November 12, 2007

Ripe for the picking

Of all the jobs in a cricket team, the captain's is the one to which a few wrinkles are most conducive

Kumble: "been everywhere, done everything, seen it all before" © Getty Images

As a non-Indian cricket lover, you don't often find yourself casting admiring glances at the Indian selectors, but they have just got two big decisions right. One was appointing Mahendra Singh Dhoni captain for the World Twenty20. The other was not appointing him as Test captain. These are two very different games, and for the moment, in India, they require different captains.

Dhoni was right for Twenty20 partly because of his youth - he is 26. Ian Chappell thinks that's about the right age to become a Test captain. It was for him: he was 27, he had been in the team six years, and Australian cricketers in those far-off days seldom went on much beyond 30. But that was a generation and a half ago. These days, for most players, 26 is too young. Mike Atherton became a Test captain at 25: he wasn't ready. Nasser Hussain was 31: he was ready. Mark Taylor was 30: he was ready. Sachin Tendulkar was 23 the first time, and 26 the second: he wasn't ready either time.

This time round, the selectors had a brainstorm and offered the Test job to Tendulkar. When he sensibly declined, they had a brainwave and gave it to Anil Kumble. It's one of those choices that make you go "Of course! Why didn't they think of that earlier?" Kumble is intelligent, shrewd, resilient, respected, and vastly experienced. At 37 he might be considered too old; he has been in the Test team on and off, mostly on, for 17 years. But as long as you're still good enough to be in the team, which Kumble certainly is, how can you be too old to be captain?

Of all the jobs in a cricket team, the captain's is the one to which a few wrinkles are most conducive. The captain is a player-manager. He has to be at least semi-detached from his team-mates. He needs to have encountered triumph, disaster, good form, bad form, good captains, bad captains, and (above all) the stinging rebuke of being dropped. He should have been everywhere, done everything, seen it all before. Kumble pretty much has, from a ten-wicket haul to a Test century. He has played Tests in all ten countries, he is the third highest wicket-taker of all time, and his game runs on nous.

In most walks of life 37 is still young to be the person in charge. Even in cricket there are plenty of precedents. Ray Illingworth, one of the few England captains to win a Test series in Australia, took over at 37. Like Kumble he was a spinner and doughty lower-order batsman; a much less good bowler, but a better batsman. Mike Brearley, another Ashes colossus, didn't play Test cricket till he was 34, and only became England captain by default (when Tony Greig was sacked for recruiting players for Kerry Packer) at 35.

Even Australia have had their oldie captains: Bob Simpson was 41 when he was fished out of retirement to captain the Packer-depleted team of 1977-78, and Steve Waugh was 34 when he became captain and 38 when he finished. Imran Khan lifted the World Cup at 39; Clive Lloyd won a series in Australia at 40. Of course there have also been some elderly captains who haven't been great: while Inzamam-ul-Haq may be a dear old thing, Pakistan found new zip when he handed over to the much younger Shoaib Malik. But in a game that has begun to chuck players on the scrapheap when they are barely 35, it's good to see a veteran given the chance to apply his hard-earned expertise to captaincy.

Whether Kumble is a success will hinge on many things, only some of which are in his control. But his appointment is a breath of fresh air. And it makes the England selectors' handling of Mark Ramprakash, Kumble's near contemporary, look even more ageist.

Tim de Lisle is the author of Young Wisden (reviewed here) and a former editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly. His website is here