Ranking England's 12 Greatest Test Captains

Rob Lancaster@RobLancs79Featured ColumnistJune 16, 2015

Ranking England's 12 Greatest Test Captains

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    Captaining England is not an easy task.

    The English media makes sure the skipper is constantly in the spotlight, though some players have been lifted by the responsibility of leading their country.

    Others, though, found the spotlight too much. While great players, a few found the burden too much to handle.

    Mike Brearley seemed born to do the job. The batsman took charge of his first match on June 16, 1977, with the Test against Australia ending in a draw.

    But is Brearley the best captain England has ever had? Here is a rundown of the top 12.

    Success has been determined by their individual records at the helm, though it was also important to look beyond the statistics.

12. Johnny Douglas

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    Test record: P 18 W 8 L 8 D 2

    Johnny Douglas' spell in charge of England was split by the First World War.

    The all-rounder led his nation to an Ashes win over Australia in 1912 and won eight of his first 10 Tests in the role.

    However, taking over again in 1920, he suffered a miserable run that saw Australia win seven matches in a row. He had one more Test in charge, in 1924, that resulted in a draw with South Africa.

    Douglas had connections with boxing, per David Foot's profile of the player for the Wisden Cricketer (h/t ESPN Cricinfo) and died in 1930, drowning at sea as he attempted to save his father.

    (There were no pictures of Douglas available either, so instead enjoy a news clip about how England defeated Australia in an Ashes contest with a difference in 2010.)

11. Alastair Cook

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    Test record: P 33 W 14 L 10 D 9

    Alastair Cook may not be everyone's cup of tea as captain, but he still boasts a solid record since taking over. Cautious in his approach, the batsman looks to lead by example at the top of the order.

    England's current skipper has a 42.42 percent success rate, including successfully defending the Ashes on home soil against Australia in the summer of 2013.

    He also steered his nation to a superb series triumph away in India in 2012, leading from the front with 562 runs and three centuries.

    However, his recent time in charge has been overshadowed by the absence of one man: Kevin Pietersen. He just squeezes into the top 12, but things could change after Australia's tour to England in 2015.

10. Percy Chapman

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    Test record: P 17 W 9 L 2 D 6

    Arthur Percy Frank Chapman, known as Percy, won his opening nine matches as England captain—then didn't enjoy another victory in his remaining eight matches in charge.

    The Cambridge University student was skipper for the successful 1928-29 tour to Australia.

    But after such a fantastic start, Chapman's success at the helm rather dried up. He lost a five-Test series 1-0 away in South Africa, and that tour in 1931 would prove to be the end of his Test career.

    He finished with an average for England of 28.90 but carried on playing first-class cricket for Kent until 1939.

9. W G Grace

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    Test record: P 13 W 8 L 3 D 2

    William Gilbert Grace (better known as W. G.) is one of the most recognisable cricketers of all time, even though he died in 1915.

    He played 22 Test matches for England between 1880 and 1899, captaining them on 13 occasions.

    He finished with an average of 32.29, not great by modern standards but impressive considering he played in a time when the pitches were uncovered.

    Of course, the only nation the batsman ever played against was Australia.

    During his time as skipper, his solitary Test defeat on home soil came at Old Trafford in 1896.

8. Len Hutton

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    Associated Press

    Test record: P 23 W 11 L 4 D 8

    Sir Leonard Hutton is seen as one of England's greatest-ever batsmen. He finished his Test career with an average of 56.67, with a highest score of 364.

    He became the first professional captain of England in 1952, starting his reign with three straight wins over India.

    The Yorkshireman helped his nation regain the Ashes in 1953, then retained them in the winter of 1954/55 as Australia were beaten 3-1 on their own patch.

    Hutton completed the tour with two victories over New Zealand, though that would be the end of his spell in charge. He retired in 1956 and was quickly knighted for his services to the sport.

    Yorkshire team-mate Raymond Illingworth said of Hutton, per the Wisden Cricketers' Almanack (h/t ESPN Cricinfo):

    He was simply a god to me as a kid, when I followed him all round the Bradford League playing for Pudsey St Lawrence. Those who played with and against him knew he was the best player and a class above everyone else.

7. Peter May

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    Test record: P 41 W 20 L 10 D 11

    Peter May inherited the captaincy after Len Hutton's retirement.

    He went on to lead England in 41 Test matches, a record that stood until Michael Atherton's reign, and would later become chairman of selectors.

    A classical batsman who finished his career with an average of 46.77 for England, May was in charge of a touring squad that were beaten 4-0 by Australia in 1958/59.

    Still, he bounced back by leading his side to six wins in their next nine outings. His reign ended in 1961, with England having failed to regain the Ashes on home turf.

6. Andrew Strauss

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    Test record: P 50 W 23 L 11 D 16

    Andrew Strauss enjoyed a winning percentage of 46 percent during his half-century of matches in charge of his country.

    The opening batsman made two centuries in his first three Tests in the job, though at the time he was only filling in for the injured Michael Vaughan.

    He was overlooked for the job in Vaughan's absence for the tour to Australia that followed, instead returning to be a foot soldier as Andrew Flintoff's squad were on the wrong end of a 5-0 whitewash.

    However, after Kevin Pietersen's short reign, Strauss was placed in the role permanently in 2009. He teamed up with director Andy Flower to lift England to the top of the ICC rankings.

    The pinnacle of his time in charge was retaining the Ashes on Australian soil in 2010/11, the first time England had triumphed away from home in 24 years.

5. Raymond Illingworth

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    Test record: P 31 W 12 L 5 D 14

    Raymond Illingworth was a tactically astute leader who lost just five matches during his time in charge of England.

    He did not get the job until he was in his mid 30s, by which time he'd left his home county of Yorkshire to take over in charge at Leicestershire.

    The all-rounder used all his nous to steer his country to a series win in Australia in 1971, and he didn't taste defeat at the helm until his 20th Test in charge, against India at the Oval.

    He stepped down in 1973, after a series loss to the West Indies, per Dave Liverman's profile of the man on Cricket Archive

    Illingworth was a strong figure who stuck by his players, a policy that paid off during his playing days but led to problems when he later became chairman of selectors.

4. Nasser Hussain

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    Test record: P 45 W 17 L 15 D 13

    Nasser Hussain's win percentage (37.78) puts him low down on our list of captains.

    However, the batsman has been placed so high because of the role he helped play in lifting England out of the doldrums in Test cricket. 

    He took over in September 1999 from Alec Stewart with the side at a real low, yet combined with coach Duncan Fletcher to turn around the team's fortunes.

    Under his guidance, England won four Test series in a row for the first time since Mike Brearley, per Scyld Berry's ESPN Cricinfo profile.

    A passionate man who sank all his energy into the job, Hussain laid the foundations for the success that followed under Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss.

    He stepped down after the first Test of the series against South Africa in 2003, admitting—per Sky Sports (h/t the Guardian)—that he had "grown tired" of the job.

3. Michael Vaughan

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    Test record: P 51 W 26 L 11 D 14

    Michael Vaughan was at the helm for one of England's greatest cricketing summers in the modern era.

    In 2005, Vaughan and his troops reclaimed the Ashes for the first time since 1987. An Australia side featuring Ricky Ponting, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne were beaten at last, and the public rejoiced in the moment.

    Vaughan deserves great credit for England's success that year. Taking over from the focused Nasser Hussain, the Yorkshire batsman was more cool, calm and collected in charge.

    Under his guidance, the national team went unbeaten in Test action throughout 2004.

    However, Vaughan would have had more matches in charge had it not been for injuries. He stepped down in 2008, making way after a series loss at home to South Africa was confirmed at Edgbaston.

2. Douglas Jardine

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    Test record: P 15 W 9 L 1 D 5

    Douglas Jardine was England's captain in the famous tour of Australia in 1932-33, notable for the visitors' use of Bodyline tactics.

    With fast bowlers Harold Larwood and Bill Voce in his side, Jardine used the tactic of getting his pace duo to target opposition players while setting a packed leg-side field.

    The plan was put in place to try and restrict the run-scoring talents of Don Bradman. It worked, too, as England won the series, if not many friends, in Australia.

    Jardine led England six more times after the trip, ending his Test career by captaining his country to a 202-run victory over India in 1934.

1. Mike Brearley

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    Test record: P 31 W 18 L 4 D 9

    Mike Brearley averaged 29.79 in his Test career but is not really known for his feats with the bat.

    He first took charge in 1977 and steered them to the Cricket World Cup final two years later. However, in 1980, the captaincy was passed on to Ian Botham.

    The following year, though, England came calling again midway through an Ashes series against Australia.

    Having made a pair at Lord's, Botham immediately stood down. Brearley returned and, with the ability to get his star all-rounder firing on all cylinders, duly led the team to three successive victories.

    A draw at the Oval meant a 3-1 victory for England and also stretched Brearley's unbeaten run in charge on home soil to 19 Tests.

    A man-management expert, he published the book, The Art of Captaincy, in 1985 and also went on to become president of the British Psychoanalytical Society.

Honourable Mentions

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    Some fine England captains failed to make the final cut.

    The most notable absentees are Graham Gooch and Michael Atherton, who had long periods in charge but with mixed success (that is not to say it is their fault).

    Bob Willis was a rarity in that he was a bowler who took charge of the England side. He won seven of his 18 Tests at the helm.

    David Gower replaced Willis, but the left-hander proved to be one of several talented batsmen who found captaincy a burden they were better off without.

    The same could be said for Ted Dexter and Kevin Pietersen, while the job came late in the day in Alec Stewart's long international career.

    Do you think one of the honourable mentions should have made it on to the list? If so, use the comments section to state your case.

    All stats used in the article were taken from ESPN Cricinfo and Howstat.com