February 13, 2012

Clarke treads in the footsteps of the greats

Australia's three great modern captains have been Richie Benaud, Ian Chappell and Mark Taylor. And their latest leader may soon be counted among them

Michael Clarke has the indefinable measure of cricket nous, which lifts him above the ruck. He has won seven of his first 12 matches as Test captain, and though mere statistics don't tell the story, he has led a largely young and inexperienced Australian team with flair and a good dollop of common sense. Even at this early stage of his reign it is obvious that he is destined to walk with the greats.

Since Don Bradman, Australia's most outstanding captains have been Richie Benaud, Ian Chappell and Mark Taylor.

Benaud was Test captaincy's modern torch-bearer. He took the leadership to a another level by cutting the old "them and us" thing with the press, inviting journalists to after-match press conferences, celebrating on the field at the fall of a wicket, even calling for team meetings before matches. Opposition players were analysed. Plans to diminish their effectiveness were put in place - the kind of team talks that are commonplace today.

Benaud was lucky to have Neil Harvey as his deputy, and also to be able to lean on Keith Miller as a mentor. So too, Shane Warne, whose leadership skills were on display at Hampshire, where Clarke played for a time, must have made an impact on Australia's new Test captain. Both Miller and Warne were brilliant cricketers, with astute cricket brains. They would have made wonderful Test captains but for off-field events that gave administrators the yips.

Until the 1957-58 Australian tour of South Africa under Ian Craig, Benaud's career was treading water, but in that series he batted and bowled magnificently, hitting two magnificent centuries and taking four bags of five wickets. The tour was the renaissance of Benaud's cricket career, taking him to a new world of success. It also brought him the Test captaincy; when Craig fell ill, Benaud was chosen as his successor, ahead of the more fancied Harvey.

As Benaud's all-round skills continued to improve, he impressed with his captaincy too. Against Peter May's England team in 1958-59, the Australians thrashed the tourists 4-0.

Perhaps Benaud's greatest hour was the 1960-61 tour by West Indies. Cricket worldwide had been in the doldrums: defensive fields, leg theory, lots of slow, boring play, too many drawn matches. At tea on the last day of the first Test in Brisbane, Australia were 108 for 6, with Alan Davidson on 16 and Benaud 6. The team need a further 123 in even time to win the match. Bradman asked Benaud: "Richie, what are you going for? A win or a draw?"

"A win, of course," Benaud declared.

Clarke leads a team of enthusiastic young men who are enjoying the environment of a winning outfit. They appear to want to run through a brick wall for him, just as those before him gave everything to the likes of Benaud, Chappell and Taylor

"Glad to hear it."

It is now history, but the game ended in the first tied Test in history. It paved the way for a remarkable series, which captured the imagination of the public.

In December 1963, during the second over of South Africa's innings at the Gabba, the players and the crowd were aghast when Colin Egar no-balled Ian Meckiff for throwing. Benaud was criticised for not trying Meckiff from Egar's end and thus testing the other umpire, Lou Rowan, who stood at square leg. However, Benaud stuck to his guns. One of his bowlers had been called for chucking and he apparently believed it unfair to "test" the other umpire and perhaps prolong Meckiff's agony. Astute and willing to take risks, Benaud was the first great Australian captain after Bradman, creating a benchmark for those to follow.

Chappell took over from Bill Lawry for the seventh Test of the 1970-71 series against England. His opposing captain was Ray Illingworth, a man who fought to the death, took no prisoners, and was an outstanding leader, managing to get the best out of moody Sussex fast bowler John Snow.

Chappell learned from Illingworth, from how Les Favell attacked, and from how Lawry created pressure on an opponent with deft field placement. An aggressive batsman, Chappell also bowled good-quality legspin, so he saw the merits of a balanced attack.

During a tense time in his first Test as captain, Chappell tossed the ball to debutant Ken Eastwood, the Victorian opening batsman. Eastwood's high-tossed delivery didn't hit the pitch before Keith Fletcher met the ball, but he mistimed and it flew gently to Keith Stackpole in the inner circle.

The 1972 Australian tour of England was Chappell's "Battle of Britain". Australia had axed Lawry, Ian Redpath and Graham McKenzie and were a largely untried lot; young but willing combatants up against Illingworth's "Dad's Army".

Chappell created an environment of empowerment and trust. He invited us to drinks in his "lounge room", which happened to be the front bar of the Waldorf Hotel in the Aldwych, a Keith Miller drive from Australia House. This was not a time to get plastered; it was all about camaraderie and getting to know one another. Regular visitors joining us for a jar were pop legend Mick Jagger and Australian actor Ed Devereaux. Mixing with their team-mates for a few drinks was never the go for the likes of Bradman and Lawry. Bradman said in defence of his never going to a bar that he didn't have to indulge in a beer-drinking contest. But it wasn't about that; just being there would have sufficed and helped them to better get to know their team-mates.

Chappell inherited much of his strength of character from his father, Martin, and his grandfather Vic Richardson, who led Australia to a 4-0 victory over South Africa in 1935-36. Like his grandson, Richardson played cricket hard and fair and had a keen sense of humour. How he would have enjoyed this story.

South Australia were playing at the Gabba against Queensland once. As we were walking out onto the field, Chappelli brushed past one of our opening bowlers, Andrew Sincock, who was blow-drying his hair in front of the mirror near the dressing-room door. Chappelli sidled up to me and said:

"Mate, I want you to open the bowling. Come into the wind after Fang's [Wayne Prior] first over."


"No bastard who blow-dries his hair just as we are about to take the field is going to open the bowling in any team I lead."

Chappelli had a great regard for the job of leading Australia, and to those of us lucky enough to have played under his captaincy, he is very much the "captain for life". He could be hard as nails, but whenever an old team-mate is in any way in trouble, Chappelli is the first man to his side.

Taylor took over from Allan Border, whose 93 Tests as captain yielded 32 wins. Whereas Border was initially a reluctant captain, Taylor was brimful of confidence and purpose. Border's leadership was supported by coach Bob Simpson, and at that time the Australians needed a tough coach-cum-mentor who would drill them relentlessly in the basic skills. Legend has it that when Simpson introduced Taylor to the players, the new captain stepped "up to the plate" and addressed the troops with an assertiveness that told them straightaway that here was a born leader.

And how Taylor led Australia. He took his men to Pakistan in 1998 and won the series. Then England toured Australia and Taylor's men beat them 3-1, with one draw. As with his illustrious predecessors, Taylor led with inspiration; he tried to make things happen - with an imaginative declaration, an inventive field placing, or brilliant bowling change. And as with Benaud and Chappell before him, Taylor gave free rein to his batsmen to play their shots. That was manna from heaven for the likes of Mark Waugh, a lovely free-scoring stylist.

As a slip fieldsman Taylor ranks with the best, perhaps slightly ahead of Chappell, if not as good as Simpson, arguably the best pair of hands at first slip in cricket history. In his first ODI as captain (filling in for the injured Border) Taylor got single figures but won Man of the Match against West Indies. It was a low-scoring shortened game on a greentop under lights and Taylor's reward came in the wake of four magnificent catches he took at first slip.

Taylor didn't brook nonsense. A man's man, he likes a beer and a chat. Respectful of the traditions of the game, he is highly regarded in world cricket. The players who toiled under his captaincy revere him. Yes, he had the great ones - Warne and Glenn McGrath - to call upon in the field, but it was under Taylor's influence that their partnership flourished. As captain, Taylor was tops, and that was apparent in his last couple of seasons, when his batting consistency deserted him. It was his brilliant leadership that kept his head above water, and the selectors stuck by him.

Before Warne was joined by offspinner Tim May, Taylor utilised the spin of Mark Waugh, who was more than useful and often gave his captain added variety. In 1993, Warne and May were handled brilliantly by Taylor. Their partnership bloomed as they attacked in tandem.

Statistically Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting are miles ahead as captains in terms of win-loss ratio, but we don't say Tendulkar or Border are better batsmen than Bradman because of the number of runs they scored

Statistically Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting are miles ahead as captains in terms of win-loss ratio, but we don't say Tendulkar or Border are better batsmen than Bradman because of the number of runs they scored. Waugh had 41 victories in 57 games as captain, Ponting 48 wins in 77 matches. However, when Waugh got into trouble he quickly ran on the defensive. In his last season Waugh had his fast men bowl to a 7-2 field and India scored something in excess of 700.

Waugh may have led the side in 15 of Australia's record-breaking 16 Test wins on the trot, but you have to assess the quality of the opposition at the time. His team played a lot of cricket against the minnows, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, the emerging Sri Lanka, and a West Indian team that was rapidly fading to relative insignificance compared with the powerful, all-conquering sides led by Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards.

Ponting tended to lead like Steve Waugh. Mount up the runs, and then have Warne, McGrath and Co finish them off. Lloyd did similarly, scoring a mountain of runs, even batting on to score the other team out of contention, then setting his four fast bowlers on the opposition. That day in Cardiff, when Monty Panesar held out for ten overs as Ponting continued to bowl Nathan Hauritz and didn't call upon Simon Katich's wrist spin early on was a huge indictment of the way the side was being led.

Thankfully Clarke has led by example and by instinct. He has a lot of flair about him and is ever mindful of the need to take wickets, knowing that getting wickets at regular intervals breaks the rhythm of the batting side.

His treatment of offspinner Nathan Lyon has been an interesting study this summer. We've seen how Lyon often operates too wide of the crease when bowling over the wicket to right-handers, but Clarke has helped Lyon create an angle away by getting him to bowl around the wicket. The ploy worked beautifully at Adelaide Oval, when Lyon made Tendulkar struggle for survival before delivering the killer blow.

Clarke doesn't have the luxury of a Warne or a McGrath in his side, but he leads a team of enthusiastic young men who are enjoying the environment of a winning outfit. They appear to want to run through a brick wall for Clarke, just as those before him gave everything to the likes of Benaud, Chappell and Taylor. It is not too fanciful to foresee Clarke one day walking alongside that trio of great Australian captains.

Ashley Mallett took 132 Tests wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. An author of over 25 books, he has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson and Ian Chappell