Captain: Why it's cricket's toughest job

It is not easy leading a losing side. I know, I played in enough of them and watched the pressure get to Gower, Atherton and Hussain in different ways.

Angus Fraser
Friday 10 December 2010 01:00

With the exception of a few lost kangaroos wandering around Alice Springs there can be few lonelier animals in Australia than Ricky Ponting at this moment in time.

There are not many greater honours for a sportsman than being asked to captain your country, but in the wake of England's crushing Ashes victory over Australia in Adelaide, Ponting must have spent lengthy periods during the past couple of days questioning whether it is really worth the aggro.

Taking criticism is part of a leading sportsman's job, I know, I took enough during my international playing days. But during that time I also saw at close quarters England captains from David Gower to Nasser Hussain, Michael Atherton and Alec Stewart get an enormous amount of stick when they were in charge of teams that were not exactly flush with success. It is not pleasant when flak comes your way and you have to be pretty thick-skinned to take it in your stride, but when you perform poorly it is right that your shortcomings are highlighted. The question is how vicious the evaluation should be?

The level of criticism being aimed at Ponting in Australia is quite alarming. Yes, some of his decision making has been questionable but he does not deserve to be treated as though he is Basil Fawlty. It may sound a bit soft but, as one of the greatest batsmen to play the game and a captain with a pretty good record, Ponting deserves a little more respect.

Watching Ponting trying to contain and dismiss England's batsmen in Brisbane and Adelaide highlighted the adage that a captain is only as good as his bowlers. Great bowlers can make journeyman captains appear like geniuses while a poor bowling attack can make an astute tactician seem like a nincompoop.

Strategically Ponting is not a great captain but he is being let down by his bowlers. Prior to the Ashes, Ponting and his support staff could have devised the perfect plan to dismiss Alastair Cook but if the bowlers at his disposal do not possess the talent to deliver the plan it has as much chance of succeeding as England's 2018 World Cup bid.

Captaining a cricket team is a glamorous job because, unlike in football and rugby, you are the main man. The coach/director of cricket is responsible for preparing the players for the game but it is the captain's role to manage and direct them on the field. When it all goes right and victory is gained there is no better feeling but when it goes wrong it is extremely stressful. Defeats cannot be laughed off, they are taken personally.

Different captains react in different ways. During my career some seemed capable of leaving the job alone once they left the ground while others lived it 24-7. David Gower, my first England captain, had the occasional explosion but he was generally very relaxed. To Gower there seemed more important things in life and on one occasion he famously walked out of a press conference because he had tickets for the theatre.

Atherton struggled to let go. He was always thinking about the job and I witnessed it wearing him down. OK, Atherton was never one of the most dynamic or excitable England captains, but between 1993 and 1998 he devoted an enormous amount of time and energy into trying to turn a pretty talented group of cricketers into a winning team.

Atherton's outstanding career was hampered by a congenital back condition, an ailment that cannot have been helped by the fact he spent several years virtually carrying the side. Captains need support from the management team behind them and the relationship between a captain and coach/director is crucial. In private the pair may not agree on everything but they must appear to be together in public because if there are any gaps, players and media will drive a truck between them.

Atherton had problems with Raymond Illingworth, the former Yorkshire, Leicestershire and England captain. Illingworth was a highly regarded captain with an excellent record. He was a deep thinker and a shrewd tactician, qualities that led to him being appointed England "supremo" in the mid-90s. From the moment Illingworth became involved he wanted total control and there appeared a constant power battle between himself and Atherton. Each was as stubborn as the other. There were Tests when Illingworth forced players on Atherton, who then hardly used them in matches.

Their lack of togetherness was exposed in a Test against South Africa at Lord's in 1994 when Atherton was accused of ball tampering after being filmed placing dirt on the surface of a cricket ball. Most bosses would attempt to protect their captain in a situation like this but Illingworth left Atherton to explain his actions to the world's media live on television. It was crazy and much of Atherton's energy was spent fighting battles off the field rather than on it. In comparison to Atherton's problems Ponting's are a holiday romance.

In the past 24 years England have been in the position Australia currently find themselves in on many occasions, and more often than not the dynamics of the dressing room set off a cycle that causes teams to deteriorate quickly. When a team is losing, every player, including the captain, becomes so much more wary.

The captain tends to be reluctant to seek advice because it could give the impression he does not know what he is doing. Players uncertain about their position in the side are apprehensive about being seen socialising with or giving advice to the captain. Such acts will be analysed by suspicious team-mates who will question your motives, believing your actions are calculated and political. These actions result in a captain feeling ever more lonely, vulnerable and paranoid.

Despite the possible aggro, I thoroughly enjoyed the 20 months or so I captained Middlesex CCC, and there was a period, following Atherton's resignation in 1998, when I was talked about as a possible England captain. Bob Willis, the former England bowler and Sky commentator, suggested the idea – what a shrewd man he is.

Before reading Willis' column I had never seriously considered captaincy because it did seem a lot of trouble and I had my hands full just trying to take wickets. I had always been wary of players who were desperate to captain sides because they seemed a little power-crazy. Nasser Hussain was an example of this. For several years he had been pushing to captain the side and at times his behaviour had been a little disconcerting.

This was never more apparent than on England's 1998-99 tour of Australia, which was captained by Alec Stewart. Hussain was named as vice-captain and was itching to get in command. He revelled in the authority he had and enjoyed telling players what to do. I had a spat with him during a warm-up game in South Australia because he was upset that I had left the ground while he was batting. I had been told by the team physio to warm down in the hotel pool after bowling.

Hussain had had a go at the other bowlers too. In the evening I told him in slightly more rustic language than this, that: "If you ever become England captain I suggest you look after your bowlers a bit better than you currently do because you need them and if you carry on talking to them like this, none of us will bowl for you."

In 1999 Nasser became England captain and did an excellent job. He never picked me for England.

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