I have been having a very interesting discussion on Twitter about the merits of various styles of captaincy. This was born, probably fairly predictably, out of a different discussion about Andrew Strauss’ place in the current England side. There were two very interesting questions raised: is captaincy skill reason enough to justify selection and what skills are most important for a captain?
With regard to the first question, I would answer ‘yes’ in almost all cases. The captaincy is almost a specialist position in itself and skill or lack thereof there can have as much an impact on the match as runs or wickets directly taken by the player. The best example of this is probably Mike Brearley. Brearley is rightly famous for his captaincy and boasts not only the fifth highest W/L ratio all time (amongst Englishmen he is behind only Douglas Jardine) but also a record of 11 wins and just one loss in 15 Ashes Tests. He also had a Test batting average just under 23. The goal of a Test match is to win and it is clear that a very good captain can increase the odds of winning even if he or she is a poor batsman. The question of selection is not then ‘pick the best five or six batsmen, a ‘keeper and four or five bowlers’, it is a more general matter of picking the eleven players whose combination of skills provide the best chance of winning a Test match. Depending on the circumstance, one might have a team with very skilled players who can carry a poor captain (eg: Ricky Ponting in the Warne/McGrath era) or one might have a team in which a very good captain causes his team to perform at a higher level than they would otherwise and is thus worth more to the team than a better batsman/bowler. I prefer the latter, but clearly both can work. It is a matter for the selectors to determine which course the situation of the team requires.
How that relates to Strauss then ties into the second question of which skills are most important. As a captain, Strauss has been both lauded for his man-management and criticised for his negativity. The question is whether his captaincy is good enough to offset his form with the bat and I would say that it is. I have certainly not refrained from criticising Strauss when I have felt that it is warranted, but this does not mean I think he is anything other than a very good captain. He has the misfortune of being a captain whose weakest area, tactics, is the one most publicly visible. His work in uniting the dressing room, however, has been utterly astounding. Remember that he took over a very fractured one and managed to transition the ‘old guard’ out with a minimum of fuss whilst at the same time winning an Ashes series that we were not expected to. Since then he has managed to get the very most out of all the players (with the exception of Morgan) and has won the respect of the team. His influence has been visible in some of the ODI series where Cook has been in charge, most notably in India. Cook struggled to control the team when the results were not going their way, this is not something that happens when Strauss is in charge. His calm demeanour and the respect the players have for him has ensured that England have stayed professional even on the occasions where things have not gone their way.
This is not to say that I think tactical ability is completely unnecessary, merely that one can compensate for it. I actually rate Michael Vaughan as one of the best ever England captains because of his tactical genius, but what he and Strauss both exhibit is a massive amount of skill in one area or the other. As with the first question, we have a situation where both man-management and tactics can be successful with the right people in the right circumstances. Finding someone who can do both would be ideal, of course, but a rare luxury. As to which is ‘better’ it is a matter of opinion, but I personally prefer a tactician. As important as it is to have all the players behind the captain, one needs to look no farther than the 2005 Ashes to see the benefits of a tactically astute captain. Cricket is a cerebral game and if a captain can outthink the opposition then the battle is halfway won already. Again, good management can adequately compensate for tactics, but given a straight choice I would choose a tactician.
What does not work, however, is a ‘leader’. I have seen it suggested more than once and more than once have the selectors decided that the best player ought to get the captaincy. I almost think this is from people who watch too much football. In football, all the captain has to do is play well and ‘inspire’ the other ten men. Cricket is not the same, however. A cricket captain has to have something between his or her hears to succeed. To see that this does not work, one needs look no farther than Freddie Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen. (Though one is welcome to look back to Ian Botham too, if one wishes.) Both were unmitigated disasters. Both were captains who played very well, but were tactically inept and could not control the players.
All of the above should give a good indication of why Strauss should have a very secure place in the side. He is not a perfect captain, but there are very few of those and he is a very good one. His captaincy provides more to the side than the runs of another batsman would (and that’s even assuming that Strauss’ contributions with the bat are and will continue to be negligible, neither of which I think are true), if he is dropped the side will be worse off overall.
2 thoughts on “Captaincy issues”
Good stuff…well written and points were made very clear..especially the part about one player being picked in the team just for captaincy skills…doesn’t this mean that the team walks on to the field with essentially 10 players?
Cheers! And no, I don’t think it does any more than sending out a specialist wicket-keeper does. Basically the captain, at least a good one, plays his own specialist position. Basically, if a captain causes a three batsmen to get out 15 runs sooner than they might otherwise have he has effectively scored 45 runs for his team.