Strategic observation, bluffing patience and the capacity to take punishment for the team under oppressive circumstances. All strings to the spinner’s bow that one would think would stand that creed in good stead for leading a cricket team. Yet, even as Graeme Swann assumes the mantle of England’s T20 skipper in the wake of Stuart Broad’s shoulder injury, why is it that so few spinner’s have been asked to step up to the mark and lead their country in any form of the game?
Swann is the first tweaker in any format to skipper England since John Emburey’s largely unsuccessful stint for two Tests and four ODIs in 1987-88, and his elevation has been greeted with a mixture of intrigue and raised eyebrows. A great deal of this can be attributed to Swann’s status as high-jinkser in chief and all round cheeky chappy, but at least a smidgen of the surprise can be attributed to the fact that he is not a stolid, or even beatific, driver of balls through the covers, as so many international captains have been over the years and certainly in those most recent.
There are plenty of arguments against fast bowlers being asked to toss the coin and man the men, not least the fact that by necessity they are required to spend a great deal of recuperation time grazing down at fine leg or third man, a position not given to omnipotence when it comes to switching the field or chivvying the chaps. Yet for spinners, practitioners of an art that is founded on guile, resoluteness and interpretation of batting fallibility, the arguments against their being captain strike me as an oddity that has surely been entrenched by tradition rather than logic. In modern-day cricket, barring spinning all-rounder Daniel Vettori’s thankless efforts leading New Zealand and Anil Kumble’s far-from-disastrous late 1990s spell at the Indian helm, the last specialist spinner to lead a side in a Test match was, again, John Emburey in 1988.
Perhaps it is the very nature of the spinner’s character that has led to them being ostracised from leadership – a spiky personality born of the craft, the art and the creativity that is entirely at odds with the dour calculation the modern cricket captain has come to be expected to possess.
Shahid Afridi’s ODI and T20 leadership of Pakistan feeds off his brutalising of convention, but in most cases the perceived outlandish nature of a spinner leaves them well beyond the boundaries of those considered acceptable as a leader. The very idea of Phil Tufnell skippering England seems laughable in light of his reputation as a monumental, puffy gallivanter extraordinaire, yet listen to his incisive dissection of the game on Test Match Special and the notion seems less like a farce and more like a missed opportunity. I accept there are far more aspects to captaincy than on-field strategem, but still the perception is a nonsense. Staying in the commentary box and, along with almost any English cricketer, that perception would have deemed Nick Knight – the sleazy pauper’s Alastair Cook – as a far more viable captain than Tuffers in the late 1990s, yet would you really have wanted Sky Sport’s premier take home to meet your mother drone leading England rather than the Cat? Not in terms of their respective analyses of the game as I perceive them.
Advocating Tufnell as an international captain may well be a bit of a punchy argument, but you don’t need to look far to find a case that’s a rather more tenable contention. As any Rajasthan Royals fan will tell you, Shane Warne is a skipper of sublime vision. Yet he never led his country in a Test and, however much one must laud the astonishing achievements of Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting, it’s hard to imagine that bar Warne’s taste for stimulants of many guises he wouldn’t have led his nation to even greater heights than those achieved under that triumvirate of stoical genius. In the eleven ODIs he did captain Australia, however, Warne won ten. The rabbits that have been pulled out of the Rajasthan hat in the last four years have come about through the wizard of St. Kilda’s contagious magic, not coincidence.
Even if we accept Warne as a unique but flawed force of nature that could nonetheless inspire cats to take up synchronised swimming, there remain plenty of other examples of more level-headed spinners who were never allowed to set fields for anyone’s bowling other that their own, Mushtaq Ahmed and Murali being chief among them. Abdul Qadir was given just five matches in charge, an abomination considering the man’s multitudinous mastery of hordes of his peers with the ball in hand. I hope Swann will be given many more opportunities than that. Cricket is full of doughty, worthy batsmen setting sweepers and taking out a slip to save the one. Let the spinners have a bash.
(James Marsh is a TEFL teacher based in the Czech Republic, although his real occupation is alienating those close to him by wallowing on statsguru. He blogs on cricket at Pavilion Opinions and can be found on Twitter at @PavilionOpinion)