Pringle: Where are all the bowl­ing cap­tains?

Derek Pringle of­fers some in­trigu­ing thoughts about why bats­men are al­most in­vari­ably ap­pointed to the top Eng­land job

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An­drew Strauss was surely teas­ing when he said Joe Root was not the only can­di­date to re­place Alas­tair Cook as Eng­land’s Test cap­tain. But if there re­ally are oth­ers you can bet none are bowlers, a breed un­likely to be ap­pointed to cricket’s high­est of­fice if they were the only play­ers left stand­ing.

Why is it, in the minds of those who make de­ci­sions upon cap­taincy, are bowlers, es­pe­cially the faster ones, so of­ten dis­counted from be­ing can­di­dates? Ev­ery­one knows they are cricket’s deep thinkers and, in the longer for­mats, its match win­ners, too. And yet you can count the Test cap­tains of Eng­land and Aus­tralia who have been pace bowlers on part of one hand, so rare has been their as­cent to the game’s top job.

With Ian Botham and An­drew Flintoff count­ing as all-rounders, only Bob Wil­lis and Gubby Allen have done the job for any length of time. Big Bob led Eng­land in 18 Tests be­tween 1982-84 and achieved a win-rate of 38 per­cent. Allen, who cap­tained 11 times be­tween 1936-48, won four Tests. Both win-rates are in­fe­rior to the lead­ing Eng­land cap­tains (all bats­men) yet Wil­lis’ record is pretty de­cent over­all (again mostly bats­men), so in­ept­ness can­not be a fac­tor in their scarcity.

The most suc­cess­ful cap­tain-cum-pace bowler was Shaun Pol­lock, who suc­ceeded the dis­graced Han­sie Cronje as cap­tain of South Africa in 2000. Pol­lock was in charge for 26 Tests and won 14 of them (over 50 per cent). With South Africa’s trans­for­ma­tion in its in­fancy then, he ben­e­fit­ted from hav­ing a team con­tain­ing the best play­ers avail­able rather than one which ticked var­i­ous boxes, un­like most of his suc­ces­sors.

You would have thought that the West Indies, that cra­dle of great fast bowlers, might have had some­one to ri­val Pol­lock’s record but while the quicks there have cap­tained the na­tional team more of­ten than any other ma­jor Test play­ing coun­try, their achieve­ments have ranged from mod­est to poor.

Court­ney Walsh and Dar­ren Sammy have been the bowlers who cap­tained West Indies most with Jason Holder the cur­rent in­cum­bent hav­ing racked up 12 Tests in charge. Sammy did morph into a bats­man who bowled but all three are linked by hav­ing been in charge of a de­clin­ing power in which, lat­terly at least, the lead­ing bats­men have been lured away to play in var­i­ous T20 tour­na­ments around the world. A fac­tor

in the bowlers’ rise as cap­tains there.

Of the three, Walsh had the best team to work with but his ten­ure was in­ter­mit­tent, mostly pick­ing up the pieces from Brian Lara’s hissy fits fol­low­ing the lat­ter’s var­i­ous sack­ings as cap­tain. Like Lara, Sammy has had his own run-ins with the West Indies Board, an or­gan­i­sa­tion which still treats its hu­man as­sets much like the Vic­to­rian own­ers of Lan­cas­trian mills.

Spin bowlers have been ap­pointed cap­tain a tad more fre­quently than quick bowlers with Richie Be­naud and Ray­mond Illing­worth, the most prom­i­nent. India, too, has had spin bowler cap­tains in Bis­han Bedi and Anil Kum­ble, though nei­ther stood out in terms of games won.

An ag­gres­sive cap­tain, Be­naud man­aged a win-rate of 43 per­cent from his 27 Tests as Aus­tralia’s cap­tain, with only four matches drawn. Illing­worth cap­tained more of­ten but was less gungho, his 38 per­cent suc­cess rate the same as Wil­lis. And yet his­tory judges you on who you beat and by win­ning the Ashes in Aus­tralia, in 1970/71, Illing­worth is con­sid­ered one of Eng­land’s great­est cap­tains while Wil­lis is among the also-rans.

Given bowlers com­prise at least 35-40 per­cent of most teams, the minute num­bers that go on to be ap­pointed cap­tain smacks of a dis­crim­i­na­tion ev­ery bit as bad as the glass ceil­ing in place for fe­male ex­ec­u­tives in the busi­ness world.

The trou­ble is, in Eng­land at least, the im­age of the cricket cap­tain is frozen in aspic, tend­ing to be a per­son of un­ruf­fled calm, a debonair gent who trav­els first­class while the rest of his team slum it in econ­omy.Yet, just be­cause bowlers huff and puff a lot, break sweat, curse and neck pints of ale, it doesn’t mean they lack grav­i­tas or poise.

You think I jest. Labour politi­cians still bang on about class dif­fer­ence be­ing as di­vi­sive in modern Bri­tain as they were 100 years ago. Well, cricket still suf­fers, too, the lack of bowlers ad­vanc­ing to be­come cap­tains hav­ing its roots in the old di­vides be­tween Gen­tle­man and Play­ers and am­a­teurs and pro­fes­sion­als, which played out in Eng­land be­fore 1962.

Gen­er­ally, pros and play­ers were bowlers and lower class, while am­a­teurs and gen­tle­men were bats­men and ed­u­cated middle or up­per class. There are still relics of that to­day in the Bowlers’ Bar at Lord’s, a place where the pros used to change separately to the am­a­teurs.

Cap­tains, of course, were only ever cho­sen from among the Gen­tle­men or am­a­teurs, who were mostly bats­men to a man. One mould was bro­ken in 1952 when Len Hut­ton be­came the first pro­fes­sional to cap­tain Eng­land, but it only ever hap­pened be­cause he was a bats­man.

That his­tor­i­cal, and non­sen­si­cal, prej­u­dice apart, there are sounder rea­sons why bowlers tend to be over­looked for cap­taincy. One is that they are more prone to in­jury than bats­men. Any games that they might miss, as a re­sult, would there­fore desta­bilise mat­ters twice over, the team be­ing shorn of both its cap­tain and a first-choice bowler.

An­other, and this comes from An­gus Fraser, who cap­tained Mid­dle­sex for sev­eral seasons, is that bowler cap­tains tend to ei­ther over-es­ti­mate their part in find­ing so­lu­tions to their team’s prob­lems, and over-bowl them­selves as a re­sult, or they un­der-es­ti­mate them and un­der-bowl them­selves. A dis­pas­sion­ate eye from slip is there­fore, of­ten, the bet­ter judge and this from a man who loathes lardy-dardy bats­men.

With cap­taincy skills at their most vi­tal when teams are bowl­ing, bats­men­cap­tains would ap­pear to have an ad­van­tage in not hav­ing to com­bine both their skills at the same time, some­thing bowler-cap­tains would ob­vi­ously have to do. I well re­mem­ber my early Tests un­der Wil­lis, who would mar­tial pro­ceed­ings from mid-off of­ten in a daze, his bowl­ing, with its long and wind­ing run, hav­ing taken so much out of him.

These days no sane bowler would run as far as Wil­lis which would make that par­tic­u­lar mis­giv­ing re­dun­dant. But the oth­ers still hold, es­pe­cially the in­nate prej­u­dice of those in cricket who make de­ci­sions upon cap­tains. For them it seems to be for­ever 1926 with Percy Chap­man, Up­ping­ham, Cam­bridge and Kent, and res­o­lutely a bats­man and gen­tle­man, about to em­bark on a nine­match win­ning streak as Eng­land cap­tain in­clud­ing a four-nil drub­bing of the Aussies.

The mes­sage, as then, is clear – bowlers, know thy place.

Gen­er­ally, play­ers and pros were bowlers and lower class, while am­a­teurs and gen­tle­men were bats­men and ed­u­cated middle or up­per class

PIC­TURE: Getty Images

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