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UK editor, ESPNcricinfo

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

David Hopps

February 23, 2012

Comments: 24 | Text size: A | A

Alastair Cook, Andrew Strauss and Stuart Broad, England's three captains, walk out from a press conference at Lord's, May 5, 2011
England have the perfect atmosphere in their squad to ensure their experiment with three captains works © Getty Images
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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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© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by jackiethepen 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.

Posted by JG2704 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

Posted by JG2704 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.

Posted by   on (February 25, 2012, 9:13 GMT)

@bigwonder and your point is?

Posted by   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.

Posted by jonesy2 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

Posted by bigwonder 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.

Posted by jimbond 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.

Posted by ayazahmedsk on (February 24, 2012, 16:27 GMT)

Shoaib Malik should be dropped and others should get a chance

Posted by Hassan.Farooqi 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.

Posted by PanGlupek on (February 24, 2012, 15:53 GMT)

@randyoz: If you're an opener and you play at least 50% of your games in English conditions facing a swinging Duke ball, an average of 40 isn't bad going. What do visiting teams openers average when they play in England?

Also, does a high batting average make you a good captain?

I agree his form's not great though: if Cook keeps doing the business & the team keeps winning ODI's, people will question Strauss' place soon enough, but only if/when the team starts losing: 34's by no means past it as a batsman, but if you do get dropped, it's hard to come back from...

Posted by   on (February 24, 2012, 13:43 GMT)

@ David Hopps

Strauss is going to have his captaincy questioned if he keeps underperforming with the bat. 1 Hundred since the 2009 Ashes (25 tests) is starting to look like a terminal decline. South Africa are coming in the summer and their last 2 tours of England have seen the captain at the start of the series resign during it.

Posted by RandyOZ on (February 24, 2012, 13:24 GMT)

Is there a worse captain in world cricket than Strauss? Not only did he just have his team whitewashed in the UAE but his pathetic average of 40 is embarrassing. I know the talent is wafer thin in England but surely it's not so bad that Stauss is assured a spot in the team. Might be time to have another Saffer recruitment drive.

Posted by PanGlupek on (February 24, 2012, 13:10 GMT)

@anuradha_d: To be honest, DazTaylor's "digression" was actually a fair point, because by the logic used in your 1st comment, there's been almost no successful captains recently, from ANY country. Possible exceptions being Viv Richards & Ricky Ponting, but thier success was more to do with having awesome teams than either of them being tactical masterminds or great leaders.

Although I would agree that 3 captains has potential to go wrong, in England's case, the logic behind it was reasonable (though in my opinion, anybody who has a T20 ton should be considered to score quick enough to play T20 internationals, in which case, Broad's appointment wouldn't have been necessary).

Wouldn't be surprised if it becomes normal practice soon: Misbah or Clarke might not be best suited to T20, Dhoni (allegedly) wants to retire from tests, etc...

Posted by JG2704 on (February 24, 2012, 10:10 GMT)

@anuradha_d on (February 23 2012, 19:20 PM GMT) You guys really think the subcontinent is the be all and end all of cricket don't you? We hadn't won in Australia (our biggest rivals) for 23 years until last year under Strauss's captaincy and we did beat SL and Pak 11 years ago- a long time I know but nothing like the Aus hoodoo - and under Strauss we have become number 1. The Pak series was awful and it would be good if we win in SL/Ind. Regardless I see Pak as the strongest test side and at least see an improvement if we lose by 9-0 then it's obviously a disaster , but not necessarily due to poor captaincy. VS Pak it was poor batting which was the main thing so Strauss can't be blamed there. Also the Pak fans have openly criticised Misbahs captaincy in the ODIs - the same guy who captained the test whitewash. Same with Indians criticising Dhoni for being a bad test captain so who knows if it's successful. Much also depends on the players you have at your disposal.

Posted by Zahidsaltin on (February 24, 2012, 9:46 GMT)

Whay all this mess. Cook is a wonderful player who is suited to all three formates. Let him take over as a full time captain in all 3 formates

Posted by anuradha_d on (February 24, 2012, 5:40 GMT)

@daz_taylor...talking about indian cricket on this article is a digressionm.....@sports_lover.....T20 captaincy 15 hours / year is indeed a joke.....it is better to take time off from international cricket and give fulltime to the premieum first class tournament in your country to hone ones captaincy skills

Posted by sports_lover999 on (February 24, 2012, 0:30 GMT)

It is not about 15 hours or 6 games per year or 1 game per year...according to me every format needs its own specialization/skills,strategy,readiness, combination etc ...this will certainly helps to very successful in that format in any sport ... of same captain to be retained in all three format then they will become indispensable even though they wont perform or not suitable for the need of the format and will become non performing asset & spice for the controversies like in current Indian team ...captains in different formats keeps the freshness alive, openness for new ideas,new talents,new approach to become the leader in that format also not but the least opportunity for new youngsters to get in the team as well as lead the team...without any doubt in my mind Indian team also need that going forward ....

Posted by   on (February 23, 2012, 22:40 GMT)

@Yeshu. I agree. Without the sort of ethos that Flower has been so important in developing, it could never have worked.

Posted by DazTaylor on (February 23, 2012, 22:14 GMT)

Sigh, here we go again, eh @anuradha_d. England HAVE won in the sub continent in the last decade. Away wins in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. By your flawed logic, no India captain has succeeded, ever, as India are yet to win a series in either Australia or South Africa.

Posted by   on (February 23, 2012, 22:08 GMT)

Strauss, as the article suggests is aging, and Cook is looking more like a possible t20 player with every ODI knock...How long before this article is completely irrelevant, and Cook leads the team in all 3 formats? 2 yrs max i think.

Posted by   on (February 23, 2012, 20:01 GMT)

It's amazing how England has managed that. But I fear if it would have been possible with Andy Flower. In recent times, the importance of the coach has increased to greater heights. John Wright, Gary Kirsten, Andy Flower have all made teams that do exceptionally well under them. India suffered when Wright left and is on same path after Kirsten's departure. Will be interesting to see how England does after Flower leaves.

Posted by Front-Foot-Lunge on (February 23, 2012, 19:45 GMT)

Every fan in the world has surely taken note of the way Strauss has led the world in diplomacy and sportsmanship regarding the spot-fixing scandal. His patience and mild manners over the issue have healed divisions between opposing nations, and his leadership has been an example and a breath of fresh air to the cricketing world.

Posted by anuradha_d on (February 23, 2012, 19:20 GMT)

three captains is an overkill.......how many T20 internationals does a side play every year?.....probably six.......you don't need a separate captain for 15 hours of cricket per years :)

by that rationale itself the 3rd captain is flawed.

and is Strauss a success?...does success mean ONLY winning Ashes......or winning in divere subcontinet conditions also??? ......9 games in the subcontinent will define Strauss's legacy......he is 3-0 down and might in the worst case go down 9-0....could we still call the 3 captain experiment successful ????.......to me it's one captain too many and the lead captain only a home-track-sucess

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David Hopps David Hopps joined ESPNcricinfo as UK editor early in 2012. For the previous 20 years he was a senior cricket writer for the Guardian and covered England extensively during that time in all Test-playing nations. He also covered four Olympic Games and has written several cricket books, including collections of cricket quotations. He has been an avid amateur cricketer since he was 12, and so knows the pain of repeated failure only too well. The pile of untouched novels he plans to read, but rarely gets around to, is now almost touching the ceiling. He divides his time between the ESPNcricinfo office in Hammersmith and his beloved Yorkshire.

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