February 23, 2012

Captaincy gamble passes the test

England took a gamble in selecting three captains for each form of the game but they have made their experiment work effectively

Stuart Broad has assumed command of the Twenty20 side in Dubai, following Alastair Cook in the one-day series and Andrew Strauss in the Tests before that. Three captains in 17 days and no suggestion whatsoever that confusion and muddled leadership is all around. The nonchalance with which England have pulled this off is quite extraordinary.

There can be no greater testimony to England's togetherness than the fact that they have had three captains for nearly nine months now and as yet there is not a hint of dissension in the ranks.

When there is tension, you can be sure you will hear about it. Conflict and disagreement is the stuff of our trade, an example of survival of the fittest as sport has come to know it, an endless succession of appointments, resignations and sackings designed forever to replenish leadership, satisfy ambition and rebuild hopes.

England's captaincy triumvirate was a policy largely born of necessity. Strauss had retired from one-day cricket, Cook was not deemed dashing enough for a place in T20. Andy Flower, the coach, did not hide the sense of experiment at the time, saying: "We are covering new ground and that is exciting. We do not know 100% whether it will work or whether it will be the most effective and efficient system, but we are going to give it a try."

One aspect in England's favour has been that three very different formats of the game allow their three captains to be territorial without undermining the others. It is a help, too, when England have their most senior and respected leader, Strauss, in the most revered form of the game. It would feel unnatural to do it any other way. Strauss was so comfortable about the idea that when photos were taken of the three captains at Lord's last year he allowed himself to be photographed on a chair with the two younger men standing on either side, inviting the unworthy thought that he had reached the age where he needed a sit-down.

Each game demands different strategies, different personnel to some extent and also different roles for those personnel. In each format, there are stated goals. The presence of a new captain - a specialist captain, if you like - is an immediate and invigorating reminder that a new game is in town and that some thought processes must change. It states that what has gone before is largely irrelevant. Players come to recognise that reputations must be made not once but three times. Rather than becoming a potential problem, England's policy can encourage flexibility of thinking.

To work successfully, the captaincy triumvirate has to become a mechanism that states by its very existence the benefits of a collective effort

Only Andrew Strauss must captain with both his potential rivals, Cook and Broad, playing under him, but Strauss' authority is so deeply established that he can do this without any suggestion that it weakens his position. His only sense of impermanence comes when he is not scoring runs. The fact that a line of succession exists is immaterial.

Whatever the potential advantages, for many it will forever seem unnatural. An obsession with celebrity has encouraged a belief in the power of the individual. In Britain, our prime ministers are becoming more presidential in style, assumed by many to be all-powerful, even though the truth is more complex. The truth in English cricket is also more complex - a network of coaches and other support staff, selectors, even an administrator or two, without whom a captain is just another fall guy.

The term "survival of the fittest" is so often misunderstood - long assumed, especially in business, to be little more than an aggressive struggle for supremacy in which only the strongest or most manipulative survive. The "selfish gene" is presented as vital in ensuring success. There is not much room in this championing of individuality for the importance of society or teamwork.

But in a well-managed cricket side the captain must be team-orientated, the most giving, the player who can be most relied upon to see the bigger picture. There might have been less emphasis, in the natural world or in the field of sport, for the view that survival is as much to do with co-operation as individual superiority, but it is - and every time David Attenborough steps into the wild with a camera crew there are all the examples you need. Convince 11 talented cricketers of the advantage of working together, without trying to steal a march on their rivals, and you have something very special.

England's cricket team, with the coach, Flower, to the fore, understands that co-operation is the essence of a successful side. Strauss, Cook and Broad have not fallen prey to power struggles because to do so would challenge the ethos that has helped them escape decades of disappointment and become the No. 1-ranked Test side in the world. And, even if they wanted to, they cannot stage a coup anyway because in a tightly knit group there are too many checks and balances in the way.

This sharing of insight between the three captains has happened naturally and enthusiastically - "dovetailing" is what Broad called it this week when asked if he was concerned about Cook's addition to the T20 squad. It takes good people to achieve that and, in Strauss, Cook and Broad, England have good people.

The triumvirate will be obsessively monitored all the same for the slightest show of unfettered ambition. Their need to maintain a unified strength of purpose is a great responsibility.

"Fascinating," murmured Kevin Pietersen, a former captain who had been damaged by absolute power, when the policy was implemented last May. It was the perfect word. To work successfully, the captaincy triumvirate has to become a mechanism that states by its very existence the benefits of a collective effort. It might not do for all teams, or all times, but nearly nine months on, it has gone as smoothly as anybody must have dared to believe.

David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Jackie on February 26, 2012, 18:23 GMT

    You are quite right about the failure to understand 'the survival of the fittest'. It means those that survive will be the ones who fit into the environment. We talk about being fit for purpose - that kind of fit (not the gym kind of fit). You are right about Strauss but I have to disagree with you about Flower. He has gone out of his way to talk about competition for places and cutthroat competition (most infamously when he sent Davies packing). So I think the team ethic is under stress in the ODIs because Cook seems to echo him. Broad almost seems an absent captain. He tends to disappear when the going gets tough. There was a jarring note in the desert when Flower lectured the Test players - including Strauss - on the field in front of the media. It didn't do any good. Not really surprising.

  • John on February 25, 2012, 17:34 GMT

    @bigwonder on (February 25 2012, 04:57 AM GMT) - You really have a huge ego about SC cricket don't you? I did not say that SC does not matter , just that to beat Australia in Australia (before you say it) despite the Aus transition period (which the NZ series proved they are still going through) means more than winning in any SC country. I have done the stats in my previous post to justify that this was a much bigger hurdle to cross. Re you saying SC is THE of WC. What do you mean by that? The highest any SC side is ranked in any format is 3rd. There is no format where a SC country is currently above both Eng and Aus. And you talk about the IPL like it's the holy grail of cricket - how pathetic does that make India's T20 ranking? Eng may lose the test and T20 1 status but it will be to SA and not to India who will inevitably slide below Pakistan. PS no offence to SC cricket fans meant. pLEASE PUBLISH espn

  • John on February 25, 2012, 11:13 GMT

    @bigwonder - PS Where are all these excuses you're on about for England losing the tests to Pak? To a man we may have criticised our selections and certainly criticised our batsmen but most of us also managed to congratulate Pakistan for their win. We could have tried to use the Injury excuse with Bresnan and Tremlett or Trott being ill for one of the inns , but we hold our hands up. The better team won and fair play to them. Also fair play to most of the fans for their show of respect throughout.

  • Dummy4 on February 25, 2012, 9:13 GMT

    @bigwonder and your point is?

  • Dummy4 on February 25, 2012, 8:53 GMT

    Take it on the chin you selectors. You got it all wrong again. Cook is such a good players. He will hold more genuine records than most in the history of cricket. You fools did not select him to play in the world cup ODI squad. Stewart Broad is a little spoilt kid. He will never make a good captain. Andrew Strauss has done well against all odds. It is time you give Cook the captaincy in all there forms and let him build a good team. You cannot have him play under a spoilt brat. Learn from the Aussies if it is the only thing you take note of.

  • Bryn on February 25, 2012, 8:23 GMT

    as i said, england must be a joke having broad as a captain, cant tell whether they are joking or not. strauss is also a joke, such a poor on field captain

  • Big on February 25, 2012, 4:57 GMT

    @JG2704, You still don't get it, do you? Aus and Eng are no longer "the" of the world cricket. Sub-continent has a lot of offer. Eng may have their priorities mixed up and are only thinking like a wells frog (aus and eng) who has no clue what the outside world looks like (sub-continent). The England team under Strauss will soon loose the #1 status in test cricket (just like India did under Dhoni). And aren't we giving too many excuses for England's white wash (just like you said for India)? Keep in mind, what goes around, comes around. Its just the beginning of the fall of mighty England in cricket world.

  • James on February 25, 2012, 3:39 GMT

    Strauss is obviously a good captain, always was a steady mind, which is far from what one can say about Broad or even Cook (Sometimes, when I watch Cook bat against good bowling, or when he is captaining, I feel he is a bit overestimated- an average of 48 in tests in a batsman friendly era does not suggest greatness). The English media has a habit of reacting too soon. Lets watch Cook and Broad for some more time, let them really prove themselves before we praise them. Strauss on the other hand has performed quite well with an average team- After the period of Aussie domination, the no.1 teams are not fundamentally superior to the nos. 4 or 5. It is the leadership that provides the edge. In this I suspect, Flower may have a big role as well.

  • ayaz on February 24, 2012, 16:27 GMT

    Shoaib Malik should be dropped and others should get a chance

  • Hassan on February 24, 2012, 16:08 GMT

    Maybe Pakistan should learn from it. Kickout everyone over 30 from T20 and replace it with youngsters like Nasir Jamshed, Shahzeb Hassan, Ahmed Shahzad, Hammad Azam. Then appoint Umar Akmal as captain, re-instate Afridi as captain for ODI, and leave test for Misbah.

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