Prince Mahela or Premier Jayawardene?
Mahela Jayawardene leads Sri Lanka into next week’s series against England. He is one of the world’s most respected cricketers. A batsman of princely touch, who thrives in all forms of the game without sacrificing his balance and delicate shot-making to either the fast-scoring demands of limited overs cricket or crease occupation requirements of the five day game.
Princes, however, don’t get to ascend twice to the same throne. Jayawardene is starting his second period of captaincy. The stronger analogy of civil authority is to that of a prime minister, lifted for a second time to office, rather than the one-off assignment of a monarch. Sri Lankan politics offers two recent examples of leaders returning to the highest office: R Wickremanayake and R Wickremasinghe. Other premiers from the cricket family of nations to have achieved this feat include men of the reputations of Winston Churchill, Harold Wilson and Robert Menzies.
The recent history of international cricket provides a few examples of captains having two (or more) periods in charge (NB I am excluding captains whose periods in charge were interrupted by injury – e.g. Michael Vaughan – or unavailability – e.g. Greg Chappell – and those who filled in for another’s absence – e.g. Andrew Strauss’s first stint as England captain).
They fall broadly into two types.
The first kind is the emergency leader, brought back not just to the captaincy, but to the team, when the powers-that-be are looking for leadership first and playing contribution second. There are two archetypes of the second kind. In fact, they provide such a definitive example of the species that I shall name it the Simpson-Brearley choice.
Bobby Simpson was brought out of retirement aged 41, not so much to plug a gap, but bridge a chasm between two generations of Australian cricketers, which had been brought about by the Packer defections. He steered the team to a 3-2 home victory against India, before joining many fine skippers in succumbing to the West Indies, who smuggled their stars back from the Packer circus into the team.
Brearley’s return as captain in 1981 was short, dramatic, wholly successful and provides the example that’s enough to convince any once bitten ex-skipper that when the offer comes again it’s best not to be shy.
Type two is the champion player whose lengthy career in Test cricket encompasses a full turn of the wheel. In some cases, his first shot at captaincy came a little early and team or personal form took a hit. A stalwart of his side, the elapse of time, forgiveness, maturity and perhaps the lack of alternatives, sees him once again elevated. Examples are easier to find from India, Pakistan and West Indies than elsewhere. I am intrigued whether this is evidence that some Test playing countries have a more monarchical view of captaincy: it’s a once or nothing office, with teams built around the captain, who will stand or fall on the team’s results, without hope of a return. While other countries invest less in the institution, enabling them to shuttle between the stronger candidates in their sides. Imran Khan and Javed Miandad alternated, partly according to the former’s interest in playing through the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Jayawardene belongs to the second group, keeping the company of Brian Lara, Javed Miandad, Imran Khan, Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar and David Gower. Lara, Miandad and Imran each had at least three separate assignments as captain. Australian examples are fewer – Kim Hughes is one. This is unexpected given their tradition of having a skipper who is first amongst equals, rather than a post-holder around whom a team is picked.
Jayawardene doesn’t fit my stereotype in many ways. No young buck, he had already played over 70 Tests before he became skipper. He led a vibrant, successful team that won series away in England, New Zealand and West Indies, as well as taking the one-day team to the 2007 World Cup Final. He stood down two years later, passing the captaincy to the man he had spent hours beside in the changing room, and more celebrated hours together in the middle accumulating vast partnerships. Jayawardene’s resignation was a surprise and there was talk of back-room politics, although he spoke of a decline in his one-day form. But his reputation was of a man who forged a united team and he could boast the second highest batting average of any Test captain.
Sri Lanka’s fortunes have dipped in the last year, with even Muralitharan’s retirement an inadequate explanation for the weakness of some of their performances. And so Jayawardene agreed in January of this year to succeed TM Dilshan on his resignation. Jayawardene has set a 12 month cap on his captaincy. In the three-headed ODI series in Australia, he set about his task with an energy and enthusiasm of someone confident in the role and maybe liberated from the need to build a foundation for his own future as a leader.
Premier Jayawardene has an opportunity to begin his year of Test captaincy by unseating world number one, England. With opponents so rocky on slow, turning pitches, Jayawardene could emulate the success of another calm, decisive leader, Misbah-ul-Haq. Success may be the biggest threat to his plan of spending no more than a year in charge. Sri Lankans will be relieved that their captain is more prime-ministerial than regal for one other reason: premiers can return to the ranks when their reign is over; kings are gone for good.