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

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