By Navneet Mundhra
Cricket’s bias towards batsmen is well established. That bias, it seems, has influenced the thinking of selectors the world over while naming captains. A cursory glance at Test history shows that the captains with the longest reins have been all batsmen. Here’s the proof: Allan Border topping the list with 93 Tests matches as Australia’s captain. He is followed by an array of batsmen like Graeme Smith, Stephen Fleming, Ricky Ponting and Clive Lloyd. No bowler, or even an all-rounder, features in the top 10. The first sign of a genuine bowler in this list is Imran Khan - an all-rounder - at 15th place.
The pattern cuts across different time periods and nations. Some of the finest bowlers of their respective eras never had the distinction of leading their country on the cricket field…be it Sydney Barnes, Bill O’Reilly (widely hailed as a master strategist), Jim Laker, Alec Bedser, Dennis Lillee, Malcolm Marshall, Allan Donald, Glenn McGrath and Muttiah Muralitharan. Shane Warne would probably have gone down in history as one of the great captains the game has ever seen, but the legendary Australian leggie hurt his chances with a stream of controversies.
The notable exceptions of pure bowlers captaining their respective nations for a length of time are: Bishan Bedi (India), Bob Willis (England), Courtney Walsh (West Indies) and Waqar Younis (Pakistan)
All-rounders who have had a fairly good run at captaincy are Richie Benaud, Gary Sobers, Ray Illingworth, Imran Khan, Kapil Dev, Wasim Akram, Daniel Vettori and Shaun Pollock.
Few wicket-keepers are considered for captaincy – possibly because they are already burdened with a key job behind the stumps which needs their full attention. Jack Blackham of Australia was the first wicket-keeper to become captain of a national side. Gerry Alexander led the West Indies for a while, but between 1900-90 no other wicket-keeper made a mark as a skipper. After 1990, Lee Germon, Andy Flower, who led Zimbabwe to their first Test win, Moin Khan, Alec Stewart, Tatenda Taibu, Kumar Sangakkara and were at the helm of captaincy for brief periods with little or no success. If there is one wicket-keeper in the history of the game who has been consistently outstanding as both player and captain for a long stretch of time it has to be Mahendra Singh Dhoni. As an inspirational captain, he has led India to victory in just about everything in sight, as devastating batsmen he has tore bowlers to shreds and as a ‘keeper he has been quite adequate, without being exceptional. Two wicket-keepers in Sangakkaraa and Adam Gilchrist could have rivaled Dhoni. The Lankan and the Australian were fabulous batsmen who could walk into any team on their strength of their batting alone. But Sangakkara played for long stretches as a pure batsman while Gilchrist was largely vice-captain during the reigns of Steve Waugh and Ponting.
A charismatic leader leads from the front and is equipped with tactical nous and man-management skills. Bowling all-rounders like Benaud and Imran Khan were dynamic in their leadership. Illingworth did exceptionally well while captaining the side. Willis and Akram also proved their mettle as captains. Dhoni flouted all conventions and shown the world that wicket-keepers are no less skillful as captains.
It boils down to personal attributes and character than just cricketing genius or being a batsman and bowler. This can best be illustrated by the example of Mike Brearley. He was an average cricketer, but he remains one of the most successful, intuitive and skillful captains the world cricket has ever seen. His captaincy record says it all: 18 wins out of 31 Tests and losing just four. He played for England plainly as a captain for many years. Rodney Hogg encapsulated Brearley’s entire personality when he said, “He has a degree in people.”
(Navneet Mundhra is a dreamer who has no delusion of grandeur about himself. He is an eternal learner brimming with passion and compassion, a maverick who swears by perfection and integrity and an avid reader, devout philharmonic, die hard movie buff and a passionate writer)