Are captains born or made? In Graeme Smith’s case, it would appear to be the former. Captain of South African Cricket at a tender 22, he led his Proteas side for 12 years, notching up more wins than any other captain in cricketing history.
What does he have to do with English cricket? As Alastair Cook stepped down as skipper last week, one might think back on his list of predecessors and their fates. Smith heralded the end of Nasser Hussain, Michael Vaughan, and Andrew Strauss’s reigns in that most demanding of sporting roles: Captaining English cricket. Each lost to Smith on home soil, and each faced the media once more after that to step aside, none escaping a broken, undignified exit.
Why is it that these men, of such differing strengths and traits, all succumbed to the same fate? Batting averages drop, brows furrow, and deep fatigue sets in for those bestowed with steering the ship of English cricket.
There are so many intangible qualities required for the role, from the ability to galvanise otherwise defeated teammates, to mastering ploys and strategy at the highest level out on the field. Never mind performing well enough to keep your place in the team.
Speaking about his Rugby World Cup-winning captain Martin Johnson, Will Greenwood noted that not only would you want him in the trenches with you, he would be so inspiring that you would shove him out of the way to get over the top before him.
But for all rugby’s blood and thunder, there is cricket’s call for calm, continued assurance, necessary over the course of a gruelling test match.
Football and cricket captains must both engage in the coin toss. But here is where their paths separate. There are few less consequential things in sport than which set of goalposts a team attacks first. But cricket? To bat or field. Can you predict the weather for the next five days? Can you read a 22 foot strip of dusty earth, and ascertain whether red leather will spit or turn off its peculiar surface? Hindsight becomes your great enemy. When you stick the opposition in, your hands clasped together in glee at the thought of splintered stumps, a mammoth opening stand emerges to rouse great tuts in the stands and commentary boxes. Don’t worry, you’ll only have those five days, and perhaps the rest of the summer, to regret your decision should the chips not fall your way.
Indeed, a choir of a thousand armchairs greet your every move. ‘This field setting is hopeless’, ‘x is bowling pies, why are y and z counting clouds out on the boundary?’.
And English armchairs have always preferred a maverick charmer to a functional winner. Michael Vaughan’s gung-ho improv approach to calling the shots won him adoration, a status Andrew Strauss, winner of the Ashes abroad, never quite reached. Perhaps because Strauss’s teams constricted opposition with attrition, whilst Vaughan relied on bemusing and inspired field placings to craft him a wicket or two.
Hence Cook’s constant rough ride at the helm. We have never accepted him truly, his robotic approach to press conferences and batting seeming to permeate his leadership: substance trumping style. But its style we ultimately crave. Already talk abounds of Joe Root’s swashbuckling era before he has even adorned the burden of leading.
The great Mike Brearley referred to captaincy as an art, and that it is, all subtlety and slow craft, a gruelling chess game in the dust of Dhaka or the chill of Cardiff. Cook must smirk at the criticism, for it is only a small number who have stood where he has, who know how the smallest change can turn tides, remove centurions, crush opposition.
Napoleon craved a lucky general over a skilled one. It seems Cook could have done with a chunk more fortune, and his skill will always be associated with batting, and not captaincy. But no one has quietly, selflessly, given more to the cause than him.
Image courtesy of Herry Lawford