It is ironical that in a tournament—the Indian Premier League (IPL)—where India’s current Test, One Day International (ODI) and Twenty20 (T20) captains are struggling, Zaheer Khan, a former Indian fast bowler, is turning heads not just with his crafty bowling, but also his innovative captaincy.

Khan, like many accomplished fast bowlers in the past, was never considered good enough to lead the national team. He was not even considered to lead the Mumbai Ranji team, though he did do so on a few occasions when the regular captains were unavailable or injured.

Another former bowling great, Anil Kumble, was overlooked for national captaincy for a long period even though he had led Karnataka to a Ranji title. This curious phenomenon of a seeming bias against giving the captaincy to bowlers is not restricted to India. Statistical evidence shows that it happens everywhere in the cricketing world.

The list of top 20 ODI captains of all-time has only three bowlers—Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Shaun Pollock. Using the same yardstick in Test cricket yields just one name among the top 20: Imran Khan.

If you look at Indian cricket history, Kapil Dev (No.6 overall among all captains) has led the team most (34) in Test matches, followed by Bishan Singh Bedi (22) and Kumble (14). In ODIs, Dev is overall at No.5, with 74 ODIs as captain, including two world cups, followed by S. Venkataraghavan.

“It’s a myth that bowlers don’t make good captains. It’s also a wrong concept,” says Waqar Younis, a former Pakistan captain who was also coach of the national team till the T20 World Cup earlier this year. “Of course, bowling is far more physical, and more so fast bowling, but I guess Ian Botham’s failure as a bowler, burdened by captaincy, gave prominence to this theory in the 1980s. Then Mike Brearley took over, and Botham was transformed as a bowler and won the Ashes for England.”

It’s an old argument that more often than not, bowling captains either over-bowl or under-bowl themselves. In both cases, the team suffers. Besides, such is the nature of captaincy that it requires the captain to be a sharp fielder who can field inside the 30-yard circle—you need to be close to your players and your bowler as a captain. Fast bowlers usually don’t make good close-in fielders, and tend to patrol the boundaries.

“I won’t say that bowlers have been unfairly treated over the years but yes, they have been an unfortunate lot for some reason or the other,” says Younis. “In Pakistan, we don’t think on those lines. In Imran, we had an exemplary fast bowler as an inspirational leader. Wasim (Akram) did it successfully too. I didn’t do badly either.” Younis led Pakistan in 17 Test matches (out of the 87 he played) and also captained in 62 ODIs, including the 2003 World Cup in South Africa.

There are other factors stacked against bowlers: Team composition is a crucial one. The playing eleven in any format of cricket has more batsmen than bowlers, and even the best bowlers may find themselves in a situation where the pitch demands that they sit out the game. Someone of Kumble’s stature had to sit out (remember the 2003 World Cup?) many times when India played in swinging conditions abroad and had to find the right combination. Even the great Shane Warne was dropped for fellow leg-spinner Stuart MacGill at times.

However, the T20 format offers a better chance to bowlers who are captain material. In a format where everyone is expected to play a cameo with the bat, no matter which position they bat in, the good teams are consistently choosing five bowlers in their playing eleven—reflecting an attacking mindset to go for wickets. The Delhi Daredevils surprised everyone by giving Zaheer the captaincy earlier this season despite the fact that the bowler had missed many matches in 2015 owing to fitness issues. It took a batting great like Rahul Dravid, coach of the Indian Under-19 team, to convince his franchise to give Zaheer the leadership.

“Zaheer has been a leader for a long time. Anyone who has followed Indian cricket will know the impact Zak has had,” Dravid had said after the appointment of his former teammate. “Zak has a big personality, but it is the steel, focus and drive behind the outward confidence which I think he will bring to the captaincy, and that I am sure will inspire the rest of the team.”

Zaheer has lived up to expectations; after a gap of many years, the Delhi Daredevils are expected to make it to the play-offs.

“Zaheer has shown glimpses of a fine captain in this IPL, but T20 is a demanding format for any captain, bowler or batsman. It requires you to be on your toes all the time,” says Younis. He is not getting carried away by the solitary success of Zaheer; however, the fact remains that Zaheer is the only captain in the ongoing IPL who is a bowler.

“The change must begin from the grass-roots level,” says Younis. “Especially in the Under-19s and in first-class cricket, to start with. Like batting and bowling skills, captaincy also evolves over a period of time and early exposure to the job is an important component in making a good captain.”

The IPL has been a great platform for bowlers who were denied leadership roles. Warne, who was repeatedly overlooked for Australia’s captaincy, forced the world to take notice by leading the ragtag Rajasthan Royals team to the league title in the inaugural edition of the IPL in 2008. Kumble almost did the same with Royal Challengers Bangalore in 2009 (when Kevin Pietersen was removed from captaincy midway), with his team making it to the finals.

Along with Rohit Sharma of Mumbai Indians and Gautam Gambhir of Kolkata Knight Riders, Zaheer has impressed everyone with his attacking brand of captaincy this season. His team combinations have also been interesting—and surprising for his rivals. To preserve himself for the whole tournament, however, Zaheer has been forced to rest in some matches, something Sharma or Gambhir haven’t done, and probably don’t have to. That perhaps explains why cricket has often been reluctant to trust even the shrewdest bowlers with the captaincy.

Live Mint | Vimal Kumar