Australia have enjoyed a reasonably strong start to the Cricket World Cup, picking up four wins so far against just the one loss – but there are big issues bubbling under the surface.
Many prejudices run through Australian cricket. Leg spin’s better than off spin, real men bowl 140-plus, older players can’t field, sledging works, the best batsman should be at three and, most of all, that captains should be batsmen.
The theory, I think, runs something like this: it’s really hard to bowl in the hot sun all day. You can’t think. You overbowl and underbowl yourself. And most bowlers are supposed to be dumb anyway, according to the theory, especially if they’re fast.
You need the cool, calm analysis that only comes from a batsman observing at first slip. Donald Bradman. Ian Chappell. Mark Taylor.
I get the theory. I’ve heard it enough. But does it hold up in practice?
The three geniuses behind sandpapergate were all batsmen – Steve Smith (captain), Dave Warner (vice-captain) and Cam Bancroft (top bloke) – who, despite their lack of bowling, managed to forget things like ‘don’t put sandpaper on a ball’ and ‘don’t lie at a press conference.
Steve Smith was and is an okay captain tactically who seemed allergic to using part-time bowlers and who commanded leadership respect mostly by sheer weight of runs and the fact he doesn’t do anything but play and think about cricket.
Dave Warner was and is a decent T20 captain who has now been banned from ever captaining Australia again.
Before them was batsman Michael Clarke, a superb captain tactically but a poor manager of people. If he had a strong vice-captain who supported him (Ricky Ponting, Brad Haddin) he was fine, but if he didn’t (Shane Watson), he struggled.
Let’s look at our Test captains back to World War II, ignoring caretakers. Batsman Ricky Ponting was a decent captain, and he seems better now than he did at the time. All-rounder at first then only bastman Steve Waugh and batsman Mark Taylor were superb captains.
Batsman Alan Border started terribly – his handling of bowlers on the 1985 Ashes is a primer on how not to do it – but graduated to ‘okay’. Batsman Kim Hughes was a poor captain prone to frequent brain snaps (Brisbane 1984, Trinidad 1984, Headingly 1981, India 1979). Batsman Graham Yallop was worse.
Batsman and part-time bowlers Greg Chappell and Bob Simpson and batsman Bill Lawry were tough, shrewd campaigners and uninspired captains who tended to be disliked by their teammates and prone to the odd brain snap – for example, Chappell with the underarm, Lawry in India in 1969 – but demanded respect due to their playing ability.
Batsman Ian Chappell and all-rounder-turned-mostly-bowler Richie Benaud were superb captains.
Batsman Ian Craig was a good captain but didn’t deserve to be in the team. Bowler and handy tailender Ian Johnson wasn’t a good captain and didn’t deserve to be in the team. Batsman Lindsay Hassett was great. Bradman was Bradman.
It’s a mixed bunch and very batsman-centric. The two spinners were very handy with the bat. No fast bowlers. No wicketkeepers.
Were there any other options?
Most agree all-rounder Keith Miller was a superb captain who should’ve replaced Hassett instead of Johnson but the authorities, especially Bradman, were worried about Miller causing some sort of scandal. It’s the same thinking that kept Shane Warne, another highly regarded captain, away from higher honours. Instead we were rewarded with Ian Johnson (bad) and Ricky Ponting (not bad).
Either Richie Benaud or batsman Neil Harvey should have been appointed captain over Ian Craig, but Benaud was a bowler and Harvey did something to annoy the powers that be – too working class maybe? – so they picked Craig, who was a chosen one. He was a very good captain, by the way, but not up to it as a player.
Wicketkeeper Rod Marsh was potentially a very good captain of Australia who was foolishly ignored in favour of Kim Hughes because of (a) anti-wicketkeeper captain bias, (b) wanting to punish Marsh for World Series Cricket and (c) Hughes was a chosen one who just looked so pretty.
The tragedy of this decision is that Cricket Australia had numerous chances to recognise their mistake and correct it (1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983) but they didn’t. Sometimes doing this takes too much courage.
Batsman bias saw Graham Yallop appointed Australian captain in 1978-79 over tougher, more experienced, and smarter wicketkeeper John Maclean. Yallop led Australia to a 5-1 defeat. The person who should’ve had the job – the all-rounder and brilliant captain John Inverarity – wasn’t even in the team, because of the selector’s age bias. Batsmen with worse averages than Inverarity were picked over him during World Series Cricket simply because they were younger.
Wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist led Australia to a series victory in India, and led very well, but he was relegated to the vice-captaincy for most of his career. Would he have been better than Ponting? I would’ve liked to have found out – it would’ve meant Ponting’s reign wasn’t so long and he maybe wouldn’t have gotten so tired towards the end. Gilchrist likes to say it was too much work for him, but was it? Does he really mean that?
An aside: I think any Australian captain and coach can ask for is one Ashes tour and one World Cup in charge. Any more than that and energy levels seem to drop. Short tenures, please.
Clarke was a good captain but do you know who would’ve done as well if not better? Simon Katich, who had an excellent record captaining New South Wales but who was prematurely turfed from the Australian side due to ageism. Instead they picked Clarke, a chosen one – he had some great times and some poor times and left things in the same messy state he found it.
It seems there have been some, if not many, wicketkeeping, spin bowling and all-rounder captains of Australia. What about fast bowlers?
Geoff Lawson never seems to have been seriously considered an Australian captain despite a superb record captaining New South Wales.
Jason Gillespie was ignored as captain but has turned into a great coach – you can’t tell me he wouldn’t have been a good captain too.
Listen to former fast bowlers like Brendon Julian, Damien Fleming and Stu Clark talk about cricket – as if they wouldn’t have been good captains. Listen to Michael Slater – as if he wouldn’t have been dreadful.
Some of the best captains of all time have been fast bowlers. Imran Khan, Ray Illingworth, Mike Procter, Keith Miller – yes, absolutely, some of them batted as well, but so what? Did that make them less tired? Smarter?
I agree some bowlers are temperamentally unsuited to captaincy. But you know what? So are some batsmen, including some who do get appointed captain.
Could James Anderson be a worse captain than Joe Root? Would Nathan Lyon or Mitchell Starc have done what Dave Warner and Steve Smith did in South Africa?
Tim Paine struggled as a player in the one-day series, but I think that was just a good old-fashioned struggle with form. People seem very keen to emphasise he’ll be only a temporary Test captain, but if he does well, why not keep him on?
After the efforts of the firm of Smith-Warner-Bancroft I don’t think people should be so quick to poo-poo the leadership aspirations, if they exist, of people like Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood. I would have liked one of them to be appointed captain of NSW instead of Peter Nevill just to see how they did, but they weren’t, in part because of this bias.
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There’s a leadership vacuum at the top of Australian cricket. It hasn’t helped that the Australian selectors have had a habit of discarding players who could be alternative captains – Peter Handscomb and Peter Nevill for instance – or not given extended runs to players who were superb captains at domestic level (Cameron White, Andrew McDonald, George Bailey) or got rid of potential captains prematurely (Simon Katich).
And they still have a thing for ‘chosen one’ players, so you get scenarios like Mitch Marsh, averaging 27.85 with the bat after 28 Tests – Ian Craig-like numbers – being discussed as a possible captain.
I also get the feeling that Australian coaches sometimes like an inexperienced team because they have more control over them.
I’m actually not proposing that Cummins, Starc, Lyon et cetera be promoted to captain or vice-captain. In times of crisis I think you need experience, so for the Test side I’d go Tim Paine as captain and Usman Khawaja as vice captain on the basis of the latter’s now quite lengthy leadership of Queensland.
I would also actively encourage Lyon-Starc-Hazlewood-Cummins to captain the team. I’d also bring George Bailey into the ODI and Test team set-ups, if only as a squad member – his form actually isn’t too bad. Teams win with George Bailey in them.
Australian cricket needs to stop thinking of its biases and one of them is this obsession with batting captains, especially when they’re young.
Next time someone says that bowlers don’t make good captains, they should be also required to answer: “What? Unlike Smith, Warner and Bancroft?”.