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Cricket's unlikely captains

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Roar Guru
9th January, 2020
31

After Australia lost both their captain and vice-captain to the ball-tampering allegations of 2018, Tim Paine was named as the Australian captain.

Paine was by no means a unanimous choice, nor was he the most popular. A 5-0 defeat against the archrivals England in an ODI series and a home Test series loss to the Indians last year cast massive doubts about his future as the national team leader. Yet over the last few months he has led Australia to the World Cup semi-finals, has successfully defended the Ashes and has made clean sweep of five home Tests against Pakistanistan and New Zealand.

His handling of the team during the tense finish in the Headingley drama received some criticism, but his success in lifting the morale of the squad following that defeat deserves great plaudits.

With Marnus Labuschagne becoming a run machine, David Warner regaining his confidence, the quickies bowling with plenty of fire and the GOAT looking as hungry as ever, the Australian Test team’s immediate future under Tim Paine looks very bright.

Paine is the latest entry into the list of some unlikely and often unpopular captains who carried on with their job dutifully.

However, not everyone achieved the desired success level. Here I will be looking at eight such captains from different countries.

Ian Johnson (Australia)
After serving the Royal Australian Air Force in the WWII, Ian Johnson, an off spinner and a useful lower-order bat, made his Test debut against New Zealand. He was part of the Invincibles of 1948. He struggled in the Test matches despite starting the tour well against the county teams.

The general opinion about Johnson’s bowling was that his offies were more effective in the hard wickets of Australia and South Africa rather than in England. It therefore came as no surprise when he was dropped from the 1953 Ashes tour.

Yet he was leading the Aussies in the home Ashes series in 1954-55. After the retirement of Lindsay Hassett, the choice lay between Keith Miller and Ian Johnson. Miller was without doubt the choice of the general public, and in terms of performances at the top level he was way ahead of his rival.

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Miller was a genuine matchwinner and an entertainer of the crowd. Johnson was a steady performer who liked to go along with his job quietly. Miller was the people’s choice. Johnson was the favourite of the board.

In the end the board’s opinion prevailed. In the board’s view Miller was too much a maverick and perhaps a bit too outspoken for the captaincy job. Johnson, in their view, had greater diplomatic skills, which might become handy in case of some difficult tours.

Indeed Johnson showed excellent diplomatic skills in handling the situations during a difficult tour to the West Indies in early 1955. Colonial memories were still rife in many parts of the Windies, and just a year prior an England team had experienced unpleasant situations in different venues. But the Aussie tour went peacefully and the visitors won the series comfortably. However, Johnson’s own contribution was modest.

That Caribbean success was the high point of Johnson’s captaincy spell. The people never fully accepted him as the Aussie skipper, and two successive Ashes defats didn’t do his prospects any good. Overall his Test record shows 17 Tests, seven wins, five losses and five draws.

Former Australian cricket captain Ian Johnson smiles at the gates of Buckingham Palace

(Central Press/Getty Images)

Brian Close (England)
Close was born in Yorkshire on 24 February 1931 and thus spent his teen days in wartorn England. This perhaps had a big influence on his character, as throughout his long cricket career he was more known for his determination and fighting spirit rather than any natural ability or matchwinning skills.

When he was made the England captain for the final Test of the summer against the West Indies at the Oval in August 1966 he had already enjoyed a high reputation as a successful captain of Yorkshire. Still, his appointment wasn’t accepted unanimously by the cricketing public. At Test level he was known more as fringe player rather than as a real matchwinner. He was never really a regular with the Test team.

The press wasn’t always very friendly with him either – in fact after England’s narrow loss against Australia at Manchester in 1961 he was made the scapegoat by the media. Perhaps there was a touch of desperation about his appointment as the England skipper – the Windies were leading the series 3-0.

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Close did a superb job in his captaincy debut. Centuries from Tom Graveney and wicketkeeper-batsman John Murray laid the foundations of an innings victory for the hosts.

Close led England to comfortable series victories against India and Pakistanis in the following summer. Overall his captaincy record shows seven matches: six wins and one draw. But his era was full of controversy and ended amid controversy.

First, Geoffrey Boycott scored a patient 246 not out at Headingley, batting for almost ten hours against a badly depleted Indian bowling attack. England won the match by six wickets, but the selectors dropped Boycott from the next match on disciplinary ground. They reckoned he had given his personal interest greater importance over the needs of his side. Boycott obviously wasn’t happy about it – he felt that Close, who was his county captain as well, hadn’t presented his case properly to the authority.

Then in August his Yorkshire team was accused of intentionally producing an extraordinary slow over rate to deny Warwickshire a vital victory. This was considered an act against the spirit of the game and Close, being the county captain, was made the main culprit. He was dropped from the team to tour the West Indies in the 1967-68 season, and prior to the final Test of the summer at the Oval against Pakistan he was told it would be his final Test as captain.

An unexpected recall to the Test team in the summer of 1976 meant he had an unusually lengthy Test career of 27 years.

Tony Lewis (England)
In December 1972 the England team started a long four-month tour to India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. With a number of key players, including regular captain Ray Illingworth, making themselves unavailable for the tour, the England selectors asked Tony Lewis, the successful Glamorgan captain, to lead the team. So in Delhi in December 1972 Tony Lewis, at the age of 34, became the last (till now) England player to make his Test debut and Test captaincy debut simultaneously. Overall he played nine Tests, all but one as captain.

There was considerable interest about this Test in India as it was Sunil Gavaskar’s first Test in home soil. However, the ‘Little Master’ disappointed his fans, scoring just 12 and eight as the tourists recorded an unexpected victory. Lewis led his team superbly. Geoff Arnold with nine wickets and Tony Greig with a fine all-round show were the main architects of the English victory.

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As for Lewis himself, he was out for a duck in the first innings, one of Bhagwath Chandrasekhar’s eight victims in the innings. But Lewis scored a fine 70 not out in the second, and his unbroken century stand with Tony Greig took England home for a six-wicket win.

Although the hosts fought back to win the series 2-1, Lewis got rich plaudits both as a player and as a captain. At the drawn fourth Test in Kanpur he scored his only Test ton (125). He showed excellent technique against Chandra, who seemed unplayable to most English batsman.

In the summer Lewis played in one Test against New Zealand under Illingworth before injuries forced him out. He was considered for the captaincy job for the West Indies tour in 1973-74, but he wasn’t available. He did, however, captain Wales in the first ICC Trophy in 1979.

After his playing days were over he concentrated on broadcasting and writing. A versatile talent, he enjoyed great success as TV commentator, writer and administrator. In the 1980s and in the 1990s he was something like a BBC TV’s version of Richie Benaud.

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Srinivas Venkataraghavan (India)
The Tamil Nadu off spinner had a long career in the top-level cricket, but while his first-class bowling average of 24.14 is impressive, his Test record of 156 wickets at 36.11 apiece looks very ordinary.

Two things characterised his international career: he was a great survivor and he always seemed a great favourite of the selectors, and he often benefitted from the quota system, which I believe still exists in Indian cricket.

During the five-match home series against Australia in 1969-70 he took just 12 wickets as Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, the Indian captain used him sparingly. Pataudi never hid his belief that the combination of EAS Prasanna, Bishan Singh Bedi and Chandrasekhar would form India’s best spin attack. He mainly viewed Venkat as a support bowler.

The selectors’ view was somewhat different, and when Ajit Wadekar replaced Pataudi as the skipper they made Venkat his deputy. The Wadekar-Venkat combination worked well initially, and the Indian team recorded historic series wins in the West India and England, but a crushing 3-0 defeat in England in the summer of 1974 saw Wadekar announce his retirement.

For Venkat, the 1974-75 season became a topsy-turvy one. First, in Bangalore in the first Test against the West Indies, Venkat was brought in as a very late replacement for left-arm spinner Rajinder Goel. With Bedi missing due to disciplinary reasons, Goel seemed the obvious choice. But this last-minute shift denied the veteran spinner his only chance of Test cricket.

Venkat, however, did well, and not only did he retain his place in the team for the next test, but with both Pataudi and his deputy Gavaskar injured he made his captaincy debut in Delhi.

It wasn’t a happy experience, as India suffered an innings defeat. Viv Richards scored a massive 192 not out and Venkat came in for some harsh treatment. He lost his place for the rest of the series but returned to lead India in the inaugural World Cup.

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In fact he was the Indian captain for the first two World Cup tournaments. His record, however, is not impressive, as India’s only victory under his captaincy came against East Africa in 1975.

He also led the Indian Test team in the four-match series in England in 1979, which the hosts won 1-0. The Indians mostly struggled in this series, but a superb double-hundred by Gavaskar in the final Test at the Oval gave them an unexpected opportunity. In the end the match ended in a draw, but Venkat received some harsh criticism for changing the batting line-up in the final evening. He had sent Kapil Dev at No. 4, holding Gundappa Viswanath for No. 6. Kapil was out for a duck, but my feeling is that had Kapil blasted a few sixes to take India home, Venkat would have been hailed as a genius.

This was his last Test as captain, and he lost his place in the side as he struggled against Allan Border and Kim Hughes in the home series in the autumn.

But he remained a prominent figure in the domestic circuit, and after touring the West Indies in the spring of 1983 in a somewhat Ray Bright-type role he finally fulfilled his lifelong ambition of playing a Test against Pakistan in the following autumn. He went wicketless in the Test at Jalandhar, and this was his final test.

Graham Yallop (Australia)
In January 1978 Graham Yallop, a solid left-handed bat, scored his first Test hundred against India. In early December of that year he was leading an inexperienced Aussie team in the Ashes. His first day as the Aussie captain was a disaster.

At the Gabba he won the toss and decided to bat first. His team was all out for 116 and looked hapless against the English seam attack. A more professional batting display in the second innings, when both Kim Hughes and Yallop scored tons, briefly raised hopes, but in the end the Poms won by seven wickets. The English also won the second Test at the WACA, but Aussie fortunes turned for the better in the MCG Test.

In a low-scoring match Graeme Wood’s opening-day hundred gave the home side the edge, and fast bowler Rodney Hogg, in the middle of a brilliant summer, took 5-30 and 5-36 to ensure the victory for his side.

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This MCG Test is now best remembered for being the debut match for Allan Border.

When the Aussies took a massive first-innings lead of 142 in the fourth Test in Sydney it seemed the Aussies were right back in the series. But then a solid 150 by Derek Randall led an England recovery and the one-sided series eventually ended 5-1.

Rodney Hogg was the only member of the Aussie team to perform consistently, as he broke all kinds of records in his debut series. Interestingly, Hogg’s relationship with his captain was not friendly, to say the least – the fast bowler frequently avoided direct communication with his skipper.

Yallop also faced criticism following the infamous ‘the old new ball’ incident in the final Test at SCG.

And as is so often is the case with losing teams, there were some weird team selections. Allan Border was dropped from the squad for the final Test despite looking one of the better prospects for Australia.

The summer also included a two-match series against Pakistan, and with no viable options available, the selectors again entrusted Yallop with the captaincy. Unlike the home team, the Pakistanis were in full strength, with the Packer rebels back in the squad.

Here Australia lost the first match at MCG in chaotic circumstances. Chasing 382 for an unlikely win, the Aussies responded superbly for a period with Border (105) and Hughes (84) taking the score to 3-305. But then Sarfraz Nawaz produced a superb spell as the home side collapsed to 310 all out. The last six Australian batsmen contributed just one run.

Yallop missed the next Test due to injury, and his replacement, Kim Hughes, led the team to a seven-wicket win. Allan Border, who was fast becoming Mr Consistent in the Aussie team, contributed 85 and 66 not out. This success by Hughes meant he was named the Aussie captain for the World Cup and the Indian tour in autumn.

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Yallop remained in the team and many expected him to perform better with the captaincy off his back, but although he scored a fine 167 at Eden Gardens, receiving a standing ovation from 90,000 people, he never achieved the consistency he was capable of as a batsman.

Graham Yallop

(S&G/PA Images via Getty Images)

Somachandra de Silva (Sri Lanka)
The first of the numerous De Silvas to play for Sri Lanka, he was a fine leg spin bowler and a more than a capable lower-order bat, but sadly his best days were in the 1970s before Sri Lanka were granted Test status. Some of the Pakistan batsmen who faced him during a tour to the island in the late 70s even described him as the best leg spinner in the world at the time.

Somachandra, commonly known as DS de Silva, was almost 40 years old when he finally represented Sri Lanka in their maiden Test in England in February 1982. At Faisalabad, later in the season, he became the first Sri Lankan bowler to take a fifer in the Test arena.

During the New Zealand tour in 1983 injures to both skipper Duleep Mendis and his deputy Roy Dias meant that DS de Silva led Sri Lanka in two Tests and one ODI.

Sri Lanka lost both the Tests. At Christchurch the Lankans suffered an innings defeat as the depleted batting line-up looked hapless against the Kiwi seam attack. But then, in the next Test at Basin Reserve, the Lankans took a surprise a first-innings lead before a batting collapse in the second saw them lose by six wickets.

If he had been born a decade later, DS de Silva would have been a name much more familiar to cricket lovers of the world.

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Chris Cowdrey (England)
When he was selected to represent England for the tour to India in the 1984-85 season the Kent all-rounder had two responsibilities: one, to replace Ian Botham for the all-rounder’s job; and, two, to make the name ‘Cowdrey’ familiar again within the cricketing fraternity. The fact that Chris Cowdrey failed in both shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. He was a player of modest ability and was more suited to the county circuit than the international arena. Some experts even say that his famous last name played a part in him getting a chance in the national team.

England won the series in India 2-1 but Cowdrey’s contribution was very modest. His only bright moment in the series came in the first Test in Mumbai when he bowled Kapil Dev with only his fourth delivery in Test cricket.

Botham’s return for the Ashes summer of 1985 should have been the end of Cowdrey’s international career, but then the selectors in a surprise move made him the captain for the last two Tests of the home series in 1988 against the Windies.

The case here was something similar to that of Brian Close’s appointment two decades earlier. Here England was trailing 2-0. The only difference was in the reverse role for the Cowdreys. Back in the 1960s the selectors considered Colin Cowdrey’s captaincy inadequate; here his son was expected to be the leader to revive England hopes.

Sadly, his team was beaten by ten wickets at Headingley. Although the supporters of Cowdrey could claim that for the first half of the Test England fought well, restricting the opposition lead to just 74, it was the batting collapse in the second innings that undid the good work.

An injury forced Cowdrey out of the next Test and he never played for England again.

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Naimur Rahman Durjoy (Bangladesh)
In November 2000 Durjoy led the Tigers in their debut Test match against India. Leading a team in their debut Test is always a difficult task – in his case it became doubly difficult as this was the first time he was leading the national team.

Traditionally debutant Test teams give a senior pro with previous captaincy experience the job, as was the case with Sri Lanka’s Bandula Warnapura and Zimbabwe’s Dave Houghton. But the Bangladesh selectors thought along a different line. Despite the fact the team included Akram Khan, captain of the 1997 ICC Trophy-winning team, and Aminul Islam Bulbul, captain of the 1999 World Cup team, they gave the captaincy to 26-year-old Durjoy. The selectors justified their decision by claiming they had the future in mind.

My opinion is that they perhaps thought too far ahead, because his eight-Test career became a big struggle for him both as a player and as a captain. An off spinner cum hard-hitting bat, he took 6-132 in the first innings against India, but success thereafter eluded him at the highest level. His international career ended rather prematurely in 2002.

He may have failed to shine as a cricket captain, but he has shown excellent leadership skills in the field of politics. Since 2014 he has been representing Manikganj-1 – a constituency north-west of Dhaka – in the national assembly.