November 17, 1999

Zimbabwe- the captaincy issue

Joe was a promising young businessman working with a struggling company. He was highly regarded for his talent, but even so it was a surprise when the managing director resigned and Joe was offered the job in his place.

Joe was fully aware of his youth and lack of experience, but there were no other available candidates with better credentials, so he decided to accept. He had the full support of all the company's employees, and in fact was to enjoy that support for as long as he was in the job.

It was hard going, but gradually the business began to improve. Then, after three years, things began to go wrong. Business began to drop off badly, and nobody could put their finger on the reasons why. Many outside the company, unable to find any other reasons for the slump, blamed Joe. They said he presented the wrong image, that he did not have the ability or experience necessary for the job, and called on him to resign.

Joe, despite his position, retained his humility. He was quite prepared to admit his inexperience and the fact that he was still learning the job. But this did not mollify his critics, who continued to call for his head. For Joe the declining situation of his company was hard enough to bear, but the personal campaign against him helped to wear him down and affected every aspect of his personal life. In the end he felt he could no longer allow the pressure to ruin his life. Despite the support of his staff and the board of directors, who tried to persuade him to stay on, he resigned.

If we can empathise with Joe, then we can also empathise with Alistair Campbell, who has just been through a similar situation with the Zimbabwe cricket team captaincy. He never sought the job, but once he had it did his best in the knowledge that he still had much to learn, as he was quite prepared to admit. Perhaps his greatest achievement was that from start to finish he was able to retain the full support and loyalty of his team. In a losing side dissatisfaction can set in very easily, and human beings from politicians downwards are always eager to find somebody else to blame for failure, especially the leadership. But the Zimbabwe players to a man remained loyal to Campbell to the bitter end. Whatever his failings, real or imagined, this was some achievement.

When asked when he first thought seriously of resigning, Campbell admitted with a smile, but not altogether humorously, that it crossed his mind every time Zimbabwe lost a match. He views himself as a winner, and losing comes hard to him. Since the World Cup victory over South Africa at Chelmsford, Zimbabwe have not beaten a Test-playing country and many of the defeats have been heavy. This was hard to bear, and was made even harder by his own loss of form. As a leader he was used to leading from the front, and most of his best innings were played in a crisis; many of Zimbabwe's victories during his reign as captain came as a result of his own ability to lift his game in the face of a crisis. Now he was no longer able to do so.

The vultures as usual were gathering, and there was much harsh and ill-informed criticism, mostly by people who did not know him personally, made no effort to speak to him and never for a moment thought of him as a human being capable of being wounded, just as they themselves would be in such a position. Yet he always tried to remain cheerful and positive, and was always approachable, an honest man doing his best under the most trying of circumstances. He has never objected to constructive criticism and admits that he is often able to learn from it, but nobody appreciates the negative condemnation that was coming at him from various sources.

The new, if temporary, captain Andy Flower says that Alistair had discussed the possibility of resigning with him over the past two months; Flower knew that he was not enjoying the job but did not seriously believe that he would take that step. For his part Campbell says that there was no particular 'last straw' that precipitated his resignation; rather it had been a gradual build-up of pressure that affected his whole life. He was not enjoying the job and had to fight hard to overcome lethargy and find the will to continue. He would awake in the morning with a knot in his stomach and no longer had the confident, positive motivation that had driven him for so long in the job.

When he awoke on the Monday morning following his team's return from Bloemfontein after their defeat there against South Africa, he decided that enough was enough; he no longer felt he was capable of giving his best to the job and could see no prospect of any improvement in the situation. He felt it was in both his own and the team's best interests for him to resign, to be one of the boys again and to enjoy playing without pressure.

He contacted the Zimbabwe Cricket Union and arranged a meeting with the president Peter Chingoka and chief executive Dave Ellman-Brown. He had expected a five-minute meeting in which to tender his resignation and then go out to learn how to live again, but he was unprepared for the reaction of the two administrators, who urged him strongly to continue in the job and actually made it much harder for him. But he had made up his mind and would not be dissuaded.

The Zimbabwe Cricket Union then approached Andy Flower and asked him if he would resume the captaincy. Flower resigned at the end of the 1995/96 season after carrying an impossible triple burden, together with those of keeping wicket and being the team's leading batsmen. Flower then had to balance his unwillingness to resume this load against the needs of the side, and asked to be given until the following morning to consider the matter. His answer was indeed well balanced, as he agreed to resume the job, but only until the end of the Sri Lankan series.

The calls by many for Campbell's resignation ignored the very real improvements that the Zimbabwean team made under his period of leadership, although it could be argued that this would have happened under most captains as the team became more experienced in international cricket. There was not too much difference in the team's Test record: pre-Campbell the team won one match and lost seven out of 16, while under his leadership they won two and lost ten. In the one-day arena there was a great improvement, though: 28 wins against 45 defeats, whereas before he took over the figures were a mere 7 wins against 46 defeats. Campbell's own one-day batting average as captain was 31, in contrast to 23 before he took over. Paradoxically, his Test batting average was a mere 22 as captain, but 31 before then.

There are a number of very satisfying achievements for Campbell to look back on as captain. He names Zimbabwe's first Test series victory in Pakistan last season, the three-nil one-day victory over England during their last visit, and the victory over India at home and their achievement in winning through to the final of the one-day tournament in Sharjah last season as bringing back very fond memories. But the greatest thrill he had was the victory over South Africa in the World Cup earlier this year that propelled Zimbabwe though to the Super Six stage of the tournament. Sadly it was also to prove his last happy memory.

When asked about which personal performances during his time as captain gave him most pleasure, he was actually unable to give an answer. He has no Test century to his credit yet, which must remain a major frustration. He could have mentioned his two one-day hundreds, against Australia in India and against New Zealand in the Mini World Cup in Bangladesh, but he didn't. Both took Zimbabwe to the verge of victories which didn't quite come off. My favourite memory is of a mere 32 not out, scored in the first one-day international against England in Bulawayo three years ago in his first home match as captain, hardly a statistical landmark but an innings that lifted Zimbabwe from 106 for seven, chasing 153, to a narrow two-wicket victory that paved the way for a three-nil series victory.

Frequently since then he stood in the breach when the team was struggling, but during the last year he has rarely been able to do so again. This undoubtedly contributed towards his resignation. Perhaps he will regain that ability now that the pressure of captaincy is off him. He already feels more relaxed, and he played like it in the recent Test match too, despite the occasional injudicious stroke. He was hoping to make his mark, and his point, as Zimbabwe stumbled towards defeat, but sadly his second innings was cut short on a good-looking 25 due to an umpiring error.

All who can appreciate the problems this man has endured recently will be hoping he can rediscover his batting form as never before. One of the reasons why he has attracted so much criticism is that the Zimbabwe public have not forgiven him for his tendency to throw his wicket away with injudicious strokes. Again, typically, Alistair has never tried to deny this trait or to make excuses; he admits his fault and has been trying for several years to rectify it. The cynics will say that they have not noticed much difference, but the burdens of captaincy have left him with less time to concentrate on his own game, and it is inevitable that the greater the stress the more likely human beings are to make errors of judgement anyway. And Campbell has been under more stress recently than it is fair to expect anyone to endure.

What of the future of the Zimbabwean captaincy? Andy Flower, who has justifiably insisted on a short tenancy, obviously will not be looking to change much during his reign, nor will he have much time, with matches following each other without a significant break. But he does realise the need to work on technical weaknesses that have crept into the games of both batsmen and bowlers, partly at least due to the almost complete lack of first-class cricket played by the majority of the team since last December. In between have been numerous one-day matches, including the World Cup, and players have forgotten how to play the longer game. Andy plans to work with coach Dave Houghton to rectify these problems in the little time available to them.

Neil Johnson's appointment as vice-captain shows which way the selectors are thinking. Johnson has had little adult captaincy experience, but his positive, out-going personality and wide experience will be decided advantages should he land the job. One hopes that the pressures of the job do not undermine his attributes. Obviously Campbell and Houghton will have given their advice on the appointment, and the Sri Lankan series will give Johnson the opportunity to prepare for possible eventual captaincy under the experienced Flower. One hopes also that he will be able to maintain his batting form and soon be fit to bowl again, as his lively pace bowling has been sorely missed.

All-rounders often make the best captains because they are better equipped to view the game both from a batsman's and a bowler's point of view. On the debit side, captaincy adds to an already heavy workload. Should the popular Neil land the job, he will be wished well on every side. What he and every captain needs is for continued understanding and support through the dark days as well as the bright.

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