Friday, January 10, 2014

The Case for a Specialist Captain

It has to be acknowledged that My Life in Cricket Scorecards is not renowned for its topicality. Match reports appear weeks after the matches they describe have been played. Events of significance pass by without comment or acknowledgement. My considered views on the great issues of the time—Packer, Bodyline, whether Dr Grace is a true amateur—remain in formulation. I’ll get back to you any year soon.

But I have an idea. It is about the England captaincy. The ECB has let it be known that Alastair Cook will remain as England captain despite England’s five-nil loss in the Ashes. The patient is well, the post mortem superfluous. At the SCG over the past few days Cook has appeared hollowed out, bewildered by the situation, one of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author.
I was put in mind of David Gower in 1989, a similar series which began with England as favourites and ended in a drubbing. By midway through the fifth Test, at Trent Bridge, England found themselves three-nil down and following on 347 behind. Captain Gower suddenly seized the moment and promoted himself to open, brushing aside young Martyn Moxon who had come all the way from Leeds for that very purpose. Gower was bowled by Geoff Lawson for five.

The same degree of desperation to do something, anything, however ill-advised, was evident in Cook’s batting at Sydney. In the first innings he padded up to be lbw and in the second flailed away uncharacteristically and briefly. It is fortunate that England’s next Test is not until mid June, against Sri Lanka. This gives Cook (who should be excused the pointless ODI/T20 visit to the Caribbean next month, and who is not involved in the T20 World Cup) time to recover his equilibrium and enthusiasm (Gower was omitted completely from West Indies tour that followed the ’89 debacle).
But what if he doesn’t? If the burden of the captaincy neutralises Cook as a batsman? If he is not actually a decent captain? Nobody is suggesting that the defeat was down to tactical errors in the field, though a number of commentators have questioned his understanding of the needs of his bowlers in terms of the fields he sets them. There is no question that the tempo of England’s cricket has slowed since he took over. In their now vulnerable position England need a captain who will make the best of the resources available, nuture the fresh talent and inspire the troops. It is not clear that Cook is this man.

Of course Cook, along with almost every other international captain these days, has the disadvantage of not having had the opportunity to learn to be a captain before assuming the role. Until twenty years ago it was unusual for the England captain not to be (or have been) a county captain. Mike Atherton was the first modern exception to this rule. Since the expansion of England’s international programme in 2000 international players have had little opportunity (though that may not be the word they would use) to play county cricket, so the captain will almost inevitably lack experience in the role.
This disadvantages the incumbent, but also means that there are no proven captains in the team ready to take over. Part of the reason for sticking with Cook appears to be the lack of an appropriate successor.

Stuart Broad seems to be the most popular alternative. That would involve overcoming the widely held prejudice against fast bowlers being captains, one that I have to say I share (two words: Bob Willis). Broad does seem too volatile to be captain. For a start, the DRS referrals would be used up in the first 20 minutes of every innings.

Ian Bell, for reasons unexplained, is not seen as captaincy material. Michael Vaughan has called for Kevin Pietersen to be made vice-captain: It is a surprisingly persuasive piece, but it would be like recalling Trotsky from Mexico. Andy Flower would almost certainly prefer the deft application of an ice pick. Prior and Trott are both out of consideration, so Cook it is. Unless…

Ask “who are the best England captains over the past fifty years?” and a debate about the respective merits of Mike Brearley and Raymond Illingworth should ensue. Both were specialist captains who would not have played nearly as many Tests as they did had they not been captain. Tony Lewis, Keith Fletcher, Mike Denness and, ludicrously, Chris Cowdrey were other, less successful, specialist captains of England.

The option of picking a captain from outside the squad, or the central contract system should at least be considered. Who would the contenders be? People who follow the county game more closely than I am able to these days will have their own ideas, but a look through the list of current county captains throws up three contenders.

Paul Collingwood led Durham to the County Championship last year. He has a distinguished international record and has learned more about captaincy since being unimpressive in the role in ODIs a few years ago (though he did lead the winning T20 England side in 2010). Collingwood would not have credibility with the players from the start, unlike other candidates who would have to earn it. His batting has deteriorated; he averaged under 30 for Durham in 2013. But he would still be one of the best fielders and could still produce nuggets of innings from No 7.

Rob Key resumes the Kent captaincy in 2014 after a season’s sabbatical. He has the reputation as one of the county game’s best skippers, is well-liked and is the same cosy shape as Darren Lehmann, the coach who has put the fun back into the Australians. Key is still batting well and could contribute usefully at No 6.

James Foster remains one of the finest wicketkeepers around and averaged in the mid-30s last season. He would fill a Prior-shaped hole in the team (by the way, why is it widely assumed that Prior should return after two shocking series; it’s very odd?). Foster has captained Essex for four years and deserves to have more caps to his name, though I would like to know more about how good a leader people think he is.

If they stick with Cook, another option is to ask Essex to permit him to be captain in the Championship for the five or six games that the England players could play before the international season begins, thanks to the absurdly early start to the domestic season.

A rushed decision into reappointment would be foolish; there is a rare gap of five months in England’s Test schedule providing the opportunity for considered decisions about captain and coach.

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