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The one question that reveals whether someone would make a great captain

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Roar Guru
16th November, 2019

A big issue coming down the road of Australian cricket is who will succeed Tim Paine as captain of the Test team.

In ideal times there would be half a dozen strong candidates to choose from.

These times are not ideal, partly because of Australian cricket’s prejudice against bowling captains and partly due to the top order’s instability.

We keep picking players who lead their state teams and could conceivably captain the national side – Travis Head, Peter Handscomb, Usman Khawaja, Mitch Marsh – only to drop them.

We have some possible alternatives – Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Nathan Lyon – but they have no state or Australia A captaincy experience.

The person who would do the best job of captain is banned from doing so for life: David Warner.

That really only leaves Steve Smith, one of the all-time genius batsmen and clearly a serious thinker of the game… but a great captain?

Well, what is a great captain?

You need three things: the ability to keep your place in the team as a player alone, basic tactical nous, and great leadership.


That first quality is rarely a problem in Australian cricket due to our sensible habit of picking the team first then the captain. Occasionally things get tricky when the captain has a form wobble (Ian Craig, Ian Johnson, Mark Taylor) but on the whole it’s never been a major issue.

Most Australian captains have the second quality covered, too. Some are brilliant tactically (Michael Clarke, Shane Warne), others more average, but most of them seem to have a basic knowledge of where to put fielders and how to construct a batting order, and you don’t need more than that. Tactical flair is overrated.

That leaves the third quality – being a great leader. This is the one that separates the men from the boys.

Tim Paine

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Libraries of books have been written about what makes a leader. But it could be boiled down to one question: “If they were your captain, would you genuinely go to them for advice if your marriage was in trouble?”

A great leader is someone who, if you were going through something massively personal like a marriage break-up, you would seek advice from.

Consider what qualities such a person would need.

They must be approachable, have some degree of authority but be empathetic, be capable of keeping confidence, know something of the world and the intricacies of human relationships, be sensible, plus be a friend, a colleague and a mentor all at once.


These are not qualities everyone has.

Look at the Australian cricket captains commonly considered great: Mark Taylor, Richie Benaud, and Ian Chappell.

As if their team members wouldn’t have gone to them for marriage advice.

Taylor isn’t a good commentator, but you can tell he was a great listener. Ditto Benaud and Chappell. At state level I’d throw in John Inverarity, Simon Katich, Cameron White and George Bailey to this group. Magnificent captains, all.

Look at the Australian cricket captains commonly considered not very good: Kim Hughes and Graham Yallop.

They don’t seem like people who you’d genuinely go to for marriage advice.


Let’s look at captains about whom opinion is more divisive.

Greg Chappell? You wouldn’t go to him for advice if your marriage was in trouble – at least, I can’t imagine his whole team doing so. He was too prone to tea-potting them on the field. Great player – probably too great to have true empathy. Average captain.

You know who I would have gone to, though? Rod Marsh. Marsh was truly the great lost Australian cricket captain of the 1980s. He feels like someone who had the authority, but also the empathy, the wisdom and kindness, to give you decent advice if your marriage was collapsing.

Marsh was vice captain for a long time – and a good vice can really help those captains who lack empathy and insight.

Look at Don Bradman. You wouldn’t go to the Don for advice if your marriage was in trouble. What sort of understanding of human failings are you going to get from someone with a Test average of 99.94? Bradman is considered a great captain because he had himself in the team, and he was tactically strong.

But in the 1930s half his side wished that Vic Richardson was in charge instead. In the 1940s this became less of an issue because Lindsay Hassett was his vice captain and Hassett gave off the aura of someone you could tell anything. For that reason Hassett was a better captain than Bradman, so too Bill Woodfull and Richardson.

Ask this question about other Australian captains and see what you think. Bob Simpson? No. Bill Lawry? No. Keith Miller? Yes. Adam Gilchrist? Yes. Allan Border? Um, no, sorry, can’t see it. Although I can imagine Geoff Marsh and Mark Taylor doing it, which is why Border only became an effective leader once he had Marsh and then Taylor as his vice.


It doesn’t mean these captains can’t be successful, or even good. It just means that I wouldn’t classify them as great.

Shane Warne? Would you go to Warnie for advice if your marriage was in trouble? Actually, yeah, I think you would. In the days before he morphed into a media conglomerate, he would know a bit about human failings. This is why he would have made a great captain. Not as great as Mark Taylor but he would have empathy and something wise to say.

I wouldn’t go to Michael Clarke. But I would go to Brad Haddin – Clarke was a far more effective leader with Haddin as his vice.

Look at captains from other countries. Eoin Morgan? Yes. Mike Brearley? Absolutely yes. Joe Root and Alastair Cook? No. Geoff Boycott? Absolutely no. Clive Lloyd? Yes. Frank Worrell? Yes. Garfield Sobers? No. Sunil Gavaskar? No. Virat Kohli? Actually yes, hearing him say some things about life, he’d be good. Imran Khan? Yes. Javed Miandad? No.

Which brings us to Steve Smith.

Steve Smith

(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Brilliant player. Tactically great.

But he just comes across as a kid. A good natured kid, but one who doesn’t know much about the ways of the world. Whether it’s in the way he talks, or the contents of his memoir, or in his actions as captain, he seems like a boy, not the sort you’d tell about your marriage problems.


Tim Paine, on the other hand, does.

As does Pat Cummins.

Cummins should be the next cab off the Australian captaincy rank. Not only is his selection in the team near-guaranteed, he’d have leadership capabilities, the authority and the diplomacy to be in charge of Warner and Smith, which is no small thing. At the very least, it’s definitely worth testing his captaincy skills at state level.

Let Smith be our Sachin Tendulkar. Let him be immortal. Immortals shouldn’t have to deal with the problems of people on earth, which is what captains have to do.

Try asking this question about people in your own life – especially bosses you’ve had over the years.

There have been worse one-question ways to test someone.