Who’s in Charge

In Some Cricketers.. by Bill Ricquier

Image: Sri Lankan cricketer Lasith Malinga tosses a cricket ball during a practice session on October 2010 at the Sydney Cricket Ground. By paddynapper (LASITH MALINGA Uploaded by Chamal_N) [CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The final of the World Twenty20 competition in Mirpur was a hugely enjoyable game. It was a genuinely intriguing miniature cricket match, with all the ebb and flow one hopes to see. Sri Lanka’s victory, a magnificent team effort, was universally popular.

Central to that victory, as so often in the shorter forms of the game, was the bowling at the “death” of Sri Lanka’s inspirational fast bowler, Lasith Malinga.

Malinga was also captaining Sri Lanka: it was his third T20 international in charge, but that appears to be the extent of his captaincy experience at any level. He had plenty of help available though. Martin Crowe, speaking after the match, said that old hands Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayewardene, seemed to be fully involved in the decision – making process. The current Test captain, Angelo Matthews, and another of his predecessors, Tillekeratne Dilshan, were also in the eleven, unlike the official T20 captain. Dinesh Chandinal, who for a variety of reasons, had been missing since Sri Lanka’s fourth game of the tournament.

To say that Malinga’s appointment was an unusual one is an understatement. He has prematurely and regrettably, retired from Test cricket but in the unlikely event that he was ever to return and become Sri Lanka’s Test captain he would be joining a very short list of fast-bowling, no. 11 Test captains.

The fact is that Test captains are almost always batsmen. It has always been like this. George Orwell (as usual) knew the reason why: Boxer was a fast bowler; Napoleon and Snowball were batsmen.

According to Ian Peebles, a leg-spinner good enough to trouble Dan Bradman in 1930, a captain of Middlesex and a splendid cricket writer said that a captain “should…ideally be a batsman, acceptably an all-rounder, and never (if possible) a bowler pure and simple. The bowling captain who bats No. 11 has always the complication of balancing his own worth in the side against the claims of his other bowlers and forming a dispassionate judgment as to the best interests of the team”.

Courtney Walsh (Test batting average 7.54) was an outstanding champion of West Indies cricket. He did not always get the credit he deserved because he often appeared to be bowling in tandem with someone more striking – Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall, Curtly Ambrose. But Walsh outlasted them all. And when he finished he was Test cricket’s leading wicket-taker. Among pace bowlers only Glenn Mcgrath has more than his 519.

It was partly his survival instincts that brought the captaincy to Walsh. His Test career had started in 1984-85 at the height of the West Indies’ ascendency. The side he took over, temporarily, from Richie Richardson, in 1994-95, contained none of those great players from a decade earlier. The steep decline was beginning but this was not immediately apparent. Walsh’s captaincy won high praise when his side squared the series in India. In Wellington, in February 1995, they became, rather astonishingly, the first West Indies team to win a series in New Zealand since 1955-56: they won by an innings and 322 runs and the captain took seven for 37 and six for 18. Two months later Richardson returned for the home series against Australia which the visitors won, ending the West Indies’ reign as unofficial world champions. Walsh now became the official captain but it was becoming more difficult to paper over the cracks. A three-two defeat in Australia probably flattered the visitors and the wheels came off completely in Pakistan in 1997-98 when West Indies lost all three Tests heavily among rumours of a rift between Walsh and leading batsman Brian Lara. That Walsh was prepared to play under Lara when the latter replaced him for the home series against England says an enormous amount about Walsh’s character. And he just kept on taking wickets.

Waqar Younis (10.20) was probably the fastest and certainly the most devastating pace bowler of his time. His trademark inswinging yorker was one of cricket’s most feared weapons. Only four bowlers in Test history have a better strike rate. He was not a natural leader but in Pakistan, in Waqar’s time when being made captain was not so much a badge of honour as a poisoned chalice, or at best a hot potato, everyone had to have a go. He had some early success captaining the side to victory against Zimbabwe in 1993-94 when the then regular skipper Wasim Akram was unavailable. Waqar was appointed officially to captain the side on the tour of England in 2001. Pakistan drew the series one-all and although they were clearly the better side in the second Test at Old Trafford it was somehow inevitable that controversy should intrude: a number of England’s second innings wickets fell to deliveries which the umpires failed to spot were no-balls.

Waqar soldiered on with mixed results until he become one of a number of captains to be sacked after the 2003 World Cup.

If Walsh rose to the top by dint of longevity and respect, and Waqar got there after a game of musical chairs, with England’s Bob Willis (8.40) it was a bit of both. He was very experienced and had served as vice-captain on a number of tours. But at the time he was picked, at the start of the 1982 season, a number of leading players had opted to go on a rebel tour of South Africa, Keith Fletcher, the man in possession, had not covered himself in glory on the tour of India and Sri Lanka, and the selectors were clearly not going to go back to Ian Botham. Nonetheless, Willis was “flabbergasted” to be asked, partly because, as he rather laughably put it in his autobiography, it was “unfashionable” to pick a fast bowler as captain. Willis was fully aware of the pitfalls: he probably over-compensated because his reign came to be regarded as a case of “captaincy by committee”. He led England to Australia in 1982-83, and lost the Ashes which had been held since 1977. England were simply not good enough and Willis seemed unable to galvanize them. Long-term injury finally got the better of him on the tour of Pakistan the following year and David Gower took over. But in his prime, which lasted a long time, Willis had been an outstanding strike bowler. Very tall and with a distinctive jerky run up, he had his finest hour in one of England’s greatest victories, over Australia at Headingley in 1981, when he took eight for 43 in Australia’s second innings. There can be no doubt that had Willis or the other match-winner, Botham, captained England in that match, rather than Mike Brearley, they would have lost.

Fazal Mahmood (14.09) was Pakistan’s first great cricketer. A skilled and resourceful fast medium pace bowler he made him name on the matting wickets of his homeland but cemented his position as a national hero when he bowled Pakistan to victory over England at The Oval in 1954.

He succeeded A.H. Kardar as captain for the home series against the West Indies in 1958-59. In the first Test he took 4 wickets in the first innings and 3 in the second; Pakistan won by 10 wickets. The Second Test was a low-scoring one at Dacca, which Pakistan won by 41 runs. It was another personal triumph for Fazal who took 6 for 34 and 6 for 66. West Indies won the final match by an innings. He had a 5-wicket haul against Australia at Karachi in 1959/60, in the last Test match played on matting.

He led Pakistan to India in 1960/61, in a series that was often very dull even by the standards of India-Pakistan contests at that time. Winning was never an ambition of either side. Not losing was all that mattered. Fazal took 5 for 26 in a rain-affected match at Calcutta – in 26 overs. At the gala dinner to celebrate – if that is the word – the end of the series, Fazal made a speech criticising the umpiring. In the First Test, Fazal had dismissed the Indian captain Nari Contractor and the umpire called “no ball” when the batsman was halfway back to the pavilion; the official attributed the delayed call to some obstructive chewing gum.

The two countries next played one another in 1978.

Willis was by no means the only English fast bowler to lead England to defeat in Australia. J.W. H.T (“Johnny”) Doughlas (29.15) – a genuine all-rounder – did so in 1920-21 and G.O. (“Gubby”) Allen (24.19) in 1936-37. But they were both good enough batsmen to score Test centuries, so do not make this list. (Darren Sammy (21.68), Wasim (22.64) and Heath Streak (22.35) are likewise excluded.) A.E.R (Arthur) Gilligan (16.07) led the MCC to Australia in 1924-25. They lost 4-1 but it was the beginning of the end of Australia’s post-war dominance. Gilligan was – and remained – a leading figure in England’s cricketing establishment and that was why he was put in charge. In his book on the series the great Australian all-rounder M A Noble said that “as a cricketer [Gilligan] was impressive in only one sphere, and that was fielding”. To be fair, he had had a fine series as bowler and captain against South Africa in 1924: he and Maurice Tate bowled them out for 30 at Edgbaston, Gilligan taking six for seven in 6.3 overs.

Lastly there was C A (Aubrey) Smith (3.00), who led England to victory against South Africa in his one and only Test match at Port Elizabeth in 1888-89. Smith was a lively opening bowler for Cambridge University and Sussex who moved to Los Angeles and became a hugely successful film star; as Sir Aubrey Smith he was the doyen of the British community in Hollywood. Visiting London at the height of his celebrity in the 1930s he went to Lord’s to watch a day’s cricket. An MCC member spotted him in the pavilion. “Who is that”? he asked a friend “I’m sure I recognize his face”. “Ah yes”, his companion replied, “that’s CA Smith – played for Sussex before the War”.

As C L R James so cogently enquired, what do they know of cricket who only cricket know?

This article was published in The Island: http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=102280

Share this Post