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Can captain Pat Cummins buck the bowler-leader trend?

Fast bowlers as Test leaders are a rarity, usually only called on in an emergency

Jarrod Kimber
Jarrod Kimber
06-Dec-2021
Pat Cummins, Australia's new Test captain, poses at the Gabba, Brisbane, December 5, 2021

Pat Cummins, Australia's new Test captain, poses at the Gabba  •  Getty Images

Ian Johnson was known as "Myxomatosis" - a disease that kills rabbits - because his team-mates thought that he brought himself on to bowl at the opposition's bunnies.
And this matters, because Johnson was one of the few bowling captains Australia have ever had, but he wasn't a popular leader. Of the 17 Tests in which he was captain, Australia won seven and lost five. But that record included two Ashes series losses, and a maiden Test defeat to Pakistan. Many felt he'd been given the job because he was a safe diplomatic pair of hands.
Of the bowlers of his era, Johnson (an offspinner) took 73% of his wickets in the top seven (a fairly average proportion) but that dropped to 64% when he became captain, even though he actually brought himself on earlier during his time in charge - he was first and second change 60% of the time in that period, compared to 53% beforehand.
It would be easy to say that Johnson killed the notion that Australia can be led by a bowler. Except a few years later, Richie Benaud got the job. Like in most things relating to bowling captains, it's complicated.

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There are many reasons why captains are usually batters, but the starting point must be the maths. With six specialist batters in your average XI, that accounts for some 55% of the team - add the keeper as well, and that leaves only 37% specialist bowlers, excluding allrounders.
And yet, we clearly don't get bowling captains 37% of the time. Of all the players to have captained in ten-plus Tests, only 4.3% are bowlers, and even if you include bowling allrounders, that's only 11%. Keepers, meanwhile, have done it 6.8% of the time, and when you factor in the genuine allrounders and specialist captains, that means that 74% of the time, players captain as batters. They're doing well, aren't they?
Leaving aside the reasons why it's complicated for bowlers to lead, there's a pretty obvious reason for batters to get the job. Unlike the keepers and bowlers, they have little else going on when they're in the field. If you had a hypothetical situation where you liked two candidates equally for the captaincy, and one was a batter, the other a bowler, the batter is probably the better choice.
However, you can't overlook the part that cricket's history has played in this either. Captains have traditionally been batters, not because they were tactical geniuses, or because of their lesser workload, but because of the class divide of English cricket. The phrase "cricket is a gentleman's game" doesn't refer to all men. "Gentlemen" are those males lucky enough to have gone to a very good school, with good family connections, who could play cricket as an amateur.
Those players were often batters, because bowling is hard work. And therefore the system within the game deemed that bowlers were less worthy of higher office.
That era is over, but still we pretend that bowlers aren't as smart as batters. Bowlers might be considered great athletes, but to be a batter, you need to be more skill- and smarts-led.
And yet, if that was the case, we'd surely see more spinners as captains. Instead, only six of the 18 bowling-dominant leaders are spinners, which shows that the prejudice is more engrained than simply "don't give the captaincy to the big fast guy".
Which brings us to Pat Cummins - clearly a great athlete, but it would be hard to watch him play, or follow his development as a cricketer, without believing he is an incredibly smart player. When he was injured as a youngster, he turned himself into a T20 hitter. His bowling method is almost a perfect culmination of modern styles, and very different from the 18-year-old who was Player of the Match on Test debut in Johannesburg 10 years ago. Cummins is clearly a thinking player.
One of the most common reasons for not giving bowlers the top job is how many overs they might deliver. Anyone who has played any level of cricket under a bowling captain will complain that they either bowl too much or not enough.
Australia's only seam-bowling full-time captain (though he was probably a mixture of spin and seam) was George Giffen. The allrounder captained Australia four times, but in those matches, he averaged 59 six-ball overs per game, compared to only 30 overs when he wasn't captain. He probably ruined bowling-captaincy for everyone else. But modern cricket doesn't work like that. Giffen couldn't bowl that number of overs now. Really, no one outside of a spin-bowling captain could.
Before Cummins goes out on the field, he will know the moments that Australia plan to use him. He'll replace Mitchell Starc after a short first spell, at around the tenth over. He'll bowl another decent spell at around the 40-over mark, and one more before the 80th as well. He averages 38 overs per Test, which is high, but Australia have a four-man attack. That's unlikely to change with him as captain.
The problem may come when things go wrong, because he might just keep pushing himself, as Andrew Flintoff once did during his captaincy stint - he was arguably never the same bowler after his 51 overs in the second innings against Sri Lanka at Lord's in 2006. It's a common problem in adversity, your best bowlers tend to get overbowled. But with Cummins as leader, Australia will need to watch this tendency even closer.
Whether he bowls too much or not, he's bound to get tired from all those overs. And even if, as captain, he'll spare himself all that time out on the boundary, where quicks earn extra miles, you can't discount that as a factor against bowler-captains, for all that they are fitter now than in the amateur era.
Tiredness was arguably the main reason against keepers leading too, but they've done pretty well in the role. Before MS Dhoni, it was common to say keepers couldn't juggle the two roles, but India won two World Cups under his leadership and rose to become the No. 1 Test team. And Cummins has just taken over from Tim Paine, Australia's first long-term keeper-captain. If keepers can overcome their burden to lead, surely bowlers can too.
But there are still stigmas in the game, probably dating back to those old ways of thinking. Batters are often seen as tactical geniuses, and yet it is bowlers who spend their entire careers working out how to out-think their opponents. Many batting captains only start to ponder such things when they are put in a position of authority.
Australian captaincy stereotypes are another factor. Many teams have picked their most strategically minded players to be their leaders, including England, who have had two specialists captains in Plum Warner and Mike Brearley. Australia, on the other hand, have almost always given the job to the best batter in the team.
"There are modern-day reasons why picking a fast bowler as captain may not work, with cricket moving ever closer to baseball's platoon system, where fast bowlers are rested to ensure they are fit and sharp for each match"
There is sound thinking in this. The average team will have up to three dead-certainties in their batting line-up, and if you've decided that keepers and bowlers are ruled out, that makes them your three captaincy options. Unless something unexpected happens, it gives you a solid leader for at least two years.
A lot depends on whether you view captaincy as an art form. The ability to bat well doesn't mean you will be good at managing people, tactics, and the many external pressures of the job.
But strategy is generally over-rated in Tests. Unless a captain is lucky enough to have five frontline bowling options (which Cummins won't), most Test bowling changes are about giving someone else a rest. The batting order very rarely changes either. There's not much data to back up the importance of field placings, so all you can really go on are anecdotes and personal preferences.
Ultimately, Australia's preference for batter-captains may be reductive, despite it making sense from a continuity standpoint. And yet, their most respected captain, on and off the field, was Benaud, a bowling allrounder.
Imran Khan was another bowling allrounder. Daren Sammy won two World Cups with West Indies, and changed the way we thought about the format. He started out as a bowling captain. Lasith Malinga won a T20 World Cup as a specialist bowler (having replaced Dinesh Chandimal for the last few games). Dan Vettori was a bowling captain too, and probably the last (unofficial) player/coach a major nation will ever have.
By my count (and a lot of this is subjective), there have been seven specialist bowlers to have captained their country in ten Tests or more. Bishan Bedi, Courtney Walsh, Bob Willis, Johnson, Waqar Younis, Anil Kumble and Fazal Mahmood. Their combined results come to 120 matches, 41 wins and 42 losses. Virtually par.
That said, this is a comically small group. Those numbers could be completely random. If you factor in bowling allrounders such as Shaun Pollock, Wasim Akram and Kapil Dev, you could be looking at 18 bowling leaders, with 87 victories and 101 defeats.
But a further factor to note here is that most bowling captains are emergencies. They don't land in good situations; they are thrown whatever is left and have to make do from there. They are often saddled with weak batting line-ups, because if the top order was making runs, there would be no emergency in the first place, and the most settled batter would be captain.
There are modern-day reasons why picking a fast bowler as captain may not work. Cricket is moving ever closer to baseball's platoon system, where fast bowlers are rested to ensure they are as fit and sharp as they need to be for each match. Cummins himself looked spent by the fourth Test against India in Australia's last home series. Starc looked done by the third.
Cricket has already missed out on many great bowling captains over the years. It may be harder still to factor them into the future. Cummins is clearly smart enough to lead Australia. But he comes into the role having captained just four professional matches in his career, and with a couple of hundred years of history and cricket lore to overcome.

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Pat Cummins' nickname is "Cider" (think about it…) You can often hear the Australian players calling him this. It's problematic for Cricket Australia, given that they lost one captain because of what someone put into his underwear, and another because of what he took out of his underwear. The pressure on Cummins to lead a very imperfect team while being a perfect man is staggering.
And the reason why Cummins is now captain, and not his deputy Steve Smith, all stems from an incident that he surely knew of in advance. No one within cricket imagines that Australia's bowlers didn't know about the reverse-swing plans in South Africa. It was their ball and their jobs on the line. When Donald McRae interviewed Cameron Bancroft earlier this year, he admitted as much, before Cricket Australia went to work ensuring that story fizzled out.
Cummins is Australia's captain because of a cheating scandal in which he was implicated. The moral gymnastics of that would seem to be a lot harder than the arts of bowling and captaining.
There are many reasons why Cummins might fail as Test captain. His top seven is decidedly shaky. The bowling line-up has a decent chance of being overworked, and could unravel with one serious injury. The team hasn't played for 11 months, nor won an away tour since 2016, with four victories in their last 15 away trips.
This is not a consistent team, and what they need to win is their best players starring.
For Cummins the captain to be successful, he needs Cummins the bowler to continue to star.
Yet if he does fail, it will be another public failure for the idea that Australia can be led by a bowler.

Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber