Australia must choose their vice-captain wisely
What really does a vice-captain do in the modern game? In the wake of Shane Watson's entirely predictable resignation from this role, it may be worth exploring the genuine rather than the symbolic role that a vice-captain plays today.
My tenet is that the role is almost redundant these days when even the captain's role is less influential, guided as he is by a powerful coach with up to four assistants, a medical team, a selection panel that is sometimes influenced by the board's priorities. Even the marketing department may play a subtle role in the final make-up of the team and the way the game is played, further diminishing the role of the captain himself, let alone his deputy.
Ironically, this current Australian team harks back to a bygone era, because, with Michael Clarke's dodgy back, there is every possibility that the vice-captain might have to step into the "office" at short notice, sometimes even on the morning of a game if Clarke's back locks up suddenly. It is entirely possible, nay probable, that the vice-captain will have to lead the team on the field during the course of a match, such is the worry around Clarke's injury status.
So for this Australian team, unlike the general trend in modern cricket elsewhere, the choice of vice-captain is indeed an important consideration. It is possibly a choice that may have series-changing consequences, especially if a senior player (eg: Brad Haddin) is drafted into the team to fill this position when he otherwise might not have been in the first XI. Haddin's selection, fine player though he is, has the potential to unbalance a team, especially if Matthew Wade continues to hold on to his spot as the preferred wicketkeeper. For once, Australia may be forced to select a player, even a captain, who was not necessarily amongst the first men chosen, all things being equal.
If you look at most other teams in world cricket, it's almost difficult to remember who the official vice-captain is, such is the insignificance of the role. MS Dhoni is clearly "The Man" in Indian cricket and I'm not even sure (without checking) who the deputy sheriff is. Virat Kohli perhaps? Alastair Cook is undoubtedly the master of all he surveys in the England camp and South Africa too have a strong leadership culture, albeit different men for different formats but each of them unmistakably in charge of that team in that context. Sri Lanka have just appointed Angelo Mathews but one has to wonder what his role was when Mahela Jayawardene was the captain. Did Mahela lean on him for advice or was he more likely to turn to Kumar Sangakkara or Tillakaratne Dilshan when he needed a sounding board?
Bangladesh appear to be reasonably settled at the moment although we don't see enough of them here in Australia to recognise their star players instantly. Our neighbours across the ditch are probably the ones most in need of a strong vice-captain, with the recent upheaval around Ross Taylor's resignation and Brendon McCullum's ascendancy to the throne, intriguingly caught up in the lawsuit he is ringing against a former New Zealand player who dared to question the transition of power. Depending on McCullum's state of mind, perhaps the choice of vice-captain in the New Zealand set-up needs to be carefully considered too in case there's a genuine chance that he may soon be called in to captain the team at a moment's notice.
To the original question though… in an era when the coach, assistant coaches, medical staff and computer analysts map out every single aspect of the match plan, including bowling workloads, what role does the vice-captain have to play? Tactically, one doubts if he has much input into what happens on the field. With a management-style communication system in place, it is debatable whether he has much of a role to play in acting as a bridge between the foot soldiers and the captain/coach.
Certainly, given what transpired in India recently, it is clear that the Clarke/Watson relationship was entirely at odds with the notion that the deputy is an extension of the captain's role. Looking at that situation and the fact that it got to the point that Watson had to be dropped for not adhering to team instructions suggests that in this case anyway, the role of the vice-captain was almost symbolic or ceremonial rather than as a genuine ally of the captain.
Even when Kim Hughes was struggling in his last days as Australian captain, Allan Border was perceived (accurately, I imagine) to be 100% in his captain's corner, fighting tooth and nail, with bat or beer in hand. Border's reluctant ascension when Hughes tearfully resigned in Brisbane in 1984 hinted at a team culture (before coaches, medicos and other support staff) where the captain could almost have chosen his most trusty ally to be the vice-captain, such was his reliance on that person, especially off the field.
This current Australian team needs to choose carefully because when (not if) Clarke's back flares up again, the vice-captain will most likely have the Ashes resting on his shoulders. It could possibly even morph into a permanent role if Clarke's fragile back continues to get worse. The problem they face is that there is no stand-out candidate in the same way that Border was clearly the only man for the job when Hughes resigned. There isn't a single player in the current team who can claim automatic selection without question. Just about every player in the squad is two poor games away from being dropped himself, hardly the sort of mind-set required to take on the massive responsibility of captaining an Ashes series, home and away.
Many a playboy king of yesteryear might have been heard making the sort of call that is probably now ringing in the corridors of Cricket Australia's plush offices in Melbourne… "A Hussey, a Hussey, my kingdom for a Hussey".
Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane