Thursday, November 4, 2010

Let's play the captaincy lottery!

The news that the Australian dressing room is split into camps for and against Michael Clarke's fait-d'accompli ascension to the captaincy is hardly surprising. Rarely is there a clear-cut situation after a captain departs the International scene, it just happens that Australia's Golden Age of cricketers were born spread out enough to produce three fantastic individual performers in Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting, who was each the natural successor to the previous captain.

The Australian cricket team does not resemble those strong teams of the past. Indeed, it resembles more the squad of a divided central board: a board that plays favourites and is looking only towards short term results. Clarke has been management's Golden Hair'd Boy since before his elevation to the captaincy of Australia A in 2003 over more experienced teammates. True, he's been about the only certainty to retain his place in the national setup Post-Ponting, but his lack of ability to lead publicly - like the current Aussie skipper - only casts more doubt on his ability to be effective in a role which infamously shoulders nearly as much pressure as the Australian Prime Minister.

It was news to me that Marcus North and Callum Ferguson was considered by corners of the dressing room a more worthy Test captain than Clarke. That Cameron White - he of nearly ten years' Victorian captaincy - was also named was less surprising. (We actually posited on the best selections for captain here and World Cricket Watch did here) But after the last few months it's emerged that Clarke is no longer unanimously the best choice to captain Australia after Ponting's abdication.

Are there any more questions as to why? Watch one of his pressers and you'll know. He's about as transparent as shopfront glass and just as interesting. It's not just that though: it's his lapsed romance with "Australia's Classiest Lass" Bingle, it's also his dressing-room confrontation with Simon Katich after a win last year and especially his veiled criticism of IPL-playing teammates in such a "holier-than-thou" manner. That he's nearly thirty and still bears the nickname "Pup" speaks volumes about his standing amongst his teammates: nicknames like "Rookie" or "The Kid" tend to disappear as the player assumes more authority but not in this case.

At present, both North and White are flawed selections, however. This is simply because neither of them are able to justify their place in the Test team through their performances. If a captain is unable to lead publicly then they must do so via their on-field prowess. This, particularly, is what makes Clarke's case compelling - he is now rivalled only by his openers as a Test batsman. North and White, though both decidedly more affable and having more domestic leadership experience, have been unable to establish themselves in the Test side due to a lack of consistency, skill, opportunity or New South Wales blood. In order to justify his position as skipper, a captain must deliver on-field and cricket history is rife with examples of leaders picked for their interpersonal or schmoozing skills but lacking the requisite on-field graft: Mike Brearley. Brian Booth. Lee Germon. Mike Denness. Darren Sammy. Chris Cowdrey. It's no coincidence that three of the aforementioned are English, installed by an MCC board attempting to still the waters of revolution. The revolution is coming again: this one Free Agency, pioneered by the West Indies, if only this time by necessity and money rather than by any pioneering spirit.

There always remains the ability to grow into the public leadership role as Alan Border did. Border, a notoriously private man off the field, grew taciturn at even implied criticism yet was able to turn his media discomfort into an advantage as he created a whole new persona for himself as "Captain Grumpy". The problem with Clarke is that that he's had International leadership experience now for the best part of five years and has yet to grow into this role. He hasn't shown a maturity of personality that's come with this experience, just a realisation that his performances have to justify his exalted status and as such he withdrawn into himself both on the field and off. Rather than grow and expand his focus outward, Clarke has retracted with his eyes firmly on himself. It's not selfish, because I'm certain he sees himself as leading via performance rather than by inspiration.

And that's not to say that one must choose to lead by performance or by inspiration. Both Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh were able to do so successfully. So were Clive Lloyd and Sir Viv Richards - in fact, all the great captains were able to combine the two elements. Border grew into leading both ways. It's just one tends to, by their own experience, develop - value, even - one style more than the other.

Ponting's imminent pasturing is not the real reason to sweat on a new captain. The skipper has shown no signs of wanting to retire nor would it make any sense for him to play on under a new captain, so if Australia wants him, the get him as captain. The greater concern is that unlike their famous "We love the Underdog" mentality, the turmoil surrounding the national team corresponds with dramatically falling interest levels in cricket in Australia. The current squad doesn't need an heir apparent, it needs stability to come from anywhere: performances, selections, the future. A captain with the ability to combine performance and attitude will emerge in time, but perhaps not in time enough to still Australia's slide into cricketing no-man's-land.

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