Do bowlers get overlooked as England captain because of the old class system?

Derek Pringle offers some intriguing thoughts about why batsmen are almost invariably appointed to the top England job

Andrew Strauss was surely teasing when he said Joe Root was not the only candidate to replace Alastair Cook as England’s Test captain. But if there really are others you can bet none are bowlers, a breed unlikely to be appointed to cricket’s highest office if they were the only players left standing.

Why is it, in the minds of those who make decisions upon captaincy, are bowlers, especially the faster ones, so often discounted from being candidates? Everyone knows they are cricket’s deep thinkers and, in the longer formats, its match winners, too. And yet you can count the Test captains of England and Australia who have been pace bowlers on part of one hand, so rare has been their ascent to the game’s top job.

With Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff counting as all-rounders, only Bob Willis and Gubby Allen have done the job for any length of time. Big Bob led England in 18 Tests between 1982-84 and achieved a win-rate of 38 percent. Allen, who captained 11 times between 1936-48, won four Tests. Both win-rates are inferior to the leading England captains (all batsmen) yet Willis’ record is pretty decent overall (again mostly batsmen), so ineptness cannot be a factor in their scarcity.

The most successful captain-cum-pace bowler was Shaun Pollock, who succeeded the disgraced Hansie Cronje as captain of South Africa in 2000. Pollock was in charge for 26 Tests and won 14 of them (over 50 per cent). With South Africa’s transformation in its infancy then, he benefitted from having a team containing the best players available rather than one which ticked various boxes, unlike most of his successors.

You would have thought that the West Indies, that cradle of great fast bowlers, might have had someone to rival Pollock’s record but while the quicks there have captained the national team more often than any other major Test playing country, their achievements have ranged from modest to poor.

Courtney Walsh and Darren Sammy have been the bowlers who captained West Indies most with Jason Holder the current incumbent having racked up 12 Tests in charge. Sammy did morph into a batsman who bowled but all three are linked by having been in charge of a declining power in which, latterly at least, the leading batsmen have been lured away to play in various T20 tournaments around the world. A factor in the bowlers’ rise as captains there.

Of the three, Walsh had the best team to work with but his tenure was intermittent, mostly picking up the pieces from Brian Lara’s hissy fits following the latter’s various sackings as captain. Like Lara, Sammy has had his own run-ins with the West Indies Board, an organisation which still treats its human assets much like the Victorian owners of Lancastrian mills.

Spin bowlers have been appointed captain a tad more frequently than quick bowlers with Richie Benaud and Raymond Illingworth, the most prominent. India, too, has had spin bowler captains in Bishan Bedi and Anil Kumble, though neither stood out in terms of games won.

An aggressive captain, Benaud managed a win-rate of 43 percent from his 27 Tests as Australia’s captain, with only four matches drawn. Illingworth captained more often but was less gung-ho, his 38 percent success rate the same as Willis. And yet history judges you on who you beat and by winning the Ashes in Australia, in 1970/71, Illingworth is considered one of England’s greatest captains while Willis is among the also-rans.

Given bowlers comprise at least 35-40 percent of most teams, the minute numbers that go on to be appointed captain smacks of a discrimination every bit as bad as the glass ceiling in place for female executives in the business world.

The trouble is, in England at least, the image of the cricket captain is frozen in aspic, tending to be a person of unruffled calm, a debonair gent who travels first-class while the rest of his team slum it in economy. Yet, just because bowlers huff and puff a lot, break sweat, curse and neck pints of ale, it doesn’t mean they lack gravitas or poise.

You think I jest. Labour politicians still bang on about class difference being as divisive in modern Britain as they were 100 years ago. Well, cricket still suffers, too, the lack of bowlers advancing to become captains having its roots in the old divides between Gentleman and Players and amateurs and professionals, which played out in England before 1962.

Generally, pros and players were bowlers and lower class, while amateurs and gentlemen were batsmen and educated middle or upper class. There are still relics of that today in the Bowlers’ Bar at Lord’s, a place where the pros used to change separately to the amateurs.

Captains, of course, were only ever chosen from among the Gentlemen or amateurs, who were mostly batsmen to a man. One mould was broken in 1952 when Len Hutton became the first professional to captain England, but it only ever happened because he was a batsman.

That historical, and nonsensical, prejudice apart, there are sounder reasons why bowlers tend to be overlooked for captaincy. One is that they are more prone to injury than batsmen. Any games that they might miss, as a result, would therefore destabilise matters twice over, the team being shorn of both its captain and a first-choice bowler.

Another, and this comes from Angus Fraser, who captained Middlesex for several seasons, is that bowler captains tend to either over-estimate their part in finding solutions to their team’s problems, and over-bowl themselves as a result, or they under-estimate them and under-bowl themselves. A dispassionate eye from slip is therefore, often, the better judge and this from a man who loathes lardy-dardy batsmen.

With captaincy skills at their most vital when teams are bowling, batsmen-captains would appear to have an advantage in not having to combine both their skills at the same time, something bowler-captains would obviously have to do. I well remember my early Tests under Willis, who would martial proceedings from mid-off often in a daze, his bowling, with its long and winding run, having taken so much out of him.

These days no sane bowler would run as far as Willis which would make that particular misgiving redundant. But the others still hold, especially the innate prejudice of those in cricket who make decisions upon captains. For them it seems to be forever 1926 with Percy Chapman, Uppingham, Cambridge and Kent, and resolutely a batsman and gentleman, about to embark on a nine-match winning streak as England captain including a four-nil drubbing of the Aussies.

The message, as then, is clear – bowlers, know thy place.

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, February 10 2017

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