September 2006

Does it matter who captains England?

Nasser Hussain
Coaches like Duncan Fletcher and Bob Woolmer have become increasingly influential, so how important is the captain? Nasser Hussain discusses England's captaincy question

Coaches like Duncan Fletcher and Bob Woolmer have become increasingly influential, so how important is the captain? Nasser Hussain kicks off the debate and discusses England's captaincy question

Michael Vaughan gives Andrew Strauss some advice © Getty Images

The role of the captain has changed because the role of the coach has increased. When Mike Atherton was England captain there were times when he had to run the show himself whereas I, then Michael Vaughan and now the Andrews Strauss and Flintoff have had access to an array of back-up staff and technical analysis.

There is no doubt that Duncan Fletcher had a huge role in England winning four series in a row under my captaincy and the Ashes under Vaughan last year. But it would be a mistake to think that the identity of the captain does not matter any more. The buck has always stopped with the captain and that is the way it should stay.

When I put Australia in to bat in Brisbane at the start of the 2002-03 Ashes series it was a decision taken by talking to Duncan, Rod Marsh and the other players. But ultimately it was my decision. It was a cock-up and I held my hands up to it. On a positive note I derived more pleasure from the little decisions I made as captain that went right than any hundred I made. I remember how much I enjoyed catching Aravinda de Silva at leg gully in 2002 off Flintoff having just put myself in that position.

When I first joined Essex, Keith Fletcher was captain and it was him that I tried to impress. I hung on his every word. When I first played for England in 1989-90, Graham Gooch was the skipper and I did the same. I hung on every word Gooch said because he was the leader. He was the man who took you into battle: he does the team talks, he picks the team and he sets the direction of the team.

It is because the captain is the one actually going out on the field with you that makes him the key figure here. Players have to respect the captain and feel that it is a case of "do as I do" not "do as I say". A coach cannot give you that. You cannot captain a side from the dressing room. You can spout as much as you like about having plans for four fast bowlers or Murali or Shane Warne but ultimately you must take your lead from someone who can go out and do it. That is what I respected so much about Gooch. I grew up seeing England thrashed by West Indies. My first tour was to the Caribbean and Gooch led by example. He took them on. I was the guy who ran on to the field with new gloves when he had his hand broken by Ezra Moseley in Trinidad and I saw the pain. It gave me a huge sense of pride that this guy was my captain leading from the front.

The coach-captain relationship

Hussain formed a good relationship with Duncan Fletcher © Getty Images

A good coach can make a captain look better. I reckon Fletcher made me 40% better as captain because of all the information and the plans. You would not believe the amount of work he puts in trying to work out the opposition. It was a strange coincidence that we often seemed to play a team just after South Africa had played them and Duncan would forever be emailing Gary Kirsten about how to bowl at certain people.

In terms of man management the coach and captain can dovetail. In the past captains would have to deal with it all themselves but when you are on tour that is simply not possible. You can develop a good-cop bad-cop routine. A captain might give a player a dressing down, then the coach (with full knowledge of the captain) can put his arm round him and tell him not to worry or say something like "Your captain's having a bad week".

Fletcher likes to take a back seat. Good coaches like Fletcher and Tom Moody believe they should be in the background with the players and the captain to the fore. The coaches can set you up but it is the players who should take the glory - and the flak. Things change quickly and the captain has to adapt to those changes. Against New Zealand at Lord's in 1999 the plan at 10am was to bat first. When I walked out to toss half an hour or so later there were two lights on the scoreboard and it had become a grey Lord's day. I started thinking that maybe we should bowl. (England won the toss, stuck to Plan A and were bowled out for 186.)

This is where Vaughan has been exceptional. Many of the tactical plans England had during the Ashes were driven by Fletcher but here was a captain who tinkered with those plans magnificently, from hour to hour, over to over, and added his own subtle variations. That is where a captain-coach relationship is so crucial. They must have complete faith in each other. The coach must realise that the captain will tinker with his plans and the captain needs to know the coach will back him and his players. Loyalty between captain and coach is vital. That is why it became clear that Greg Chappell and Sourav Ganguly could not work together after the email leak.

How it can break down

Andrew Strauss: a bit too nice and smiley? © Getty Images

If the captain-coach relationship is not working, then you have problems. Take New Zealand, for example. This is only a gut feeling as an external observer but my impression is that Stephen Fleming was a better captain of New Zealand when he ran the whole team before John Bracewell became coach. He was an instinctive, dynamic and subtle captain. His body language at slip was good and, when you went out to bat, you would always be wondering why he had put certain fielders in certain positions. When they went close to beating Australia in 2001-02 his field settings were superb.

Bracewell is an imposing and reportedly abrasive character. He has his men that he likes and the men that he doesn't. He'll be very strong on selection issues and it seems to me that has made Fleming consciously or subconsciously take a backward step. I remember vividly how astonished I was during my last Test innings at Lord's in 2004 that Fleming just allowed us to coast to victory. There were no unusual field placings or weird bowling changes; he just stood there at slip. The 'old' Fleming would have tried something stupid like having Craig McMillan bowl six bouncers an over. It might be harsh on him but it seems he has let Bracewell take over and the critical mass in the dressing room has shifted towards the coach. Fleming is too good a captain to let this happen. This is where the captain may feel that, because of all the forward planning and technology, he is just the man put out on the field to carry out the coach's plans.

A coach's most important contribution is not tactics but a vision, which is what Duncan brought to English cricket. The same goes for Bob Woolmer with Pakistan. He has understood how to overcome the cultural differences. He has let Inzamam and Mohammad Yousuf effectively do their own thing. He does not want them doing ice baths and being all 'Paul Collingwood' in the field. At Lord's Yousuf stood on the boundary all game, did not do much fielding and frankly was a bit lazy but his job was to bat and he got 200.

The Ashes dilemma

'If I had to pick a captain for a one-off match it would be Flintoff because he would be more commanding and tactically aware than Strauss' © Getty Images

The first thing I did when I became England captain was read Mike Brearley's book The Art of Captaincy. It is important to soak up as much information as you can. I used to read what the likes of Brearley and David Gower wrote in the papers, Ian Botham too, even though he used to slag me off. You should be able to discriminate between the good stuff and the drivel.

Vaughan met a lot of business leaders, people he met through his management company, about how to build a team. I know for a fact that he did this because a few of them told him to get rid of the old fogies (ie: one out of me and Graham Thorpe). I started packing my bags when I heard that. Who were they going to get rid of - the one who averages 45 or the one who averages 35?

The first thing Duncan said to me was to make sure my body language was right. You need to know who's in charge. That is the one reservation I have about Strauss. He still comes across as a bit too nice and smiley. Vaughan was a bit like that but he has a body language that told you who was England captain. Maybe it was because he fielded at mid-off whereas Strauss is in the slips where you can get a bit lost. He is not that tall and it is hard to impose yourself.

But Strauss did fine at Lord's, especially after the 5-0 drubbing in the one-dayers. And then he did very well at Old Trafford and the result will have gone a long way to establishing his captaincy credentials and making the team feel more as if it belongs to him. England have stayed loyal to Vaughan as captain even though he is injured and I agree with that to a degree. He is owed that loyalty. But England need to clear up who exactly is in charge. At Lord's Strauss would have looked much more to Fletcher because he thought it was his one game in charge.

Fletcher still talks about Flintoff coming back as captain when he is fit but, if Strauss leads England to victory against Pakistan, then there is another option. If I had to pick a captain for a one-off match it would be Flintoff because he would be more commanding and tactically aware than Strauss. But there are issues with Flintoff. He is not as fearless as everyone thinks he is. In the first Test against India last winter at Nagpur India came hard at England on the final day and you could see the panic in his eyes. He had to run off and get advice from Fletcher. That is when the players start looking to you as captain. Also his lifestyle is an issue for me.

I am a bit concerned about having Flintoff as captain in Australia but, on the premise that England need something special to retain the Ashes, then he is probably the best man.

This article was first published in the September issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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