'CAPTAINCY is 90 per cent luck and 10 per cent skill,' Richie Benaud said last summer. 'But don't try it without that 10 per cent.' It is beyond question that Mike Brearley has been the best England captain of recent times - his exceptional perception and intuition stimulating his own players and inhibiting opponents.
No one has since remotely emulated Brearley's understanding of men and the game, and England have been exposed to the luck factor and are therefore erratic. The mark of a great leader is his ability to make the whole bigger than the sum of its parts, and that has not materialised.
Graham Gooch, the incumbent since August 1988, has always been a reluctant captain. After two years in charge of Essex he handed the reins temporarily back to Keith Fletcher, and then became England captain through a process of elimination. He fell into a job which has become a burden, ageing him terribly, and taking toll of him both professionally and personally.
With more than 100 Tests under his belt and 30 as captain he has had more than his fair share of stress, and ideally should relinquish the captaincy to enable him to concentrate on what he does best, namely opening the batting. But is there anybody fit to take over from Gooch, and if so, is pitching them into a fight for the Ashes the opportune moment?
Let's take the first issue. There are three serious candidates - Alec Stewart, Mike Gatting and Mike Atherton. Despite being the current vice-captain, Alec Stewart should be discounted. Although you can hardly blame him for using his wicketkeeping skills to get into the team in the first place, you can for subsequently dumping the job and leaving poor Richard Blakey to pick up the pieces. Even for his county, Stewart will only keep wicket when it suits him, confirming the suspicions that he is a selfish cricketer. He has little tactical nous and sets a dubious example with displays of petulance after being given out. He is thus not ideal captaincy material.
Mike Gatting's position is more complex. Happy in command, his leadership is on the bland side of inspirational but he has earned the respect of non-conformists like Edmonds and Tufnell and does acknowledge the value of flair and skill. He has one or two blemishes on his report, of course, but must now have learned his lesson. On purely cricketing grounds then, I would re-appoint him as caretaker captain while Mike Atherton is groomed as his successor.
Gatting might only have a short second tenure - just long enough to allow Atherton to feel secure as England's opening batsman. At the moment he is on trial every time he takes guard, and is ignored completely for one-day internationals. That is perverse considering his unflappability and controlled stroke play. Beneath the placid Mancunian exterior lies a fierce desire, graphically revealed this winter when he stuck rigidly to the spot in Bombay and allowed Stewart to be wrongly given run out instead. The selectors (of which Stewart is one) seem to have ignored the fact that Gooch and Atherton are the third most successful Test-match opening pair of all time.
What most distinguishes Atherton though, is his broad-mindedness. He is disciplined but admires wayward talent, serious without being boring, and universally regarded as an excellent communicator. It is in this area that England have most come unstuck in the subcontinent. Instead of turning the enthusiasm of the Indian public to their advantage and immersing themselves in the culture, they have mostly retreated into a cocooned life. Atherton is the one player who has attempted to get out and about.
He first captained England under-19s aged 16 and successfully led Cambridge University for two years. He lacks subsequent leadership experience, but it is an unprecedented advantage in the modern era to be captain of your country and not of your county. Both are full-time jobs which cannot be performed satisfactorily by one individual. That said, there is no county captain with striking credentials anyway. The best is Worcestershire's Tim Curtis, whose previous experience opening the batting against Australia he would probably rather forget.
All this talk of changing the captain might seem a little premature in the light of Gooch's outstanding contribution to English cricket. But he doesn't appear to enjoy his status and has shown increasing signs of detachment as the Essex style of professional graft with which he is so imbued failed to produce a consistently superior Test-match unit. Being a brutal dispatcher of spinners, he does not make the best use of them in his own bowling attack (neither did his guru Keith Fletcher, in fact) and when insecure players are searching for moral guidance, Gooch usually recommends another net session. In Delhi it was left to Vic Marks and me to suggest to Tufnell the best ways of coping with excitable Indian crowds.
Overall, Gooch has too much power and too little imagination, but bearing in mind the traditional voracity of this summer's opposition and the media scrutiny the contest is sure to command, he will probably remain captain. And even Benaud himself will wish him good luck.
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