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Alastair Cook’s hold on the England captaincy ought to be precarious. He acknowledged after the defeat to India at Lord’s that he could be unseated by the end of the summer. His current security, assisted by the victory in the third Test, has a lot to do with the high politics of English cricket in the first half of 2014: when you’ve hailed a new era, you don’t want to be announcing a new, new era within months.
There’s another factor, too, I suspect. Not as compelling as the forthright decision at the end of the winter to reconfirm Cook as the centre-piece of England’s Test team, but it’s there, hanging around, a problem that can be overlooked if only Cook scratches out a hundred and stumbles to a Test series victory. It strengthens Cook’s tenure, while allowing him to dig an even deeper pit while in office. It’s the question, ‘if not Cook, then who?’
England captains are found fulfilling one of two roles prior to their appointment. They are either established members of the team (most usually batsmen) or they are able cricketers who have shown leadership prowess in county cricket. The establishment preference, if not explicitly stated, then empirically shown, is for the former: someone already in the team.
The current England team has three established players: Bell, Broad and Anderson. Of the newer team members, Joe Root is mentioned as a potential future captain. Without assessing each individual, I don’t think it’s controversial to state that none makes an outstanding case. With each of them having spent the majority of their professional careers as part of the England squad, none has experience of leading a county for more than a few matches.
There is another source to which the selectors could turn: the proven leaders in county cricket. Of the 18 appointed county captains for the 2014 season, five are not qualified to play for England, six are former Test cricketers (although not much more could be asked of both James Foster and Chris Read to earn a recall) and two of the others are 35 or older. Of the remaining five – Wayne Madsen, Jimmy Adams, Alex Wakely, Daryl Mitchell and Andrew Gale – I can only remember Adams and Gale ever being mentioned as possible international cricketers. The former is aged 33 and Gale has been overtaken by teammates Bairstow and Root, and probably has Lyth and Lees ahead in the Yorkshire queue for an England batting spot.
Go back 30 years to 1984, and there were ten England Test cricketers captaining counties, seven of whom were still playing (or in contention) for their country, including Botham, Gower, Gatting, Willis and Tavare. Botham led Somerset in around one-half of their Championship matches that season.
I have written before about the impact on Test selection of the separation of the England team from the county game. I concluded that there still remains a route into the England team for those performing very well in the domestic game, despite the ‘hunch’ selections (not justified by weight of runs) and fast-tracking of youngsters before they establish county reputations. The conundrum created by the, ‘if not Cook, then who?’ question suggests another ramification of centrally contracted England players: scant opportunities to develop captaincy experience and aptitude.
But which is the anomaly – 1984 or 2014? I have looked at three dates, one from each of the last three decades (1) when the England captaincy was taken or passed from one player and given to another, to see if the field from which the new captain was selected was as thin as it appears in 2014, or lush with talent as it now seems to have been thirty years ago.
1980 – Brearley’s successor
Mike Brearley, Test batting average in the 20s, stepped aside with ten Tests against the West Indies in 12 months looming. Established players in the Test team from that winter that had lost in Australia, but defeated India in a one-off match, were: Willis, Boycott and Botham. From the counties, Keith Fletcher, Brian Rose, David Lloyd, Roger Knight and Jack Hampshire offered a mix of leadership and Test match experience.
Botham, of course, received the nod. Willis was to become captain, as was Fletcher (and indeed Brearley, again), as England sought to replace Brearley’s leadership skills over the next few series. Brian Rose was also a viable, if outside, contender, having made it into the Test team and become the first Somerset captain to hold silverware – and with that the experience of captaining the likes of Botham, Richards and Garner.
1999 – Stewart is stood down
England failed to qualify for the super six stage of the World Cup they hosted and Stewart was stood down as captain. Nasser Hussain, vice captain, was appointed as successor. Beyond Stewart and his predecessor, Atherton, the team, habitually unsuccessful, lacked established players. But the counties provided captaincy experience to a number of those in and around the squad: Hussain, Cork, John Crawley, Mark Ramprakash, Jason Gallian, Adam Hollioake and Chris Adams.
When Hussain’s “poppadum fingers” took him out of his second Test in charge, he passed control to Thorpe, a novice captain. Unavailable for the next Test, Hussain’s role was taken by Mark Butcher, who had skippered Surrey for only a few weeks earlier in the season.
2008 – Vaughan’s gone
Michael Vaughan’s exit was unplanned: three Tests into a four match rubber with South Africa. Despite his own injury problems and unavailability to captain for much of the preceding three years, Vaughan left an exceptionally settled team that included three England captains: Flintoff, Strauss and Collingwood (ODI only). But appearances deceive: Flintoff (like his predecessor as iconic all-rounder, Botham) wasn’t to be trusted with leadership again; Collingwood was one batting failure from being dropped; and Strauss waited, although not for very long. Pietersen, of course, was invited to succeed not just Vaughan, but also Collingwood as ODI captain.
Central contracts had been instrumental to England’s success that began under Hussain and peaked under Vaughan in 2005. Team England were highly unlikely to look beyond their own group for a captain and the county game that year offered two proven ex-Test cricketers (Mark Butcher and Darren Gough), six Test discards, four one-day internationals, three overseas players and a handful of ‘county pros’.
These three examples, along with the situations in 1984 and 2014, suggest a thinning of the field of England captaincy contenders – related clearly to the introduction of central contracts and the withdrawal of Test players from championship cricket. It can be argued that the absence of many candidates does not really matter: England only needs one Test captain at a time. The injuries to captains Hussain and Vaughan illustrate that a viable alternative is necessary; something that Hussain, in particular, lacked in his first season in charge.
But just as substantial runs or wickets in county cricket are not guarantees, or even a prerequisite, of a successful Test career, how important is having experience of leading a county side? Michael Vaughan thrived without it. Nasser Hussain was made Essex captain only weeks before the England appointment. Michael Atherton leap-frogged the Lancashire job when made England captain age 25.
Perhaps the question is moot: England will continue to select captains from within the centrally contracted, county-deprived squad.
I have heard little of Andy Flower’s new role since his appointment in March 2014 as Technical Director of Elite Coaching, with a remit including the creation of “a leadership programme for young England cricketers,” which he clarified “is not simply about captaincy.” But he would explode the scepticism of many England followers if the graduates of his programme enabled England to appoint future captains with the confidence they could cope with the role like Vaughan and not look as ill-suited to it as Cook often has.
Footnote 1: These three dates (1980, 1999, 2008) provided useful examples to examine as well as being seasons for which I had Wisden easily to hand. Other dates and captaincy changes could be equally, or more illuminating.
It wasn’t long ago, just a week or two, that I was thinking that you hardly every hear about it these days. It’s something that seems to have left the game, a peril of the past, not a concern of the modern cricketer. Then… SNAP
One day before the third Ashes Test at Perth, Australian all-rounder, James Faulkner was facing ex-patriot English bowler, Aaron Onyon, in the nets. A delivery lifted and struck Faulkner on the right glove, fracturing his thumb. With Faulkner’s trip to the hospital probably went his hopes, after being 12th man at Brisbane and Adelaide, of featuring in the Ashes series.
There was a time in the recent past that England batsmen seemed to be contending with an eleventh mode of dismissal: broken digit. Leading the way, in the vanguard where he belonged, was Alec Stewart. On the 1994/95 Ashes tour, he broke his finger three times: in a warm-up fixture; in the 2nd Test at Melbourne; and then in his return against Victoria ahead of the 4th Test. The following English summer, Stewart made it through the first two Tests of the series against the West Indies before damaging the finger keeping wicket. In other news, Jason Gallian, on debut, was hit on the glove and fractured a finger.
Nasser Hussain, Stewart’s successor as England captain has referred to his own, “poppadum fingers.” One snapped while scoring a century against India at Trent Bridge in 1996. Another cracked while fielding in his second Test as captain in 1999. Ditto in a county match a year later, ahead of the Lord’s Test against the West Indies. The next time, against Pakistan at Lord’s in 2001, Hussain’s thumb was broken by Shoaib Akhtar. He returned for the 1st Test of the Ashes series later that summer. In the second innings, a blow to the hand from Jason Gillespie fractured another finger.
Steward and Hussain were extremes, but others were afflicted, too. Graham Thorpe broke a finger facing a net bowler on the morning of the final Ashes Test at the Oval in 1993. The following year he scored a century with a fractured finger at Old Trafford against West Indies. Robin Smith batted on with a broken finger at Antigua in 1990. Nick Knight’s ODI career was interrupted by a finger injury in 2000. His successor, Marcus Trescothick, missed Tests in 2002 with a broken digit.
I had been wondering what accounted for the quietening of this staccato of snapping bones. Had batsmen (and fielders) adjusted technique? Perhaps bowlers, or the pitches they pound, are less spiteful. Most prosaically of all, has the protection provided by batting gloves developed?
A little research shows that each of these may be true, particularly the glove design explanation, but my ear may just not be as well tuned to the snapping of bones as it used to be. In recent months, Graeme Smith, Eoin Morgan, Graham Onions (while fielding), Moises Henriques have all suffered breaks that make James Faulkner not look so much of a throwback.
So instead of theorising about the decline of a once common injury I’m starting to realise that finger injuries were more noticeable when England weren’t a winning team; when the player absent injured, we imagined, might have been the one to turn the tide. In more buoyant times, these setbacks are easily forgotten as the team motors on.
With England moving towards a probable Ashes defeat, I wonder whether we are about to enter another period of fragile fingered England batsmen.
Punching an opponent in a bar, last-minute replacement of the coach, a polarised dressing room, injuries, selection puzzles, batsmen bailed out by tailenders, DRS confusion, heavy defeat.. the components of a squad spiraling towards defeat are there. Friday at Lord’s – a demonstration of village cricket that lasted two sessions – has been the on-field nadir.
But the ‘most chaotic Ashes campaign’ tag starting to be applied is inappropriate for two reasons: the series is still live and there is some fearfully strong competition from the recent past. Here are three nominations.
2002/03 – England
Australia’s retention of the Ashes was decided by 1 December, after just 11 days of cricket. Casualties started a month before England headed to Heathrow. Graham Thorpe pulled out of the tour for personal reasons. Darren Gough made the trip, but never made it onto the field of play. Flintoff travelled too – to rehab and home. Simon Jones played the first of the 11 live days of Test cricket when he suffered the career-threatening knee injury. Five of the other first choice squad incurred injuries that left them unavailable for Test matches. Amongst those called-up to plug the gaps, Silverwood, White, Tudor and Snape were all injured. Jeremy Snape broke his thumb facing his first ball of his first match with the tourists.
The gap between the two teams was set on day 1 of the first Test – when Hussain put the Australians into bat and they reached stumps on 364-2. Victories by hundreds of runs or by an innings followed as Australia motored to scores above 400 and dismissed England with pace, spin and accuracy. England didn’t win a match until their 14th of the tour and the first when the opponents were not Australian (Sri Lanka in an ODI).
1994/95 – England
England, with an upset at Adelaide, took this series to the final match. But there had been chaos along the way. Injuries again ravaged the first choice squad. Six replacements were summoned and the team physio, called upon to be a substitute fielder in a match, broke a finger taking some practice catches. Alec Stewart had three separate fractures to fingers. Phil Tufnell was deemed unwell enough to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital, from which he discharged himself the same day. The team for the fourth test at Adelaide picked itself, comprising the only eleven fit players.
Captain Atherton felt hamstrung by the squad selected by Ray Illingworth, Chairman of Selectors. Evidence of ill-will was found in comments made by the Chairman at home in England and used by the media in Australia to bait Atherton.
The image Atherton uses to introduce this series in his autobiography is telling: he and Angus Fraser sharing a box while batting together in the fifth Test at Perth.
1989 – England
England were clear favourites ahead of the series. They lost 4-0, picking 29 players (13 making a single appearance) as the selectors cast around for players with form and fitness. A different pair of opening bowlers played in each Test. And there was deeper discontent. Gatting, the selectors’ preferred captain, was black-balled and Gower given charge instead. Recruitment for a rebel tour of South Africa was happening behind the scenes, breeding cynicism and resentment.
I moved overseas during the series and remember asking a friend about it when back in Britain the following year. He said he thought it was best ignored and didn’t want to discuss it now.
Australia remain buoyant compared to the depths of these three campaigns. What, though, would it take for this tour to descend further? One scenario occurs to me: Michael Clarke fights a lonely battle at Old Trafford, recording a century in a heavy defeat and then succumbs to his chronic back problem. That may leave Australia in a desperate situation (unless it allowed Simon Katich to be called-up, of course).
Cricket followers burn a lot of time and energy mocking, criticising and castigating the players our passion draws us to watch. We are particularly harsh on those who we believe are not fulfilling their potential in the sport. Steve Harmison, Mitchell Johnson are examples of players who have shown what they can achieve and then failed to live up to it. Another target of denigration are those who have reached a level in the game that their talent does not merit and struggle at that level. We’re also harsh on the superstars. Class is permanent but poor form is happening now and it’s not acceptable. Age dulls their talent, but not their self-regard. And their play may be impeccable but their conduct, dress sense, or off-field companions demonstrate they have less of a grip of other aspects of life.
The first group waste their talent, which we wouldn’t do if only we were so blessed (genetically predisposed). The second group waste our time. We don’t want to watch cricketers whose inability to score runs or take wickets is a result of a technical incompetence not seen since school net practice. The third group waste the emotions of hope, respect and even adoration that have risen through us watching them at their peak, only to be sullied by the inevitable demonstration of their humanity.
Then there are the small number of players with whom our relationship is less complicated. Australians may feel this way towards Mike Hussey. As an England supporter, I felt this about England’s new limited overs coach, now leading the England team in its one day series in India. He performed and behaved as well as I could have expected. I felt that Ashley Giles owed me nothing.
Giles was an orthodox left-arm spinner operating in a period when finger spin was thought impotent in international cricket unless the ball could be made to turn both ways. Giles’ inclusion in the England team felt grudging – if we really have to have slow bowler, he’s the least worst option. On debut against South Africa in 1998, Giles went for a ton taking a single wicket.
It was over two years until Giles played another Test – in Pakistan – and he moved quickly into credit with an analysis of 59-20-113-4, bowling 36% of the overs in Pakistan’s only innings. A five-for was earned in the next match and seven wickets in the series decider at Lahore. Giles had taken 17 wickets in the three match series, a record for an English bowler in Pakistan, and only one fewer than Saqlain Mushtaq.
For the next two years Giles played more, particularly in the Sub-Continent, than he missed. In India, he took his test best at Ahmedabad in another endurance display (5-63 in 43 overs) despite achilles and foot injuries that hindered his motion and earnt him the ‘wheelie-bin’ moniker. Giles was part of Michael Vaughan’s team that defeated South Africa at the Oval in 2003 having conceded 484 in the first innings. That summer, Giles took only 22 wickets in first class cricket. A single wicket in two tests in Bangladesh followed. But success in Asia came again before the year was out, with 18 wickets in the series in Sri Lanka.
Vaughan’s team found form and momentum, winning six consecutive test series before the Australians arrived for the 2005 Ashes. Giles was a near ever-present as the principal spinner, lower-order banker for a useful 30 and smart gulley fielder.
In the pre-series match-ups conducted on paper, Giles and keeper Geraint Jones, were the two England players deemed clearly inferior to their Australian opposite numbers – Warne and Gilchrist. What sort of player was Warne’s opponent? Giles is a big man. That and his splayed feet and high knees gave him an untidy, rolling run-up. But in delivery he pivoted hard on his right foot, arched his back, pulling his arm through classically high and strong, with head, often sporting blue reflective shades, tilted right. And he spun the ball. Too tall to give the ball very much air, but on helpful wickets, Giles was comfortable bowling in the low 50mphs, getting bite and bounce.
Giles, of course, didn’t come close to matching Warne in the 2005 series. But he managed to be both victorious and vindicated – taking wickets at Edgbaston after attracting a lot of criticism with a newspaper article, having his own ‘ball of the century’ moment piercing Damien Martyn’s confident defence at Old Trafford and scoring a half-century on the fifth afternoon at the Oval that took England to safety, a draw and history.
Worthy, committed and respected, but not a spotless career. Giles, under Hussain’s prickly leadership in India in 2001 was heavily criticised for bowling outside Tendulkar’s leg-stump from over the wicket. Wisden called it ‘unedifying’ and hoped the ICC cricket committee would stamp it out. Hussain recalled: “People went on and on about it being a negative tactic and against the spirit of the game.. and I think that affected Ashley’s career for a while..”
After the 2005 Ashes series, Giles was one of many of that team to experience injury or illness. He returned home from Pakistan with a hip injury in November 2005. It was 12 months before Giles played again – in the warm-up matches ahead of the Ashes series.
The player who owed us nothing was on the hardest tour of all, without any cricket for a year, with a ‘remodelled’ action designed, but little tested, to protect his frail limb. In his absence, Giles’ place had been taken by Monty Panesar, a loose-limbed natural left-arm spinner, who had had immediate success.
This is where my affection for and sympathy with Giles is at its strongest. Duncan Fletcher was loyal to his men and to his methods. Giles at number 8 gave the team balance, even though the team was no longer the same. And so came about a sequence of events that tipped the balance from Giles being a cricketer who owed me nothing, to one who deserved better of England. Imagine being called upon after a year away, unable to work, to do the most difficult thing your job involves. That’s what happened to Giles, who played at Brisbane and again in that defeat at Adelaide that still makes me shudder. He didn’t bowl poorly, but misjudged a chance to catch Ponting on his way to his second century of the series when England had declared at 551-6.
Giles was replaced for the third test by Panesar, who took five wickets on the first day. Family illness required Giles to return home soon after. And that was that.
Giles did not play again as injury forced him into retirement. The last year of Giles’ playing career may well anger me more than it does the player himself.
Henry Blofeld (Blowers) talks about his childhood early in his one-man show. His parents, Tom and Grisle, were Edwardian aristocrats alive and well in the mid-twentieth century. When at home, which most often he was not (being a school-boarder from the age of seven), Master Henry would see his parents for one hour each day. His father would read to him, his mother play cards with him, then the Nanny would take him to his bed.
Blofeld was brought up in the archetypal family where children were seen but not heard. Children have since moved to the centre of family life. My weekend, having seen Blowers on Friday night, has comprised trips to the boys’ football matches, cricket training, games of connect-4, playing with my daughter on her roller-blades, preparing tea, bath and bedtime stories. It’s a better balance and an upbringing that builds loving bonds and gives parents and children the warm pleasures of affection and security.
Being silenced at home did not hold Blofeld back. With a natural sociability and fluent articulation he found his way into that career for which there is no qualification, broadcasting, and went on to entertain, and irritate, millions.
The voices of children are now heard and, in situations where their needs are at stake (the Family Court), have authority under statute. And in the world of grown-ups, there is a group of adults, childish and childlike, who we also hear a lot from: the professional sports person. Before the match, immediately it has finished and then again a day or so later, they are fed the attention of journalists or even broadcast directly to the sports-following public. Egotistical, with a strong sense of entitlement, complaining and boasting, these adult-sized kids get to do something they’re mediocre at – talking – about something they may excel at – their sport.
My interest in professional football has decreased at the same rate that the coverage of the sport has shifted away from the play to the pundit and to the interview. BBC’s Premier League highlights show, Match of the Day, is, I estimate, three-fifths football and two-fifths chat. That’s a guaranteed 40% mediocrity in every programme.
Television really is the culprit. Our broadcast medium that bears the striking power of colourful moving image chooses to play to its weakness by summing up the sporting entertainment we have just seen with interviews of players and coaches too close to the game, too dishonest, too fearful of upsetting teammates and colleagues to say anything enlightening. Football, cricket, tennis, athletics are all demeaned by the demand to interview the participant within minutes of their contest. Usually cringeworthy, the best we can hope for are a few generous comments about the efforts of opponents.
I like sportsmen seen but not heard.
What would we lose if we implemented this maxim? We would lose a sense (because it probably isn’t real) of familiarity with the stars that play the game we cherish. Interviews with Steve Harmison seemed to uncover a grounded diffidence – charming when his career was in the ascendancy, maddening when he seemed so untroubled by his playing decline. The post-selection interview of England’s next fresh pick is the opportunity to size up their South African accent and decide how much emotional energy to invest in hoping for their success. I do recognise that the broad appeal (just as load and insistent as a Broad appeal) of the game relies upon getting the fan close to the star from a safe distance.
More significant to me is accountability. The team (England, or whoever I’m following) are playing for me and so should be challenged on why and how they have performed. David Gower (excellence and mediocrity in stark contrast) once stormed out of a press conference at Lord’s. Journalists were pressing him, I think, on why he persisted bowling Phil Edmonds from the Pavilion End, where he had to turn the ball against the slope of the ground. A good question, but should he have been harried about this during the Test match? Isn’t it a challenge for after the Test, to be weighed up against everything else that took place?
Another England captain, Nasser Hussain, gave two contrasting accounts as a defeated captain at the end of a Test series. The worst came after his first series in charge against New Zealand in 1999. He sought to defend his team, employing words along the lines of ‘the boys did their best’, when clearly many had underperformed. Three and a half years later, Hussain was a mature captain who gave one of the most enlightening interviews I have heard. England had won the final test against Australia, to lose the Ashes 3-1. Hussain eschewed the obvious and deluded line: ‘encouraging result for the future; try to build on this success’. Instead he pointed out that England had won on a pitch that suited their attack, but for the team to develop further they needed bowlers who could succeed on flat pitches – outright pace or mystery spin. I respected him for that frank assessment of the team and was reassured that he was in charge of the team.
For those comments to stick in my mind, suggests their rarity – or that I have simply tuned out, happy to see and choosing not to listen. I do hear enough to know that wicket-taking bowlers find ‘good areas’, tomorrow morning’s session ‘is gonna be crucial’ and the hundred ‘won’t count for nothing unless we close the game out.’
Given my ennui with the post-match interview, it could be seen as ironic that an innovation I aim to bring to the under 11 team I coach this summer, is to have the captain speak to the squad about the match at the following Monday’s coaching session. Maybe the culture of platitude and excuse will prevail, but I hope, with a little encouragement, to give airtime to some lads who think critically about the match they played and have ideas for how to tackle next week’s challenge. I’ll report back.