Cricket is the last bastion of captaincy, so what makes a good...

Cricket is the last bastion of captaincy, so what makes a good one?

As Lancashire and Warwickshire both name new captains, each of them seemingly completely different, Scott Hunt deliberates on just what it is that makes a player the right man for the job.

“If he thought you weren’t pulling your weight he would be right on top of you, straight away. Many players faced his wrath for committing that crime and there would be no place to hide from him.”

That is Sir Alex Ferguson talking about his Manchester United captain Roy Keane. When asked to think of the great football captains throughout the history of football, Keane would be near the top of almost everyone’s list.

Keane was a notoriously fierce competitor and would dish it out as much to his own team as he did the opposition.

It works in football, at least it did in Keane’s era, but cricket captaincy requires an altogether different approach.

If your bowler isn’t hitting his line and length for example, few captains will take the approach of screaming at him with various expletives thrown in. Cricket captaincy often, though not always, requires a more subtle approach – an arm round the shoulder, a tactical reminder or maybe even a little light-hearted banter.

Yet cricket remains, arguably, the only mainstream sport where captaincy is still an art form.

The days of the classic football captain appear to be behind us. The influx of money, of foreign superstars and fragile egos has killed the kind of fist-pumping, siege mentality captaincy that the likes of Keane made a trademark.

Managers have the responsibility for all of the players now, the role of the captain reduced largely to ceremonial purposes.

This comes at a time when England doesn’t even have a football captain, with the manager Gareth Southgate deliberating over who it should be. In truth, it matters not a jot. The power and responsibility for the dressing room lies with the manager – the captain is but an armband mannequin.

The same is true of rugby. Hark back to 2003, England’s World Cup triumph. It was Clive Woodward as coach and Martin Johnson as captain. They were a duo, everyone knew it and Johnson was as much a key figure in that triumph and in the public eye as Woodward.

It is not the case any more. It is likely many could name Eddie Jones as England rugby union coach, but only the more hardened followers would know Dylan Hartley was skipper. The game has changed and, like football, handed power to the coaching team and away from the captain.

Cricket is different, almost entirely opposite. The captain remains responsible for every decision once that boundary line is crossed. Bowling changes, field positions, team morale: all down to the captain.

Just this week Steve Smith admitted to sleepless nights during the second Ashes Test, such is the pressure he is under. That’s the Australian captain, not the coach, feeling the heat.

With all that responsibility and with such a clearly defined role, you’d think it would be evident by now, after the centuries of playing the game, just what makes a good captain.

And yet it remains something of a mystery. Cricket is so nuanced, with so many facets and even with different captains for different formats, that it takes all sorts to make a good skipper.

Ask a group of cricket fans to pick the best England captain for example and, like Keane, Mike Brearley will top many of those lists.

Heck, this is the man who literally wrote the book on captaincy (The Art of Captaincy, in all good book shops, probably). Brearley was a captain who mastered the art of cricket psychology, who used his lifelong interest in the human mind and blended it with tactical awareness to drag the very best out of his players.

“Cricket is a psychological game — a lot goes on in the head in terms, for example, of shrewdness, resilience, bluff, individualism and team spirit,” Brearley’s own words on the subject.

And so to the reason for this lengthy look at captaincy. In the last couple of weeks both Warwickshire and Lancashire have named new club captains. Other counties also have new skippers, but these two are of particular interest.

New Zealander Jeetan Patel, 37, is the man who will lead the Bears in the County Championship and Royal London One-Day Cup next year. He made his first-class debut in the 1999/2000 season back in New Zealand, and has 254 first-class matches and 78 international caps to his name. He first played for the Bears in 2009 and has been the overseas player every season since 2012.

Liam Livingstone is the new captain of Lancashire. At 24 he has just two first-class seasons under his belt and a couple of T20 international appearances.

And there is the beauty of captaincy in a nutshell. Two of our leading counties have looked at the same remit, the same responsibilities, the same challenges, the same objectives and given the role to two entirely different candidates.

Patel has all the experience in the world and so would, on the face of it, seem better placed to have a Brearley-esque understanding of the game. And yet age is no guarantee of success.

Graeme Smith captained South Africa aged just 22 and went on to be one of their greatest ever leaders. Lancashire will hope for something similar with Livingstone. They will look for a spark, and enthusiasm and energy that such youth can bring.

And yet Livingstone has no previous captaincy experience at any significant level, other than a couple of games at the start of last season. The decision to appoint him is based on not much more than a hunch, a gut feeling that he will suit the role.

It’s certainly a gamble from Glen Chapple and his coaching team to take the captaincy away from Steven Croft, the long-standing, hugely-respected player who has seen it all at Old Trafford.

And a captain must command the respect of his dressing room. Lancashire have a fairly young group of players and so they perhaps feel a young captain suits, whereas Warwickshire have a number of older players who may respond better to a leader like Patel.

It is fascinating to see two such contrasting approaches, but it encapsulates the nuances of cricket captaincy.

Let’s return again to Keane and a quote from his teammate Gary Neville: “Perhaps his greatest gift was to create a standard of performance which demanded the very best from his team.”

Ultimately, whatever way you go about it, whatever type of character you may be, that is surely the aim of every captain in any sport.

Whether you have bags of experience under your belt like Patel, or bring youth and vibrancy like Livingstone, delivering high quality performances while extracting every ounce from your teammates is the end goal.

Some will lead by example; some will be vocal. Some will have tactical ingenuity; others will have a psychological understanding.

So what makes a good cricket captain? Who knows.

It’s been a lengthy way of getting to that answer, but what the appointments of Patel and Livingstone show is the complexity of the art of leadership and cricket as a sport.

Different strokes for different folks, many ways to skin a cat, whatever cliché you throw at it the facts are the same.

Cricket captaincy remains a mystery. And knowing who will make a good one remains something of a shot in the dark.


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