Following acknowledged genius Mike Brearley’s dropping as captain in 1980, the above 18 players have had the dubious pleasure of leading the English test cricket team. Some have been fill-ins, sure, but the sheer bulk, well ahead of the number required by any other test-playing nation over the same period, speaks to a problem at the heart of the English game. I wonder why so many are smiling. Do you think any of the above have mainly happy memories of their time, however brief, in charge of their national team?
How could they possibly. All have resigned (or been stood down) rather than retired, all have suffered the full fury of the hysterical tabloid press, and the likes of Atherton, Hussein and Vaughan seem tangibly scarred by the experience of leading their country. With the arrival of straight-talking South African Kevin Pietersen salvation seemed at hand, yet mere months after his brilliant arrival he is gone, and to Strauss the poisoned chalice falls.
It seems that to captain the English cricket team is to feel the full weight of the expectations of the English populace. Despite inventing cricket, soccer, rugby and tennis England has a spectacularly poor record at all four, each world tournament (with the exception of ’66 for soccer and ’03 for rugby) a catalogue of misery and recrimination, and the English cricket team might be the worst of the lot. Their record was appalling throughout the ’90s, until Fletcher fixed a number of the problems, but with the latest double-resignation debacle it seems they’re back to their worst.
The team’s selectorial oddities are well-documented, and analagous to New Zealand’s own, but the lack of a strong-handed captain, supported by the board and shielded by them from the worst of the tabloid terror, does seem to be a part of the side’s longstanding problems. When set against the other major test-playing nations their captaincy travails seem even more bleak.
Michael Atherton (who has a career average of 37 from 115 tests, wtf?!) holds the record for most matches captaining England, at 54. By comparison New Zealand, who’ve played less than half the number of tests England have, have Stephen Fleming on 80. Border captained Australia for 93 tests, with both Steve Waugh and latterly Ponting going well past Atherton’s mark. Clive Lloyd capatained the West Indies on 74 occasions, while Arjuna Ranatunga captained Sri Lanka for 56 tests. Even South Africa, despite their hiatus, have had Smith at the helm for longer than Atherton was retained. Only India and Pakistan, outside of minnows Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, have captaincy records lower than Englands, at 49 and 48 respectively.
Their consistency in recent times looks even worse. As I mention above, 18 players have captained England sides since 1980. The nearest other teams have come to in the same period is 15, for both the West Indian (theirs inflated by nine since 2000) and Pakistani sides, while the most impressive teams of the last few years, Australia and South Africa have had 7 and 8 respectively. That reliability and firm hand at the top has fed into their cricket; the constant teetering-on-the-brink-of-crisis that England has known has similarly been reflected in their on-field performance.
Atherton’s now the chief cricket correspondent of The Times, and their most-capped captain recently floated the idea of getting rid of the coach entirely, as there are specialists to help in all the technical areas, and perhaps that needs looking at. There has to be something, because the way England roll helplessly from captain to captain and crisis to crisis is the only thing keeping them from joining South Africa and India in the tussle for the soon-to-be-vacant throne atop test cricket. As cussedly annoying as a happy England is (success doesn’t seem to suit their national temperament anymore), that’s something any fan of test cricket should desire.