Conspiracy, cock-up and class war
Shocking though the swiftness of the departure of captain and coach was, no one should be surprised that the leadership of the England team causes such turmoil. The story of the England captaincy has been a story of politicking, conspiracies and cock-ups. To survey its history is to survey the English class system at work and the English at war with themselves.
Kevin Pietersen had found himself unable to work with the team's head coach, Peter Moores. These days this is the pivotal dressing-room relationship, and no team has yet prospered when captain and coach have been at loggerheads.
Yet in the days before coaches, a captain had to deal not only with a chairman of selectors who was far more powerful than the man who fills that post today, but tour managers who were usually ex-amateur players; even other captains, who had opinions about how the game should be played and were keen to bring their influence to bear.
Walter Robins, one of several meddling ex-amateurs who made the job of the captain that much harder, once called on Colin Cowdrey to declare during a tour of the Caribbean to set up an entertaining finish. Wisely Cowdrey refused. Len Hutton, England's first professional captain of modern times, also had trouble with Robins, who toyed with replacing Hutton with the amateur David Sheppard for the tour of Australia in 1954-55, a tour that proved Hutton's finest hour.
In 1967, Brian Close lost the England captaincy after the suits at Lord's disapproved of his time-wasting tactics in a county match. Even then the selectors wanted Close to stay on, but there were greater forces at work, just as there were when Douglas Jardine was ushered aside following the Bodyline controversy.
As the former England batsman Raman Subba Row once observed: "The influence of former amateur captains continued after they had moved into cricket administration. They had grown up as autocrats and persisted with the same attitudes." Not until 1969 was there a selection panel without amateur representation. But even today men who never stepped on to a first-class cricket field can veto a choice of captain.
The process of picking an England captain has rarely been straightforward. For a long time the options were chronically limited by the need for an amateur. This meant there was rarely much accountability; a semi-proficient captain could survive. After Hutton that began to change, but there were still some bizarre picks.
Overall perhaps fewer than half of England's captains were the right men chosen at the right time. Some were chosen too young, some too old, some not at all. Why was the job never given to Percy Fender or Trevor Bailey? Some were sacked when they should not have been, some were allowed to quit when they should have been persuaded to stay. Some were given the job having barely led a school XI; of these, some were surprisingly good.
Ultimately Pietersen lost the captaincy not because he lacked respect for Moores but because he lacked respect and could not hide it. Alan Gibson's excellent study of the England captaincy, published in 1979, carries the following verdict on Norman Yardley, a captain in the post-war period: "The intrigue and politics sometimes evident under the surface of cricket were repugnant to him."
There have always been intrigue and politics around the England captaincy and the message is one that Pietersen failed to heed: if you cannot handle the intrigue and the politics, don't do it.
1877-99 - Entrepreneurs in charge
In these early years everyone was making things up off the cuff. Tours by English teams were ad hoc affairs arranged by entrepreneurs, some of whom were professional players who - heaven forbid - captained the team. Such a thing was unthinkable when England played at home. Then a "gentleman" had to be in charge. But the practice of the host club choosing the XI played its part in WG Grace not being captain until 1888; thereafter, when fit, he led them in every home Test until 1899. He also led a tour of Australia. His record was good and he demonstrated the benefits of consistent leadership. He also stood down with good grace. Mind you, he was 50 years old.
1899-1914 - Regular amateurs
Procedure was stabilised with a home selection panel (from 1899, with the captain a co-opted member) and MCC running tours abroad (from 1903-04). Four amateurs dominated the captaincy - Archie MacLaren, Pelham Warner, FS Jackson and CB Fry - although, amateurs being amateurs, they were sometimes unavailable and others deputised.
MacLaren, a haughty Lancastrian, sorely tested the principle of sticking with the same man by losing four Ashes series in a row and blaming his players when things went wrong. This prompted MCC to turn to Middlesex's Warner to lead its first tour of Australia.
MacLaren went off in a huff, declining to play under Warner - the first big North-South captaincy spat. England won anyway. Warner led more tours - he was deemed a good diplomat - but never captained at home as he practised the grubby trade of journalism, a sideline that did not help Fry's cause either. Unusually, Fry was offered the captaincy for one Test in 1912, but when he demanded the job for the whole season he got his way and the biggest say in selection. The person Fry stared down was Lord Harris, England's first amateur captain turned senior administrator. Other ex-amateur captains would prove less pliant.
1920-33 - Toughening up
Attitudes hardened after back-to-back thrashings by Australia in 1920-21. England went for disciplinarian captains and professionals played a more prominent part in affairs. They lost 4-1 in 1924-25, but the result flattered Australia; Arthur Gilligan improved morale and fielding.
This was built on when the Ashes were regained in 1926, but it took two captains: Arthur Carr was replaced for the final match by the unproven Percy Chapman, another champion of fielding.
Chapman retained the Ashes in Australia but lost the job as he had acquired it, in mid-series controversy. His removal in 1930 created the biggest bust-up to date. The public were on his side and he gave an incendiary interview to the Daily Mail. Bob Wyatt, who replaced him, received death threats.
This time even the work of two captains could not stop Don Bradman, although effectively it did in 1932-33, when the Bodyline strategy - devised by Carr in county cricket and now implemented by the hardest-headed amateur of all, Jardine - led to England winning 4-1. But such was the fallout - Warner co-managed the tour and was barely speaking to Jardine by the end - that Jardine was gone before the next Ashes. Losing badly was one thing, winning badly another.
1938-55 - Rise of the professionals
England turned back to more conciliatory figures in Wyatt and Gubby Allen, but only briefly. In 1937, Walter Hammond, England's best player, announced he was turning amateur, which made his elevation to the captaincy a formality.
This was effectively the start of professionals holding the job, which, with them, subtly changed description. There was the expectation that the incumbent would do it full time and long term. With this came greater scrutiny - and sacking or resignation was the only way out.
Hammond endured his duties moodily and Hutton, officially the first modern professional captain in 1952, also found them stressful. MCC did not take easily to Hutton's promotion and made life hard. It gave him Charles Palmer as player-manager in the Caribbean, which meant neither knew who was properly in charge, and the meddlesome Robins, now a selector, flirted with the idea of Sheppard replacing Hutton for Australia in 1954-55.
The northerner won this North-South spat and also the Ashes.
The death of the old-style amateur captain was signalled by the brusque stewardship of Freddie Brown. He mishandled the young Close among others. But he, like Robins, would stick his oar in for years to come.
1955-75 - Search for a winner
England stumbled on another great leader in Peter May: they were never more successful than under Hutton and May. But May, a professional in amateur clothing, was appointed young and the strain drove him to retire at 31.
This left the captaincy unsettled throughout the 1960s and the Ashes safe in Australia. But the suits at Lord's did not help: Robins, as tour manager or chairman of selectors, issued confusing instructions about the need for aggressive cricket.
Ted Dexter was a natural leader but his commitment was qualified and his tenure was over before he was 30. Cowdrey was too diffident. MJK Smith was decent and popular but lacked the killer instinct. Close could have done the job for years, but a time-wasting incident in a county match prompted the Cricket Council (a precursor of the ECB) to withdraw its support even though the selectors favoured him. For all that, an apology from Close could have saved him.
Then, in 1969, Ray Illingworth, appointed almost by default, found the job the making of him at 37. He regained and retained the Ashes and was the first man comfortable with all aspects of the job. For all the pressure, the job was acquiring kudos. Cowdrey coveted it and so did Geoff Boycott. But Boycott missed out to Mike Denness in what was portrayed as another North-South argument (despite being a Scot, Denness was spiritually a southerner) and withdrew in a MacLaren-esque strop.
1975-86 - Avoiding the sack
The volume of Test cricket was on the rise and so were the financial rewards. Neither did much for England's captains, only one of the seven appointed during this period stepping down in happy circumstances (Mike Brearley twice). The rest were effectively sacked - three in mid-series - within two years. Tony Greig forfeited the job when he found a higher calling - namely money, courtesy of Kerry Packer's breakaway World Series Cricket. His replacement, Brearley, like Illingworth, came to the job late, but unlike Illingworth could not raise his game to Test level. Still, Brearley (the last but one Oxbridge man to lead England) not only survived but thrived, because he was a natural captain and had great players at his disposal. His best players - Ian Botham, Bob Willis and David Gower - all had a go at the job with mixed fortunes. Keith Fletcher, another elder statesman, deserved more than one series but lost his position during a change in chairman of selectors from Alec Bedser (the first former professional to hold the post) to May, whose appointment of the recently retired Willis as assistant manager in West Indies, where a second 5-0 defeat was sustained, marked a new low. A shake-up was overdue.
1986-99 - Enter the coach
Micky Stewart's appointment as assistant manager in Australia in 1986-87 marked the entrance of a year-round coach or manager with a closer hand on team affairs than the old-style tour manager or chairman of selectors ever had.
This lightened the load on the captain, helped distance him from selection and played its part in both Graham Gooch and Mike Atherton staying almost five years, even though results declined. With media coverage greater than ever - every overseas tour from 1989-90 was covered by Sky TV, whose commentary box was full of wise-acring ex-captains - the assistance was essential.
But captain and coach had to see eye to eye. Stewart got on with Mike Gatting and Gooch, but not Gower. Atherton - having seen off Micky's son Alec to the captaincy - had problems with Illingworth's hunger for power. Reviving old county alliances was one solution: Gooch was helped by Fletcher from Essex, Atherton by David Lloyd from Lancashire. But before this system bedded in, the amateurs flexed their muscles one last time.
May decried Gatting's reverse sweep that cost a World Cup and appointed as captain his own godson, Chris Cowdrey, son of Colin. Gatting was sacked, murkily, after a kiss-and-tell scandal; an attempt to restore him was vetoed by Ossie Wheatley, chairman of the Test and County Cricket Board's cricket committee. Dexter got off on the wrong foot as chairman of selectors by saying Gooch had all the personality of a wet fish.
2000-09 - Ultra-professional?
The final step towards full professionalisation was taken, it was thought, in 2000, when England players were placed on contracts that put them at the full-time disposal of the coach, Duncan Fletcher.
Fletcher wielded unprecedented power but wisely let Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan implement final strategy. The relationships were good and by 2004-05, England were winning six series in succession, including the Ashes.
But with Vaughan injured, Fletcher worked less well with Andrew Flintoff and started exercising disconcerting power. England lost 5-0 in Australia, a result that cost both men their jobs and led to the creation of a managing director of the team, Hugh Morris.
But Morris' appointment of Moores as coach was disastrous: heavy-handed in his demands, Moores failed to create a rapport with any of the three captains (including Paul Collingwood of the one-day side) he worked with before the ECB sacked him. But Pietersen lost the captaincy at the same time after claiming every player shared his view that Moores should go. This was not true: Flintoff told Pietersen he could not support his position.
For the Caribbean in 2009, England toured without a head coach for the first time in 23 years, with Morris acting as an old-style tour manager and captain Andrew Strauss asking his players to take more responsibility. We seem to have stepped back in time.
Simon Wilde is cricket correspondent of the Sunday Times. This article was first published in the March 2009 issue of the Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here