Michael Jeh July 18, 2010

O'captain my captain

In my last post , I touched briefly on the traditional Australian way of selecting captains

In my last post, I touched briefly on the traditional Australian way of selecting captains. The captaincy issue has now come into even sharper focus with the Shahid Afridi situation. Mike Holmans has written an excellent piece on that.

It might be interesting to buy a Round The World ticket and look at the cricketing world to see if we can explain (or hypothesise) why different countries have their own unique way of choosing captains and whether this reflects something about the culture of that country.

Starting with Australia, it's pretty much accepted that it's always been the Australian way to select the best 11 players and the captain usually emerges from that lot. There haven't been too many cases where a captain was brought into the team purely for leadership purposes. Bob Simpson did that in the late 1970's during the height of the World Series Cricket crisis but his performances did him no shame, despite being an old man. Mark Taylor's loss of form around the 1996-97 period presented a conundrum - had he not scored that career-saving century in the second innings at Edgbaston in 1997, he might have become a victim of that tradition. It's generally a pretty ruthless (and readily-accepted) practice so most Australian captains actually jump before they're pushed anyway. Even the great Allan Border was given a polite nudge when it looked like he wanted to hang on for a little bit longer. That's why Michael Clarke's position as T20 captain must be under severe threat - he's got the weight of history and tradition against him if he continues to fail.

I'm no expert on New Zealand but they seem to have a similar attitude to Australia. Most of their captains are chosen from amongst the ranks of the better players and they tend to enjoy relatively stable captaincy careers with loyalty and support from the troops. The only exception that readily comes to mind is in the mid 1990s when Lee Germon made his Test debut as captain! Otherwise, recent captains like Martin Crowe, Stephen Fleming and Daniel Vettori have all come from common ancestry; as the best players in the team, their leadership credentials are unquestioned by the rank and file. Again, this seems to be a very ANZ philosophy (apart from politics which recent history has shown to be anything but!). Leaders generally enjoy loyal service from the troops and if the leader senses that he is not amongst the best performing members of that team, he rarely hangs around long enough to feel the knives in his back. What do you reckon? Is that fair comment?

South Africa, since their re-introduction to cricket in 1992, seem to have enjoyed a similarly stable captaincy regime too. In almost 20 years, we've only had Kepler Wessels, Hansie Cronje, Shaun Pollock and Graeme Smith as long-term captains. There may have been the odd game here or there with another temporary captain but I can't think of too many. Again, that notion of clearly being amongst the first-picked in the starting XI is a South African tradition too. SA legends rarely seem to hang around until they get dropped. It seems to be a cultural norm that allows them to sense when the mood for change is ripe and they prefer to go of their own accord rather than being dropped at the end of a distinguished career. I've spent a bit of time in South Africa and have gained a bit of an understanding of their complex cultures so I'm going to suggest that it might have something to do with the 'olde worlde' attitudes and even the compulsory military service discipline that may contribute to this pattern. In general, I've found most South Africans extremely polite, well-mannered and disciplined, almost old fashioned in that sense. I'd be interested to hear from our South African friends on this issue of captaincy accession.

Zimbabwe is a difficult case to consider in the current climate but when they were a lot stronger in the 1990s, they too usually picked one of their best players as captain. There was usually little dissension in the ranks when Andy Flower, Alastair Campbell or Heath Streak ran the show. Strong characters, running a young cricketing nation with a frontier-style leadership theme.

Bangladesh is probably too young to comment on. I'm certainly not knowledgeable enough about their cricketing history to offer any educated guesses. Is it a pure meritocracy where the best player (or undisputed selection in the team) gets the captaincy or is there more to it in Bangladesh? If anyone with a knowledge of the politics and history of Bangladesh cricket can shed light on that, it would be interesting.

Speaking of politics, we move then to Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan. Like it or not, it is undeniable that captaincy issues are inextricably linked with politics and relatively unstable captaincy regimes. That's not necessarily to say that it's a bad thing. It just may be the style of that system.

Sri Lanka is clearly a cricket system that has significant political involvement but to be fair, the captains themselves have almost always commanded a place in the team without question. Recent memory fails to bring up too many captains who have failed to hold down a place in the team in their own right. The turnover has been reasonable but it's not the long reigns that Australia, NZ or SA tend to have. I can think of Arjuna Ranatunga, Aravinda De Silva (actually, was he ever captain?), Hashan Tillekeratne, Sanath Jayasuriya, Mahela Jayawardene and now Kumar Sangakkara in the last 15 years. That's not a ridiculous list of short dynasties but there has been some chopping and changing. Interestingly, the culture of all these South Asian countries allows ex-captains to keep playing in the team, even after they are deposed (or resign) as leader. This is an interesting phenomenon because it's generally something that the Aussies and New Zealanders are uncomfortable with. It's a bit like the leader of a pride of lions - once the big male gets deposed, he disappears into the sunset and is not tolerated in the new pride. You rarely see them hanging around for too long, skulking on the fringes.

In pure leadership theory terms, it has two possible interpretations. Firstly, you can lose a lot of knowledge and experience when the former leader walks away but perhaps they leave a strong legacy behind them. On the plus side, it tends to eliminate the 'bad feeling' of having a (possibly) disgruntled ex-captain still causing dissent in the background. To be fair to India and Sri Lanka, their team culture must be pretty strong to allow so many great players to finish their captaincy stints and return to the ranks for long and successful periods. The new captain seems to have the maturity and self-esteem to not feel threatened by a former leader. Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly, Kumble, Jayasuriya, Jayawardene - in their country's ranks, these guys are All-Time Greats and yet, they seem to be able to slip seamlessly back into the team without necessarily (or openly) causing any bad feeling. Perhaps that is a very 'Eastern' thing where old folk are venerated for their wisdom and knowledge and are therefore (rarely) cast aside in old age. Certainly in Sri Lankan culture, an old person is still seen as a figure of respect and the keeper of a store of wisdom. Until their death (literally or figuratively), they are still seen as the ceremonial head of the family even if they are no longer useful on a day-to-day basis. On the other hand, the Pakistani situation is less fluid in this respect.

I'm fascinated by the dressing room dynamics in the Indian team for example. So many great players, many of them ex-captains, and yet; they seem to operate as a relatively peaceful unit. Perhaps our Indian friends with 'inside knowledge' can shed more light on this. Is that really the case or is it a case of a duck swimming smoothly on the surface with the legs going madly under the surface?

Pakistan of course has no such mystery about their captaincy methods. I can't really figure it out myself because it seems to be such a tumultuous and dramatic process. Since Imran Khan finished his career, I've lost count of the number of captains and coups. Perhaps the Pakistani players are used to it and can put it behind them when play begins but I think their erratic performances have everything to do with the uncertainty of the captain's leadership tenure. They can be brilliant and awful in the space of a single session of play but it happens all too often to be purely coincidence. I know that the PCB is an overtly political organisation and perhaps this, more than any other reason, is responsible for the constant shift in loyalties and plans. Again, looking from the outside, it doesn't seem to be a particularly harmonious environment but that doesn't seem to get in the way of individual brilliance on a stunning scale. I've played against Pakistan twice in first-class matches and both times, it was hard to get a sense of who the captain was in the field. Everyone seemed to be having their say and it was a tense environment but perhaps organised chaos is just their way. For what it's worth, I think Pakistan play best under a very strong leader who almost rules with an iron fist. Imran is the obvious candidate but there were brief periods under Wasim Akram and Inzamam-ul-Haq when you got that sense of unity. What do our Pakistani friends think about this?

Moving north to England - that becomes a terribly interesting case study. I'm hoping Mike Holmans will post a rejoinder to provide a British perspective on this. From my perspective, England have almost been the mirror opposite of Australia. Or perhaps Australia deliberately tried to be the mirror opposite of the mother country, just to be perverse! England, until recently, have long enjoyed a tradition of picking a captain first and then crafting a team around him. And they've had great success stories to justify that too. Mike Brearley's 1981 Ashes triumph was a stunning case in point, ironically, inspiring the deposed Ian Botham to heroic deeds. There have been other cases too. The Cowdrey family feature in that list. Also, England teams don't seem to have much of a problem with ex-captains still continuing to play their role, long after their captaincy ambitions have been extinguished. Mike Gatting, David Gower, Botham, Kevin Pietersen, Andrew Flintoff and Graham Gooch are ready examples that come to mind. Again, that may have something to do with the County cricket system where it's almost seen as a job and players just slip into and out of teams on a daily basis. The bigger issue of selecting the captain first may come from the old Gentleman vs Players legacy or it may even hark back to the military where Generals and Admirals were chosen by the aristocracy and were "born to lead", so to speak. Looking forward to hearing a local perspective on that.

The West Indies is our final destination. I deliberately chose to finish my journey there. What better place to end this odyssey? Clearly, up until their recent demise as the cricketing superpower, the West Indies always thrived under a talismanic leader. Frank Worrell, Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards and Richie Richardson were undisputed legends in the dressing room, able to exert their charisma on a dressing room that was made up of many island kingdoms. It seems like a team made up of members from these tiny islands need a strong and inspirational leader. In more recent times, their choice of captain has still (generally) been one of the best players but even these guys find it difficult to shake off the yoke of their superpower history. Carl Hooper, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Courtney Walsh and now Chris Gayle are fabulous cricketers in their own right but I keep waiting for another leadership coup (or voluntary resignation). Perhaps that's being a bit unfair on Walsh who was probably a benevolent and popular leader but because his reign coincided with the West Indies' fall from grace, he gets lumped in with that lot. I can't see the situation improving in the immediate term, not with the lack of depth, the inter-island rivalries and the constant battles between the governing body and the Players' Association. When you add the lure of the IPL to this mix, I can't see the leadership issues getting fixed anytime soon. Perhaps Gayle has the "cool" to pull it off but I remain unconvinced. Lloyd and Viv were as cool as they come but for some reason, they were cool because they weren't trying to be. They just exuded 'Lion King' status every time they took to the field. Mind you, that's a lot easier with a quartet of seriously fast bowlers at your disposal!

Anyway, I'm looking forward to seeing the responses and learning a bit more about the cultural tendencies that govern cricket leadership. These are all just theories so in the absence of anything scientific, it's all we've got to have fun with. For a day, we can all pretend to be philosophers!

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