Sunday, 2 January 2011

Who'd Be A Captain?

It's all about captaincy as we approach the final act of the 2010-11 Ashes series. On both sides.

Michael Clarke will become the 43rd captain of Australia at the SCG, thrust into the leading role after Ponting's injured pinky finally forced the issue.

Strauss could not be more settled as England captain but KP, for reasons known only to himself, chose this week to credit himself with the current winning set-up. Yes he really did say this, "You know what, I have never said this before but I got rid of the captaincy for the good of English cricket and we would not be here today if I had not done what I did then." Words fail me.

All of which leads us to the question, just what does it take to be a successful skipper in test cricket?

Is form a pre-requisite for any aspiring leader? If so neither Ponting nor Pup should be anyway near the top job. Clearly any captain must be worth his place in the team but cricket differs from every other sport when it comes to captaincy. In football picking your best player and letting their inspirational performaces carry the rest of the side is a sensible and effective ploy.

But in football, aside from choosing whether to kick off in the first or second half, there is very little to do during the game. Maybe a clenched fist and a grimace of encouragement. Tactics are dictated by the coach and if the captain scores a hat-trick the team will more than likely win and all will be well in the world.

Cricket is wholly different. The toss is merely the beginning of the captain's work. There are fielding positions to set, bowling options and changes to consider, declarations to ponder. In short, at almost every point in the game he oversees and shapes the key moments.

Then there is the crucial man-management of the players. As former England captain, Mike Brearley wrote about Botham in his famous book The Art of Captaincy, "He needed someone who would put his arm around him and tell him about the immense talent he possessed." As captain you can't just assume that your top players will win you the match. They need cajoling to ensure they reach their full potential.

Botham got the chance to lead to his country but he was never the right man for the top job and he enjoyed a grand total of 0 wins when leading the team. England then made exactly the same mistake with Botham's long-term successor, Andrew Flintoff, who presided over the disastrous 2006-07 5-0 drubbing. Few captains would have been able to win that series with Australia's star performers all on top of their game, but a more astute one might have been able to limit the damage.

Accepted wisdom has it that Warne is the best captain Australia never had but would he too have found that the captaincy a step too far? We'll never know but history tells us that a lack of ego tends to be a hallmark of the successful skipper. Pietersen's remarks this week prove that it is Strauss not him who is best suited to calling the shots. Star performers often come with a big dollop of controversey, whether for off-field indulgences, ill-considered public remarks or an inability to empathise with those not quite as talented as themselves. Not exactly perfect attributes for a captain.

So is Clarke the right man for the job, either as a stand-in or as Ponting's long-term replacement? Endless newspaper polls reveal that the Australian public is not exactly fully behind him. But aside from his current dip in form, the main criticisms of him seem to be that he dated a super-model and appeared in some magazines without his cricket sweater. Not really enough to condemn him before a heads or tails has been called.

He deserves a chance but he's on a hiding to nothing at the SCG. Only an Australian victory coupled with a return to form will see his approval rating start to rise.

Who'd be a captain?

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