of 100s I scored, but the number of matches I helped India win."
It is a laudable attitude - not least because Dravid, today, appears to be the only Indian player who holds it. It is, too, a positive attitude - something Indian cricket has sadly lacked in recent times.
Reason two is rapport - and no one who has watched even a single recent outing of the Indian team will be blind to the fact that Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid share an excellent onfield rapport. Makes sense, too - in course of a very demanding season, Dravid has emerged as the only one of his teammates Sachin can implicitly trust to grit it out, to not throw it away, to give more than his 100 per cent to the team.
And Dravid, for his part, is not lacking in cricketing shrewdness. In fact, those who have been in a position to observe Dravid's cricketing development over the years - and this list includes judges of the game as shrewd as M L Jaisimha, Erapalli Prasanna and G R Vishwanath - have marked him out as a future India captain even before Dravid was picked to play his first game for the national side.
And then there is this reason above all - today, Rahul Dravid is perhaps the one player who, along with Sachin Tendulkar, can take his place in the side absolutely for granted. And the confidence of knowing you are contributing more than your share, in turn, earns you the respect and attention of your team-mates - something that Kumble, in recent weeks, appears unable to get.
This, then, would be the sum of my argument - Sachin Tendulkar to continue as India's cricket captain, with Rahul Dravid for deputy.
With one proviso above all - that someone take Tendulkar aside and give him some quick tips in public speaking. His post match comments, sadly, are not only not in keeping with his stature as a player, but have tended of late to be definitely demoralising.
Refer his gratuitous remark at the end of the Caribbean tour that India lacked a wrist spinner who can turn the ball! If he felt so little confidence in his wrist spinner and vice captain Anil Kumble, then the place to discuss it would have been in his own room, one to one with Kumble. Letting the bowler read his captain's assessment in the media columns is not calculated to raise the morale of a team that badly needs a mental boost.
Even more shocking, to my mind, was his terse one-liner at the end of the India-Pakistan one-dayer at Chennai the other day. "We bowled badly," he snapped when asked to analyse the game.
Come again? Sachin Tendulkar, in that match, had fallen in the very second over. And yet, belying the myth that the Indian batting without Tendulkar is just club class, his team-mates had not only spared his blushes, but actually put on 290+ plus runs - something not too many other teams have done during a chase. To ignore that performance, to omit one word of praise for what was, after all, a very good batting performance by his team-mates, was not only churlish, but actually demoralising.
And Tendulkar, above all others, should be aware of just how low in morale this team is now - and just how important it is to do nothing calculated to lower it even further.
In sum, then, Tendulkar to my mind is the best choice we have for captain of the Indian side right now - having said which, it must be added that he has miles to go before he can become a truly inspirational leader, the kind of motivator capable of taking this young team to the heights.