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Never mind one captain across all formats, England have now installed three. It raises many questions but promises a fascinating ride
May 6, 2011
The best bibs and tuckers were brought out for the occasion, though Cameron and Clegg in the Downing Street Rose Garden this was not - for starters, the troika of captains lined up in the ECB offices are all unquestionably batting for the same team. However, on the same day that Britain's voters went to the polls to decide on electoral reform, England's cricket team led the way in demonstrating a remarkable appetite for change, as they unveiled the most ambitious captaincy structure imaginable.
Much like the coalition government that has been running the country for the past year, England's new leadership arrangement is one that has been born of necessity. A winter of brutal intensity in Australia and the subcontinent has proven beyond all doubt that there are too many matches and too many formats of the game for any one leader to take on alone. The answer they have hit upon is a different captain for each format - a leap into the unknown at the start of a new four-year cycle for the squad, and one, like the Con-Dem coalition, that offers plenty of ammunition for the sceptics.
There are so many reasons to believe it cannot work. For starters, there's the choice of Alastair Cook as the new one-day captain, a batsman who was not even deemed worthy of a squad berth in the recent World Cup, and who has not been selected in limited-overs cricket for 14 months. Then there's the choice of Stuart Broad as Twenty20 skipper, a player whose reputation for petulance precedes him, and who has not led an XI of any description since his schooldays.
Last and by no means least, there's the impact that such a division of labour could have on the Test captain, Andrew Strauss, who turned 34 in March and who remembers only too well how quickly Michael Vaughan's authority eroded when he stood down from one-day cricket at the end of the 2007 World Cup. When Nasser Hussain took the same decision after the 2003 tournament in South Africa, he managed three more Tests at the helm before deciding the dressing room was no longer his to command. With those precedents in mind, the 2013 Ashes double header, Strauss's stated goal, seems a long way off yet.
And yet, for all the potential pitfalls, there are sufficient reasons to believe this approach might just work. Certainly, the manner in which the new chain of command was presented at Lord's on Thursday morning was convincing, and as all the talk turned to strategies and long-term planning, the impression became less a gathering of politicians putting an optimistic spin on an awkward alliance, and more of a group of army officers gathering for a regimental parade.
As with the best-drilled army units, the tiers of power within the set-up that England unveiled were clearly visible, and at this stage at least, seemingly unimpeachable. After all, it was the same ECB hierarchy, from the desk-wallah Hugh Morris, through the field commanders Andy Flower, Strauss, and their galloping subaltern Cook, and on down to the footsoldiers who made up the battle-ready reserves, that devised and carried out an Ashes campaign universally hailed for its military precision.
If those same virtues are now to be extrapolated through a four-year plan, rather than a five-month winter, then the outstanding triumph that was secured in Australia deserves to have earned the strategists the benefit of any initial doubts. Especially if, by adopting this new approach, they are seeking to tackle head-on the single biggest reason for the squad's downturn in the second half of the winter, and the single biggest issue in Flower's recent contract negotiations - player workloads.
|As with the best-drilled army units, the tiers of power within the set-up that England unveiled were clearly visible, and at this stage at least, seemingly unimpeachable|
"This has never been tried before so we are excited about the opportunity this provides for us," said Flower. "We are covering new ground. We do not know 100% whether it will work and be the most efficient system, but we will give it a try, and with the quality of people we've got around us, we form a good leadership team. I hope and believe it can work."
"There are always opportunities whereby people in responsible positions can step out for a while and let other people fill that space and grow as people or leaders," he added. "I'm certainly not afraid to do that, and it's part of Hugh Morris's ideas for growing leadership in all ways in English cricket that those opportunities exist."
Strauss, the man who bore the most visible brunt of that winter itinerary, quite rightly allowed himself a long and considered pause before confirming his one-day retirement, but having done so, he seemed ready to embrace the gaps in his workload, and assume a new mantle of "captain's captain" - a prelude, conceivably, to a more permanent strategic role within the ECB when he finally calls time on his playing career.
"The structure gives each captain a real opportunity to come in and give real energy and verve and direction to their particular format of the game," said Strauss. "And given the continuous nature of international cricket, it is potentially the best way of getting the best out of the cricketers at our disposal in all forms of the game. As long as we have clear lines of responsibility, that's a great way of widening the net of ideas for strategies and mapping out a better course."
With that in mind, as the three captains and Flower lined up on the podium, the dovetailing that each man provided to the next seemed undeniably neat. The Test vice-captain takes charge of the ODIs, the ODI vice-captain leads the Twenty20s, and lest anyone gets the impression that the shortest format is also the least significant, Broad can point to his status as the only automatic pick in all three formats.
It took some work to get to this point. As Flower was at pains to point out, a "rigorous interview process" was undertaken before the candidates were offered their roles, and while he chose not to disclose the details of that process, he did concede that Kevin Pietersen had been considered for a return to a position of authority. That he had not met the necessary criteria was revealing, given that the opportunity had clearly been available to bring about a measure of closure on the events of January 2009, and offer Pietersen a chance to reclaim some of the responsibility that was taken from him after his failed coup against Peter Moores.
The message was subtle, but clear. The new regime has no interest in pandering to battered egos, or coaxing motivation where none already exists. It may be unfair to single out Pietersen in that particular regard, but it is nevertheless fascinating to look back on England's last grand captaincy announcement, in August 2008, when KP was the man named as leader in all three formats.
The yearning in those uncertain days was for a singular personality who could lead by charisma and develop his plans on the hoof. Within five months, however, his bonfire of vanities had set the whole England structure ablaze. And, in his defence, with some justification, given how easily it all went up in smoke - a fact he gleefully pointed out only minutes after the Ashes had been secured in Melbourne.
It's still remarkable to recall that Flower, then assistant coach, and Strauss, the long-since-snubbed captain, were thrust together as an emergency pairing for the tour of the Caribbean only weeks after the KP-Moores debacle. In the space of two years they have regained and retained the Ashes, and lifted England's long and lamentable reputation in one-day cricket to such heights that they won the World Twenty20 this time last year, and surprised everyone with their shortcomings at the recent World Cup, rather than have them accepted as standard.
That two-year test drive has gone better than anyone could have imagined, and so now, with new deals on the tables and time to take stock before the intensity levels are ramped up once again, the scope of England's new ambitions surely have to be welcomed before they are derided. If there is a single lesson to be taken from KP-Moores, it is the need to groom a line of succession, because the alchemy that Duncan Fletcher enjoyed with Hussain and Vaughan, and Flower with Strauss, cannot be taken for granted in every match-up. Such partnerships have to be worked upon, and in Cook and Broad, England now have two such works in progress.
In Cook's case, the process began in Bangladesh last year, when he was thrust into the breach to allow Strauss to rest before the year's major challenges - and how sensible does that decision now appear in retrospect? While it is easy to deride the quality of the opposition on that trip, Cook's stock grew exponentially as he guided the side to five international wins out of five, and those who saw the manner in which he rose to the responsibility would draw a direct correlation between his efforts on that trip and those he produced against tougher opponents but on more batsman-friendly wickets in the Ashes the following winter.
Cook will be 30 when the 2015 World Cup takes place, entering his prime as an international batsman, and returning to Australia, the scene of his finest hour bar none. If there is currently some trepidation about the task he has been asked to take on, the breadth of his achievements to date give plenty reason to believe he's got the mental toughness to rise to the challenge. As it happens, Strauss took on the one-day captaincy in remarkably similar circumstances in 2009, having not played in the format for two years before he returned as leader in the Caribbean. He didn't merely answer his doubters, he emerged as one of the outstanding batsmen in the team, a process that peaked with his memorable 158 against India in the recent World Cup.
"The obvious lesson is that being captain can really help your game," said Strauss. "When you are trying to show the way to other people in the team who want to play a certain type of cricket, it's important as a batsman you deliver that yourself, and I think we got a good indication from Alastair when he captained the side in Bangladesh that he's very capable of doing that. I think it transformed me as a one-day player, and it may allow him to go up to a different level in one-day cricket as well."
If there is one undoubted loser in this whole process, it is Paul Collingwood, who Flower conceded was "very disappointed" to be stripped of the Twenty20 captaincy, having hoped to bow out on a high by defending his World Twenty20 title in Sri Lanka next year. And yet, for all that Collingwood led superbly by example in that campaign last May, his time as an England captain still belongs to that former era of chaos.
His abortive stint as ODI skipper, which hit rock bottom in a rancorous home series against New Zealand in 2008, left such scars that he was never once anointed as England's official Twenty20 captain despite the success he enjoyed. However, while it was undoubtedly glorious, his World Twenty20 triumph owed as much to good fortune as it did to firm leadership - not least the timely discovery in Abu Dhabi of Craig Kieswetter and Michael Lumb as a pair of devil-may-care openers. The defence (in a country where England lost by 10 wickets in their most recent international fixture) will require much better planning, as Flower himself spelt out in no uncertain terms.
"We've come to the end of a cycle of some description, but there's huge potential for growth," he said. "Yes, we are Twenty20 champions, but that guarantees nothing in 18 months' time. We are ranked No. 3 in Test cricket, but our goal is to be ranked No. 1. We've done some good things in one-day cricket and had some very good results, but as evidenced in this last winter, we've got a long way to go. We have to improve, and to do that, we have to be very hungry and driven."
However, to judge from the evidence at Lord's, that hunger and drive is undoubtedly in place. May 5 may or may not be recalled as a day of momentous change in Great Britain as a while, but the country's cricket team has already decided that the progressive path is the only viable option.
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