Michael Jeh January 3, 2009

The Ex men

More revealing though is the unspoken assumption (tradition) that past captains are unlikely to keep playing under a new leader

As great a batsman as he is, Ricky Ponting has recently had to endure some conjecture about whether the blame for Australia’s current problems can be levelled at his captaincy. I don’t think for one moment that this will amount to anything but mere trivial speculation – Ponting’s tenure as captain is not under any serious threat and he will probably remain captain until the day he retires.

It does highlight the cultural differences that exist with the issue of captaincy from country to country. Australia (and perhaps NZ too) seem to embrace an old-fashioned view of the captain and his relationship within the team dynamic. It is almost taken for granted that the job is reserved for a relatively senior player, arguably the best player in the team. More revealing though is the unspoken assumption (tradition) that past captains are unlikely to keep playing under a new leader. It’s something that Australia and NZ are generally uncomfortable about – once your position as captain has been usurped, it’s normally the end of your career too.

I can only think of a couple of recent examples when Greg Chappell played briefly under Kim Hughes’ captaincy and then Hughes himself had a few horror games against the West Indies in 1984/85 under Allan Border. Neither situation was likely to last very long, adding to my theory that it is almost not the done thing to remain in the team once you are no longer the captain.

I’m not that good on my NZ history but the same rationale seems to apply there too. Stephen Fleming had a brief period as a player after he gave up the captaincy but it just didn’t seem right. His legacy as a great leader and elder statesman seemed to choke rather than liberate his successor. Nothing obvious but it just appeared that way from the outside.

Why is it that the other cricketing countries don’t seem to have a major problem with this? Is it a good thing for the skipper to be able to be re-absorbed back into the team or do the Antipodeans have a good reason for rarely embracing former leaders? I would be curious to hear your views from around the world.

Think about it – England have never had an issue with former captains continuing to play in the same team. Most famously, Ian Botham performed his heroics in 1981 immediately after being sacked as captain. Other recent examples include Gooch, Gatting, Stewart, Atherton, Hussain and Vaughan. What is it about the England set-up that allows this to happen with relatively little angst?

Pakistan has had a long history of this. I’d be curious to hear from our Pakistani friends whether this process creates any underlying tension or whether it all happens amicably. Pakistan cricket even goes one step further and sometimes gives a former captain another tilt at the crown. This would certainly never occur in Australian cricket but it never seemed to affect the performance of players like Miandad, Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Inzy. Is it a cultural thing that allows this fluid leadership situation to flourish without any bad blood?

India and Sri Lanka are no strangers to this either. Jaysauriya and Atapattu seemed perfectly comfortable about being foot soldiers after an extended captaincy stint. The Indian team often has up to 4 former captains in the one team and it looks pretty harmonious. Is there more to it than meets the eye or can it be assumed that players like Tendulkar and Dravid, sanguine souls, are more than content to sit in the background?

At the height of the West Indian dynasty when they had incredibly strong captains like Lloyd and Richards in charge, one would never have imagined a situation when players like Lara, Hooper, Chanderpaul and Sarwan would all be playing under each other, having once been captains themselves. The South Africans are probably much more like the Australian model except for the period when Shaun Pollock played out his days under Smith’s orders.

Bangladesh and Zimbabwe too, despite not having enough history to call on, seem comfortable enough with the notion of ex-captains continuing to play in the team. The Zim team of the last ten years had a number of former captains in the same team and it all looked like happy families.

So, is it just coincidence or does the Australian system have a cultural predisposition towards this trend? Is it the former captain who feels uncomfortable about returning to the ranks of the infantry, does the new captain feel awkward in the presence of the old leader or does the team itself feel uncomfortable when a past captain is now one of the boys?

It’s a uniquely Down Under phenomenon but as the cricket calendar gets busier and player burn-out becomes an issue (including captains), I can see it happening more often in Australia but not just yet. Will Ponting ever give up the captaincy voluntarily (and keep playing) if the team keeps losing? I doubt it.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane