Reading the morning papers whilst traveling to work this morning, I felt this familiar sense of despair and dread rising within me. Familiar because for the English cricket fan, the concept of self-destruction has been a normal and regularly repeated activity for the team over the last few decades. It feels like we’re here again.
Andrew Strauss was unveiled to the press yesterday in the rather unusual position that he was not the main headline. New captain’s can usually expect the limelight - but not here. The story instead is dressing room division, double sackings, mutiny and discord; plastered over the back and inside pages. Kevin Pieterson, the pin-up boy of English cricket had lasted just 3 games as England’s captain. You had to ask yourself what they would manage to mess up next.
‘I’ve got some work to do in the next week or two’ declared Strauss, much to delight of those who enjoy understatement. He has indeed got a tough job ahead of him. But I wonder whether, in the long term, this might not be the worst thing to have happened.
Captaincy in cricket is unique. In many other sports, the captain is an impromptu cheerleader and motivator, assigned with the arduous task of spinning the coin at the beginning of the game. In cricket, the player has to evolve from team-man, try to continue his own skills of batting, bowling and fielding, but become an on-field general, a tactician at the centre of the action. He is the decision maker.
“We need to think what it is we have to do to start winning Test matches consistently. That’s my job as captain”. Strauss is right in his sentiments here, but half right in delivery.
In modern cricket, the process of team development and big picture strategy sits with captain yes, but also with coach and selectors. Even in Australia, where coach Tim Nielson deliberately plays second fiddle to the captain Ricky Ponting (maybe something KP aspired to), the strategy of the team and goals for the future are set together.
The captain’s job, in my view, comes into play much more when the Test Match begins. It’s in the micro-decisions that the art of cricket captaincy comes to the fore. Field placements, instinctive bowling changes, motivation of players, key tactical decisions. Here the captain treats us to an art which is unique to this fabulous game.
Whatever we might think of KP, possibly the greatest natural talent in cricket today, I’m not sure he was or is captain material. Is he a motivator? Yes. Can he lead from the front? Undoubtedly—two centuries in three Tests prove that. Is he tactically aware ? I’m not sure. The recent India series would say no, given his defeat from the jaws of victory effort in Chennai. KP has never captained a team before.
The ECB knew that, and indeed should have known what KP the ego would be like, but KP had assumed captaincy and I wonder whether that should have had more influence last summer.
An apparently critical factor in KP’s push for decision making power was the absence of Michael Vaughan from the team to play the West Indies. KP wanted his ‘tactical input’. Vaughan remains one of the great leaders of a cricket team. The difference from 2005 to 2006/07 can be found, along with other issues, in his absence as a leader. I often said during that series that I would pick Vaughan to sit on a deck-chair so that he could influence the game tactically. I reckon England would not have lost in Adelaide if Vaughan had been in charge.
But KP’s desire to have Vaughan in the team for tactics reveals his shortfalls in that area. Strauss is captaincy material. Intelligent, cricket savvy, with experience of leading before - he is suited to the job. In Test Match cricket he excelled during his one spell in charge, against Pakistan in 2006. I was one who believed he should have led us into the Ashes in 2006/07 in Vaughan’s absence.
My worry is his cricket form. Yes he scored two magnificent hundreds in Chennai, but does anyone remember last summer? A scratchy, indifferent summer full of tentative shots, difficult innings and a general lack of form. This came after a prolonged absence where he had to almost re-discover his game. Come the Ashes this summer, will he be a fixture in the team? If he is, then captaincy in the longer form of the game at least is assured.