What Makes A Captain A Great Captain?

April 8, 2010 at 7:46 pm | Posted in Bloggers, Cricket, England, India, InShoaib's_Blogs, Pakistan, Sri Lanka | 2 Comments
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The tag of ‘great Captain’ has become such a commonly used label these days that it rather sadly no longer carries with it the importance, credibility or honour that it once did. In today’s media age it is almost as if the onus is on the media to decide which Captains should be referred to as ‘great captains’ and thus the reason as to why it has become so loosely used today than say in the years gone by?

Mike Brearley, Imran Khan, Steve Waugh, Arjuna Ranatunga and Sourav Ganguly were men who were considered as great leaders to come out of their respective nations. Then there were others like Nasser Hussain, Stephen Fleming, Michael Vaughan and Mahela Jayawardena who were also considered to be very good captains.

But what is, or more importantly what should be the standard by which the quality of leadership in the cricketing world be measured? Is it the number of wins a skipper leads his team to coupled with his own consistent performance and his ability to bring out the best in his team-mates? Should we also take into account the quality of the sides that these leaders have had to lead as after all they say that a captain is only as good as his team. Should we also take into account the timing as to when these leaders took over the leadership of their respective teams by that I mean did they take over the leadership when their team was strong and on the way up or did they take over the leadership when their team was weak and on the way down?

All of the above factors in fact every single one of them are mighty important when analyzing the efficiency, quality and impact of a Captain on his team.

I believe without a shadow of doubt that Imran Khan and Arjuna Ranatunga are two of the best ever Captains to have graced the game of cricket simply because they had it in them to create World beaters out of teams that were known for its volatility and inconsistency. Both Imran and Arjuna instilled in their respective teams the self belief and the will to win against all odds and that is why to me, in the time frame that I have followed the game, Imran and Arjun are way ahead of the pack. It was only fitting that these two charismatic cricketing leaders of their respective nations were also involved in the final act that brought their respective teams their greatest cricketing achievement. While Imran accounted for the last English wicket that sealed Pakistan’s triumph in the 1992 World Cup final, Arjuna Ranatunga performed the last rights on the much fancied Australian team by hitting the winning runs 4 years later in the 1996 World Cup final. What has to be highlighted here is the fact that Arjuna Ranatunga managed to lead Sri Lanka to a World Cup win when Sri Lanka was still considered to be a minnow in the cricketing world having played their 1st ever Test match only 14 years before that.

Imran Khan celebrates taking the final English wicket as Pakistan clinch their first World Cup, Final: England v Pakistan, Benson & Hedges World Cup, Melbourne, March 25, 1992.

Sri Lanka win the World Cup, Final, Australia v Sri Lanka, Wills World Cup, Lahore, March 17, 1996

I never saw Mike Brearley Captain England but having read extensively about him, it is not entirely a surprise that Brearley is considered by many to be one of the best (if not the best) Captain the world of cricket has ever seen. Brearley lead England in 31 Tests, winning 17 of them and losing 4. His own performance during his time as Captain was nothing really to write home about as he averaged a dismal 22 with the bat. Former Australian fast bowler Rodney Hogg once described Brearley as a “man with a degree in people” Such was Brearley’s perceived man management skills. I believe that most of what is made of about Brearley’s man management skills was further enhanced as a result of what he managed to accomplish during the Ashes series in 1981. Brearley had already been replaced by Botham as the Captain of the England team in 1980 but Botham’s horrendous winless run as Captain coupled with his own form declining at a rapid pace, made the England all rounder relinquish the captaincy just prior to the start of the 3rd Ashes Test in that 1981 series. This paved the way for Brearley to return as Captain for that famous Headingly Ashes Test match in 1981. The sudden rise of Botham from zero to hero in that Test match and the remaining 3 matches to follow in that series which England went on to win 3-1 was largely attributed to Brearley’s ability to bring the best out of Ian Botham who was down in the dumps after the 2nd Test. As we all know there is nothing bigger for the English as far as cricket is concerned than the Ashes and Brearley’s stupendous achievement during a triumphant ashes series predictably earned him the tag of the greatest captain the cricketing world had ever seen.

Moving on to Australia, Steve Waugh took over a well settled Australian team which was overflowing with incredible talent. Despite this Steve Waugh over the years earned the reputation of being a hardnosed leader who was never shy to demonstrate his in your face type of leadership that took Australian cricket to a different level. Waugh’s aggressive style of leadership where he enjoyed the process of mentally disintegrating his opponents, became infectious within the Aussie ranks and it showed in the way they approached the game itself and suddenly we entered an era where a run rate of 4 per over in Test cricket came into being and the Australians were the pioneers of it. Waugh was a gutsy cricketer who played his cricket and lead his team fearlessly. His battles with Curtley Ambrose were legendary and his ‘ugly hundred’ in an ashes test in Sydney when horribly out of form and both his captaincy and his place in the side were on the line, personified what Steve Waugh was all about, a man who truly relished the prospect of performing under immense pressure.

Waugh’s successor Ricky Ponting in my opinion was nothing special as a leader especially in his early years as Captain of Australia. While Ponting remained incredibly consistent with the bat in all formats of the game, the success that his team had between 2004 and 2007 largely came thanks to Ponting’s team having all time greats such as McGrath, Warne, Gilchrist, Hayden and Langer who were at the top of their game and helped the Aussies steam roll past every side that they came up against. I must confess though that my respect for Ricky Ponting the Captain has grown leaps and bounds after watching him lead an Australian team sans their legends mentioned above, particularly in the last 12 to 18 months. Ponting has come out of the shadows of riding on the deeds of his legendary players and has finally shown that he is a wonderful leader as well and has managed to galvanise a group of young Australian cricketers and lead them in an exemplary manner. Australia’s Test series win in South Africa in early 2009 followed by their ODI series win against India in September of 2009 were both high points in Ponting’s career as Captain of Australia. In my opinion this is what leadership is all about, the ability to lead from the front with your own performance and convert average players to match winners and win against teams even without the contributions of your proven match winners. Such leaders are the ones that all teams would like to have at the helm.

Mohammed Azharuddin brought about a winning culture and attitude to Team India and went on to become one of the most successful Captains India ever had. That is of course before Sourav Ganguly took over the leadership of Team India. Despite the fact that a majority of Azharuddin’s wins as Captain came at home, India managed to win a bit more consistently under his leadership. If Mike Brearley was one of the best Captains the cricket world had ever seen, then Sachin Tendulkar will go down as one of the worst Captains that cricket world had ever seen. While Tendulkar has been, is and always will be an incomparable genius when it comes to batting, his Captaincy period was shockingly abysmal. Tendulkar lead India in 25 Tests and won just 4 (a 16% winning record) of them and lost 9 while the remaining 12 Tests were drawn affairs. He also lead India in 73 ODIs and won 23 of them and lost 43 matches. Despite his colossal failure as a Captain, there is no question that Tendulkar, as the modern game’s greatest batsman went on to handsomely contribute towards the success of all of his Captains.

Sourav Ganguly’s tenure as Captain of India was perhaps the period in which Indian cricket changed for the better and Team India’s journey to become the best team in the world (which they currently are) began around this time and by the time Ganguly was unceremoniously dumped as the skipper of the team back in 2005 the journey to become number 1 was 75% completed. Such was the impact of Ganguly’s leadership on the team. He became the first captain (during that phase where the Aussies dominated world cricket) to lead a team to Australia and come out with a dominant series draw in 2003/2004 which should in effect be considered a series win as at that time every team that toured Australia were not just beaten in every game but humiliated as well. While that series will be remembered for the heroics of Dravid, Sehwag, Laxman and Tendulkar the man who really set the tone and stamped his and his team’s authority on the series was the Captain Ganguly himself with a magnificent hundred in the 1st Test of the series. Under the inspiring leadership of Ganguly the Indian team finally began to believe that they are perfectly capable of beating the very best of teams away from home as well.

Sourav Ganguly celebrates his hundred, Australia v India, first Test, Brisbane, December 2004

I find the mere notion that Stephen Fleming was a top Captain to be rather baffling and a tad confusing. He lead New Zealand in 80 Tests and won only 28 of them (A win percentage of 35) and of those 28 wins 20 (71%) were against lesser teams like Zimbabwe (6) WI (5) SL (5) and BD (4). Fleming’s record as an ODI skipper was far more successful winning 98 of the 218 matches that he lead the black caps giving him a 44% win percentage.

Mahala Jayawardena will go down in Sri Lankan cricket history as it’s most successful Captain since Arjuna Rantunga. The team under his leadership won consistently in Test cricket and did very well in ODIs as well reaching the final of the 2007 World Cup. Jayawardena like MS Dhoni is a very cool headed leader but his brain usually ticks at a rapid pace. There is no question that Jayawardena was fortunate to have Tom Moody as head coach of Sri Lanka during his time as Captain and also had the luxury of calling on the services of Sri Lanka’s perennial match winners like Muralitheran, Vass and Jayasuriya who were at the top of their respective games at the time. Jayawardena lead the team from the front in an exemplary manner averaging well over 60 with the bat in Test cricket when leading the side. Jayawardena’s debacle as a Captain began to set in after the 2007 World Cup final and not surprisingly it also coincided with the departure of Tom Moody as coach and the deteriorating form of his three key match winners in, Vass, Muralitheran and Jayasuriya who had been instrumental in making him the successful captain that he indeed was.

Looking at those who are leading their respective nations today, I would say that Graeme Smith of South Africa stands head and shoulders above the rest as the best Captain in World cricket. He was handed over the leadership of the team in 2003 when South Africa were still reeling from their infamous World Cup exit at home and since then Smith has lead his team admirably through the ups and downs of South African cricket, and has lead the team from the front and has confirmed his position as the best Captain in the game today. As mentioned earlier Ricky Ponting has also finally proved his credentials as a leader after finally coming out of the shadow and success of his legendary match winners like McGrath, Warne, Gilly, Hayden and Langer and has proved that he has what it takes to win without those guys.

MS Dhoni as we all know is a very cool headed skipper and why not particularly when you have the luxury of leading such colossal talent like Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman Sehwag, Gambhir, Yuvraj, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh. Incidentally all of these guys made their international debut for India long before the world knew of the existence of MS Dhoni. Such is the incredible match winning talent and settled nature of this Indian team that MS Dhoni was lucky to inherit and lead. Dhoni’s credentials and quality as a Captain would be tested once these guys who have and still are winning matches for him day in and day out decide to leave the game. I will make an informed judgement of Dhoni’s credentials as a skipper at that time. The one rare occasion in which Dhoni came under pressure as a Captain during the 2009 T20 World Cup which India came into as a clear favourite and as defending champions only to leave having secured an unconvincing win against Bangladesh and a rather comfortable win against Ireland, Dhoni not only failed on the field to galvanise his players but also failed off the field in the way he conducted himself in the face of the normal pressures faced by losing captains from the media which included stories about alleged rifts in the side between the Captain and a senior player.

Given the above it will be interesting to see how Dhoni as Captain leads an Indian team in tough times when in transition once their greats retire. This is of course if Dhoni opts to remain as the Captain of the side and takes on the challenge of re-building his team and leading them through the stormy waters of transition. He could always opt to hand over the arduous task of leading an Indian team in transition to someone else and let them take all the flack that comes with it from the usually unforgiving and impatient fans and media.

Andrew Strauss and Kumar Sangakkara are still relatively new to the job of leading their respective teams and it might still be a tad early to make an informed judgement on their leadership abilities. However, during their short stints as Captain both Strauss and Sangakkara have shown that they have what it takes to become good leaders of their respective teams. Strauss lead England to an ashes win and then went on to lead an England team that did very well in South Africa. Kumar Sangakkara, took over the leadership of the Sri Lankan team when it was down in the dumps. Vass, Muralitheran and Jayasuriya were no more the match winning force that they had been for Sri Lanka for years and years. Sangakkara had the thankless and arduous task of leading a side going through a transition and a re-building phase. In amongst his new and young players he had to unearth the next set of match winners for Sri Lanka in the years to come and has done a wonderful job thus far in that regard. In his 1st eight months as Captain of the national team Sangakkara went on to lead his team to the T20 World Cup final (unbeaten) in 2009 despite being placed in the group of death along with Australia and the West Indies. He then went on to do what no former Sri Lankan Captain since the days of Ranatunga had been able to do and that is win a Test series without Muralitheran, Vass and Jayasuriya and also win a one day tournament without them as well. Sangakkara did the latter with virtually a Sri Lankan club team and brought the almighty Indians down to the ground. As Captain he lead a bunch of young and inexperienced Sri Lankan club cricketers from the front and ended up being the Man of the Series of that tournament as well.

Angelo Mathews, Thilan Thushara, Rangana Herath, Chanaka Welegedara, Thilina Kandamby and so on made their debut long before Sangakkara took over the leadership but for some reason never really performed to potential. In came Sangakkara as skipper of the side and instilled self-belief and confidence in all of these guys and suddenly these average cricketers started to perform like match winners and were winning matches, tournaments and Test series for Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka’s very first match in the T20 World Cup against Australia in 2009, Sangakkara shocked everyone when he gave the new ball to a little known Angelo Mathews. This move by Sangakkara obviously told Mathews that his Captain has tremendous faith in his abilities and that spurred him on to perform even better. Mathews had the daunting prospect of bowling to the destructive David Warner and went on to get Warner’s wicket in his very first over and the rest as far as Angelo’s career graph from that moment on is concerned is indeed history.

Leaders, be it in cricket or any other aspect of life will encounter situations where they will be forced to rise to the occasion against staggering odds and carry their troops with them and go on to achieve what was deemed impossible. Imran Khan, Arjuna Ranatunga and Sourav Ganguly are three leaders in the World of cricket who did exactly that. Time will tell us as to who among the current set of cricket captains have it in them to emulate the heroic deeds of the three illustrious Captains mentioned above.

A blog by Incredible Shoaib who posts on http://www.worldofcricket.net/phpBB3/index.php



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  1. Good analysis on great captains however …analysis on Ponting…in my opinion it’s one of the toughest jobs to lead a side with many legends. on paper, I agree it makes a captain job easy but on field it’s one of the toughest jobs.

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