April 5, 2012

The captain makes the team

Each side is shaped in the image of the man who leads it. To undervalue the captain is to misunderstand the nature of team

It was the dance that did it. Like Laurence Olivier's acclaimed Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, whose little jig of delight - "I thank God! Is it true? Is it true?" - supremely illustrated the depth of his pleasure, Darren Sammy could not contain himself when the second T20 was won in Barbados last week. His body, slim as a girl's, moved to the rhythm of victory and around him young West Indian cricketers were showered with unconditional joy - "It is true!"

It has been a long time since Australia came and saw but failed to conquer the Caribbean. The T20s were locked at one apiece - why are there not more best-of-three series? - and the 50-over matches at two each with a crazy, memorable tie in St Vincent, another perfect illustration of the game's ability to bare humanity. Sammy cool at one end, Kemar Roach anything but at the other. With two balls still remaining, Roach put his head down and ran, all the way to Sammy, who stood rooted to his crease in shock, having pushed the ball gently and straight to the cover fielder. Enough said. So much so that he managed a smile and refused to lay blame at the post-match interview. He gives a good interview - honest, thoughtful, rather charming.

Sammy is the unlikeliest international captain of the moment and will lead West Indies against Australia in the Test series that begins this weekend. The first St Lucian to represent his islands, he has played 21 Test matches with four five-wicket bags to sustain his selection but not the merest hint of a hundred to cement it. He averages 17 with the bat and 30 with the ball. Neither is he Mike Brearley.

By trade, Sammy knits young men together, and the selectors have backed this skill against all others. He cares not a jot for what pundits and past players think, nor for the claim of those left out, some of whom make for dangerous foes. He was appointed almost two years ago now, and against the odds, to do a job for West Indian cricket at a time when nobody else could make the damndest thing of it. Like Brazilian football the legacy is impossible, so he simply tells it as it is. Young cricketers make mistakes but they have energy and desire. These are attributes that make up for talent and experience. He has some bowlers, fast and slow, with exciting ability, who further compromise his own place in the team. He desperately needs some batsmen who stay in, something he too finds fiendishly difficult. Somehow the proud St Lucian stands above all this and, instead, concerns himself with shaking off the past. The team is smiling again, trademark toothy West Indian smiles. It is a start and Sammy deserves respect for making it.

Clarke is so perfect for the job it's not funny. After a decade of narrow eyes, bright eyes is at the helm and scoring as heavily as Bradman. Clarke rages against a game that drifts, and uses his sense of optimism to galvanise those around him

Contrast Andrew Strauss, who has played 93 Test matches with 19 hundreds at an average of 41. Strauss led England to be the best team in the world, and by the end of the last English summer added four consecutive wins over India to his portfolio (at the time such a performance wasn't considered a sinecure). Now, after a bad run in the Middle East and a silly batting effort in the first innings in Galle, he is under the cosh. Can the game really be this fickle? If Strauss was making more runs, would the knives be out? Would a right-minded selector hear the cries of the fourth estate and respond so irrationally?

Strauss may feel a little betrayed. His outward serenity makes it hard to be sure of anything but his equilibrium. Only cricket captains can know this forensic examination. Football managers don't have to play. There must have been days when Sammy has felt worthless - so often has his pedigree been slandered by those who have gone before him. Now Strauss is seeing the other side too, the side that puts a doubt in every step. It may have been a mistake to pull away from one-day cricket, which so often releases the mind. This doubt makes strokeplay unconvincing and tactics uncertain. England's team for the Galle Test lacked its usual clarity. Big Brother is watching and don't cricket captains know it. It explains the shelf life.

Mahela Jayawardene appears better second time round. Perhaps because of hindsight, a rare privilege. His natural batting has its freedom and beauty back. His leadership seems less intense and more experimental. In one-day cricket he has attacked at defining moments, while in Galle he defended when wise heads in media boxes thought he ought to have done otherwise. To what degree did England lose in Galle and/or Mahela win? He played a genuinely great innings and then plotted a few downfalls with a pretty ordinary attack. Rangana Herath is shaped a little like Bishan Bedi but it ends there. After 129 Test matches, 30 hundreds and an average of 50, the Sri Lankan captain has the job for as long as he can live with it.

So too Michael Clarke, at least if Australia continue their standard of backing a captain till he drops. Clarke is so perfect for the job it's not funny. After a decade of narrow eyes, bright eyes is at the helm and scoring as heavily as Bradman. Clarke rages against a game that drifts, and uses his sense of optimism to galvanise those around him. After an insular couple of years them Aussies are up and at it again, cock of the walk. One or two can still lighten up, mind you. At times in the Caribbean that unattractive snarl reared its head but Clarke was back home in Sydney regenerating. Doubtless he took note and will make his point.

And finally to the Test team of the Northern Hemisphere winter and to Misbah-ul-Haq. Not since Imran Khan has a group of Pakistani cricketers looked so comfortable with one another. Probably it was the winning but there was something quite patrician about Misbah's leadership - aloof and yet complicit. He never looks much of a batsman but averages 45 in 34 tests. He knows how to get it done and has passed this instinct to the others. How he loved it when they swarmed upon England, gloaters all. It was at Lord's that the storm clouds of spot-fixing had gathered and on supposedly neutral ground that the score was settled. How England must have suffered from this glaring portrayal of redemption. Misbah may not last, at least not like Clarke surely will, but he will not forget 3-0 against the colonial father in the Middle East. That was the Pakistan dream.

To undervalue the captain is to misunderstand the nature of team. Each side is shaped in the image of those who lead it - if the fish is rotten, look at its head. There are some gems around at present - we have not touched upon the immense contributions of Graeme Smith or MS Dhoni here - all of whom appear to understand their responsibility to the past without missing a beat in their quest to shape the future. It is not by coincidence that international cricket in all its formats continues to hold our attention.

Former Hampshire batsman Mark Nicholas is the host of Channel 9's cricket coverage