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Creating a single measure to rank the world’s greatest Test captains

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Roar Guru
23rd July, 2021
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In this first of two articles, I will examine the usual and most important measure of a captain: winning Test matches and Test series.

After looking at a few success stories and disasters, I will endeavour to come up with a single measure to rank the world’s greatest Test captains on the basis of team performance.

In the next article I will also look at captains who led from the front and performed with the bat or ball to find those players who were inspired by captaincy and those who were crushed by the role.

Setting the scene: ‘The Big Ship’
There are 30 captains who never lost a Test, however of all captains to lead their team at least ten times, there is only one who kept a clean sheet: ‘The Big Ship’ Warwick Armstrong. Armstrong led his team exactly ten times for eight wins and two draws.

As a quick preview of my second article, let’s look at Warwick Armstrong’s individual performance while captain. Armstrong averaged 56 with the bat as captain, which was 57 per cent better than his non-captaincy average of 35.66. This average rose to 77.3 when captaining in front of his home crowd.

Armstrong was also a decent change bowler and took his wickets as captain at 24.47, a 31.7 per cent improvement compared to playing under someone else. These figures show that when Warwick Armstrong led his side, he did so with performances placing him as one of the greatest all round players in history.

So there is no doubt that Warwick Armstrong relished the captaincy, and drove himself and his team to great heights.

Warwick Armstrong.

(PA Images via Getty Images)

Captains who win
Six other captains have achieved a raw winning percentage of more than 60 per cent (minimum ten Tests).

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• Australians Steve Waugh, Don Bradman and Ricky Ponting
• Englishmen WG Grace and Douglas Jardine
• West Indian Frank Worrell

One interesting thing to note there is that, maybe Frank Worrell aside, the remaining five plus Armstrong were all considered to be ‘hard bastards’, not necessarily gaining a lot of friends for their winning personalities or gentlemanly conduct.

For example:
• Armstrong once fooled an umpire into letting him bowl consecutive overs from either end after a rain break
• Steve Waugh coined the phrase ‘mental disintegration’
• Don Bradman had many admirers but fewer friends among his cricketing peers due to his aloof behaviour and single mindedness. Jack Fingleton and Bill O’Reilly were noted critics
• Ricky Ponting’s teams were involved in some pretty unsavoury behaviour in Test matches (for example Sydney versus India in 2008) and his teams carried on the ‘ugly Aussies’ tradition so admired around the world
• WG Grace was a renowned bender of the rules, including running out a player who was doing some gardening in the famous 1882 Test at the Oval that gave rise to the Ashes legend
• Douglas Jardine famously brought the Ashes to flashpoint with his ‘Bodyline’ tactics and superiority complex

It seems plain that the best captains may not necessarily spend their downtime singing ‘Kumbaya’ around the campfire.

(Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images)

Winning versus not losing
Steve Waugh has the standout record in that group, his winning percentage of 71.9 being nearly ten per cent better than the next best.

However Waugh didn’t really do draws, so if instead of winning percentage we use win/loss ratio as a measure then Douglas Jardine is by far the standout. He may have won only nine from 15 Tests in charge, but he only ever lost once. Jardine’s win/loss ratio of 9.0 is four points better than Bradman, his nearest (and most bitter) rival.

Jardine’s record is even better when you consider this statistic: Jardine lost the toss five times in away Tests and his record in those matches stands at four wins and one loss.

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Captaincy disasters
At the other end of the spectrum, there have been five captains who had the dubious honour of leading for ten or more Tests and never tasting victory.

Bangladesh’s Mohammad Ashraful and Khaled Mashud each experienced 12 defeats as captain, although at least Ashraful managed one draw. They are joined by Zimbabwean Tatenda Taibu with nine losses from ten attempts and 1930s South African Allan Melville with four losses amid six draws.

The really interesting name in this list of captaincy disasters is Sir Ian Botham. One of history’s great all-rounders did not thrive under the pressure of captaincy, losing four and drawing eight matches from 12 attempts.

After a dreadful run of form, Botham famously relinquished the captaincy during the 1981 Ashes to specialist leader Mike Brearley and, thus freed of responsibility, went on a run for the ages to steal the Ashes from Australia’s grasp.

Mike Brearley

Mike Brearley. (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)

Spare a thought for portly English 1980s captain Mike Gatting. Gatting had 11 attempts at captaining England in front of his home fans and did not win any of them (three losses and eight draws).

Another famous captain to ‘achieve’ this feat was the late, great Tony Greig, who notched up three losses and five draws from eight home attempts.

Winning on the road
Winning at home is relatively easy. There are 40 captains who enjoyed a 60 per cent winning percentage at home (minimum five Tests). However it is much more challenging to win away and this might be a true measure of a captain, holding his team together away from the comforts of home.

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There are six captains with an away winning percentage of more than 60, and there are also eight captains who dug in and never lost an away Test. Most of this second group loved a stalemate. English great Colin Cowdrey managed just a single win away as captain from ten Tests, however he didn’t lose any of the other nine.

Draws might not be a great advertisement for cricket, but series are there to be won (or not lost). This was somewhat the norm in the 1950s and 1960s. Two Pakistan captains of from the era, Fazal Mahmood and MH Mankad, both captained five times abroad for five draws each.

The record for most wins away without suffering a loss is held by Victor Richardson, Chappelli’s famous grandfather. Richardson won four from five on the tour of South Africa in 1935-36 and was promptly replaced as captain.

Other captains achieving a more than 60 per cent win rate away from home are 1880s tourist Arthur Shrewsbury Junior, Douglas Jardine, crooked but feisty Pakistan leader Saleem Malik, Steve Waugh and underrated captain and Pakistan speedster Waqar Younis.

Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis

Wasim Akram (left) and Waqar Younis. (Photo by Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images)

The most wins away from home is held by a famous captain not yet mentioned: West Indian giant Clive Lloyd. Lloyd captained the West Indians during a period of unparalleled success in the 1980s.

Lloyd played to win, but unlike Steve Waugh, Lloyd’s teams could also bunker down and grind out a draw. His 23 away wins from 50 attempts is less than a 50 per cent winning percentage and is lower than Ponting or Waugh, but he forced another 17 draws, thus losing only one in five matches away.

In contrast Ponting and Waugh each lost around one in 3.6.

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Ranking the captains: a single measure
So let’s see what all this data says about history’s most successful captains. I’m going to keep it relatively simple.

Each Test and series has a set amount of points available to be earned, with a weighting given to away performances (note: series must be of at least two Tests’ duration).

I also believe a good measure of a captain is building flexibility and team resilience in grinding out a win when conditions are not in your favour. So there will be one bonus point available for all wins after losing the toss.

Ricky Ponting of Australia works the ball to leg

(James Knowler/Getty Images)

There is another obvious and important factor affecting results and that is relative team strength – what a captain inherits as well as what comes through during his tenure. Bradman had, well, Bradman. Waugh had Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. Ian Chappell had Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. Allan Border inherited an aimless rabble.

Then there is also the benefit of coming up against weak opposition, like Mike Brearley in Australia during the Kerry Packer years, as opposed to Kim Hughes running into the champion West Indies during most of his tenure.

This concept is really easy to identify but devilishly difficult to measure. So I’m going to leave it alone. Otherwise I’d have to come up with something like progressive career batting/bowling averages for all of a captain’s teams during his tenure, including whether those individuals were trending up or down, and compare it to the opposition.

Then calculate expected wins and draws based on relative team strengths (with a weighting for home and away, losing the toss, etc.) and compare that to actual results to see if a team did better or worse than they should have. This is beyond my skills but would make for a fun exercise for a bored statistician.

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There is also the issue of being a builder of teams or a beneficiary of someone else’s great work. If you look at Ricky Ponting’s winning percentage of 62.3 this is elite level, fourth all time in fact, and you would be justified in thinking Ponting was a genius captain.

However if you are provided the additional piece of information that Australia’s previous captain (Steve Waugh) had a winning percentage of 71.9, then Ponting’s record can be seen to at least be partially built on the shoulders of his predecessor.

Steve Waugh

(Credit: Ben Radford/Allsport/Getty Images)

Then if you look at the next captain (Michael Clarke) and see a winning percentage of 51.1 per cent then you see a picture of slow decline from Waugh, through Ponting and into Clarke. Of course team and opposition strength is a factor. Ponting saw the retirement of the golden generation of Australian cricket and Clarke inherited a much different team.

How to factor this in? There is no foolproof way, but I’m going to add a bonus ten per cent for captains with a winning percentage higher than their predecessor. I’m going to be generous and ignore any penalties for captains leaving their successor with a mess to clean up.

After all of this, points are allocated as follows:
• Home Test win = two, draw = one, loss = zero
• Away Test win = three, draw = 1.5, loss = zero
• Home series win = four, draw = two, loss = zero
• Away series win = eight, draw = four, loss = zero
• Lost the toss but won bonus = one per Test
• Improvement bonus ten per cent

Let’s use Greg Chappell as an example. The younger Chappell served for 48 Tests as captain, 33 at home and 15 away. This gives Chappell a maximum of 111 points to be earned (i.e. two for every home Test and three for every away Test).

Chappell was in charge for 13 series, nine at home and four away. This gives Chappell another 68 available points (i.e. four for every home series and eight for every away series). He also lost the toss 19 times, giving him 19 additional bonus points to be earned.

Total points available = 111 match points pus 68 series points plus 19 lost toss bonus points = 198.

Here are the results in those Tests and series:
• Home wins = 18 = 36 points, draws = seven = seven points, losses = eight = zero points
• Away wins = three = nine points, draws = seven = 10.5 points, losses = five = zero points
• Home series wins = five = 20 points, draws = three = six points, losses one = zero points
• Away series wins one = eight points, draws zero = zero points, losses three = zero points
• Lost toss wins = eight = eight points
• Improvement bonus = zero points (Greg had a worse captaincy record than his older brother before him)

This gives Greg Chappell a total score of 104.5, out of a possible 198 available for all Tests and series. Converted to a percentage points earned out of those available = 96.5 / 179 = 52.8 per cent captaincy score.

Greg Chappell

(Photo by Matt King – CA/Cricket Australia/Getty Images)

Now this score means nothing of itself, but if we run the methodology through all captains, hopefully a meaningful ranking will emerge.

Cricket’s greatest captains
Fourteen captains have a captaincy score of 110 per cent. This means they gained every single point available to them as a captain, plus got the ten per cent bonus for improving the team compared to the previous captain. None of these players reached the minimum ten-Test cut off. Two captains reigned for four Tests each.

South African Ali Bacher led the famous pre-isolation team that destroyed Australia 4-nil. Given the rich resources at his disposal, including Barry Richards, Graeme Pollock and Mike Procter, there is every chance that Bacher would have maintained an impressive record.

The other is current Pakistan captain Babar Azam, who so far has a perfect winning record from two home Tests against South Africa and two away Tests in Zimbabwe. It remains to be seen where Azam’s record finishes up.

Englishman Brian Close captained for seven Tests and has a score of 105.6 per cent. Close’s only blemish is a single home draw and his points included three wins from as many attempts after losing the toss. His captaincy career benefited from a fairly easy run, consisting of six home Tests against India and Pakistan when they were poor travellers, plus one against the West Indies in a home dead rubber after the visitors had won the series.

At the other end of the spectrum, fully 40 players have had a go at captaincy for a score of zero per cent. Two Bangladesh captains with very similar names – Khaled Mashud and Khaled Mahmud – lead the list with 12 and nine Tests respectively.

But enough of that, here are the best captaincy records with a minimum of ten Tests. In addition, if any country did not get a player into the top ten, I have listed their best captain as well.

Name Country Tests as captains Captaincy score
Warwick Armstrong Australia 10 97.2
Douglas Jardine England 15 86.3
Steve Waugh Australia 57 82.4
Saleem Malik Pakistan 12 79.1
Ian Chappell Australia 30 77.2
Mike Brearley England 31 76.8
Viv Richards West Indies 50 76.3
Bill Woodfull Australia 25 75.1
Len Hutton England 23 75
Clive Lloyd West Indies 74 74.4

Other countries’ best.

Name All-time rank Country Tests as captains Captaincy score
Shaun Pollock 11 South Africa 26 73.4
Virat Kohli 13 India 61 73.1
Kane Williamson 15 New Zealand 37 70.9
Mahela Jayawardene 33 Sri Lanka 38 60.6
Heath Streak 115 Zimbabwe 21 26.2
Mushfiqur Rahim 116 Bangladesh 34 26.1

So there you have it. ‘The Big Ship’ is history’s greatest captain, in terms of results. And if you look at his personal performances as captain (see the top of this article), he’s probably on top of that pile as well.

If you increase the cut-off to 20 Tests then it’s the steely-eyed elder Waugh. And you won’t get much sympathy or quarter given by any of that top ten list.

So when Australia picks its next captain, do we go for the Tim Paine, nice-guy model, or do we find some miserable ruthless sod to make us once again the most feared and loathed cricket team on earth?

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