Richie Benaud once uttered, “Captaincy is 90 per cent luck and 10 per cent skill, but don’t try it without that 10 per cent.”
Australian captains in the past two decades have lived by that maxim, but I would posit another maxim in addition to this: “Captaincy is 60 per cent tactics and 40 per cent man management.”
My earliest memories of cricket are of Steve Waugh’s all-conquering Australian sides of the late-90s and early-2000s. Steve Waugh was, in many ways, my first cricketing hero, and if you see my back-foot drive today, it’s a poor imitation of his.
Just don’t mention the 31 runs I scored this entire cricket season.
As someone who has watched countless hours of cricket, captained and played under many different captains, I wanted to examine the captaincy of the Australian cricket captains from 1999 until now through the lenses of tactics and man-management: Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke, Steve Smith and Tim Paine.
Steve Waugh captained Australia in 57 Tests – winning 41, losing only nine and drawing seven. He is the greatest modern Australian captain.
His steely gaze and ruthlessness were legendary. He had what was the greatest bowling attack in the world of the time with Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Shane Warne and Brett Lee. All of those names have etched themselves in the record books.
Tactically, Waugh was astute. Even the ‘mistake’ of Eden Gardens in 2001, when he lost after enforcing the follow-on, was not really a mistake as enforcing the follow-on was largely regarded as the right thing to do in the circumstances.
Captains understand and read the game well and communicate with their bowlers how they think they can best get the batsman out. Steve Waugh always did that.
He was not afraid to try alternate ways of getting players out, including part-time bowlers (Damien Martyn and Ricky Ponting, to name a couple) and different field placings. His apparent feud with Warne is well-publicised, though Waugh has never come out and spoken about it.
His man-management skills were good and he was not afraid to tell players what he thought of their performances.
Ricky Ponting inherited a very good side, and after the legends retired in 2005, Ponting’s sides sill shone.
The Tasmanian captained Australia in 77 matches – winning 41, losing 16 and drawing 13. With the likes of Matthew Hayden, himself, Michael Clarke, Michael Hussey and young versions of David Warner and Shane Watson, he was flush with talent in both batting and bowling (save for, a frontline spinner after Warne retired).
He still won matches towards the end of his captaincy, and his loss to England in the Ashes Down Under in 2010 was more to do with the quality of the English side and Australia’s (and his own) poor form rather than his inability as captain.
Ponting does hold the ignominious statistic of being the only Australian captain to lose the Ashes three times in their captaincy (2005, 2009, 2010/11). Despite the retirements of Warne, Adam Gilchrist, Justin Langer, Martyn and McGrath, Ponting still retained a number of high-quality Australian players like Clarke, Hussey and Hayden.
It was not until those players retired in 2009 that Ponting’s captaincy began to struggle. Ponting had the capacity to bring out the best in players through his example on and off the field and through his tactical nous.
As a tactician, Ponting was not averse to trying new bowlers, different field settings and looking to constantly take wickets.
Michael Clarke took over from Ponting in 2010.
Despite inheriting a much weaker Australian side than Ponting’s, Clarke still led Australia 47 times to 24 wins, 16 losses and seven draws. Clarke was not known for his man-management skills – as evidenced by his well-documented blow up with Simon Katich in the dressing rooms after one match.
He also oversaw the now-infamous ‘homework gate’ tour of India.
Both of these instances were driven from Clarke’s somewhat narcissistic behaviour.
Pup was an excellent tactician. He had a way of being able to know exactly which bowlers to bring on and when, which field settings would be best and he could back that up with his fielding and batting (and his occasional left-arm spin).
His captaincy record is exceptional because of the inexperienced side he inherited, and the inexperience only got worse. However, Clarke’s man-management skills were lacking, and that could have impacted his ability to draw out the best from all his players.
Often, it was Clarke and Hussey (in the early days) or Watson holding up the side. Nevertheless, Clarke was an excellent captain, but perhaps did not bring out the best in his players.
Steven Smith led Australia in 34 matches, winning 18, losing 10 and drawing 6. He was the best choice of captain at the time, and led Australia well. However, he will forever been known for the ‘sandpaper-gate scandal’ at Cape Town.
Tactically, Smith was not an overly great leader. He became reliant on his main four bowlers, rarely bowling a fifth or even a sixth or seventh option, if he had one. This wears the attack into the ground and presents fewer options.
He led by example with his batting and fielding.
I have to also call into question his man-management skills, and I would venture to say that it was his lack of man-management skills that was directly responsible for the Cape Town fiasco. He admitted to overlooking the clandestine meeting between Warner and Cameron Bancroft.
Tactically, he also tended to err more on the defensive side rather than the attacking side. He would put out point early on in a batsman’s innings, allowing the batsman an easy single if the bowler dropped short.
Furthermore, his captaincy record is largely inflated because of his own amazing prowess with the willow.
Tim Paine then became the ‘reluctant’ captain. He has led Australia in 23 Test matches.
So far, Paine’s man-managements skills cannot be faulted. However, he has a few glaring tactical weaknesses. Like Smith, Paine tends to err more on the defensive side. He often takes out all the slips when he does not need to, preferring instead to save boundaries.
Like Smith, Paine also relies primarily on his four main bowlers. In the most recent Border-Gavaskar Trophy series in Australia against India, Paine gave Marnus Labuschagne fewer than 10 overs in the entire series.
Even Cameron Green, the all-rounder, was not given enough overs to make a difference.
His second major tactical flaw is that he seemingly runs out of ideas when a big partnership is building. Paine’s tactic is to become more defensive, to wait for a mistake and to bring back his strike bowlers.
This wears down the strike bowlers and allows the batsman to settle.
Tim Paine receives an A+ for man-management, but a C- for tactics.
So, why should Smith never captain again? Quite simply put, Smith failed on both fronts, tactically and in his man-management skills.
There is little evidence to suggest that he has improved tactically or in his man-management skills, though, to be fair, he has had little opportunity to prove himself in either of those regards since Cape Town.
For Smith to be reinstated as captain, he must show that he has improved in both of those areas to ensure his longevity and long-term success in the role.