Monday, February 18, 2008

To bowl, perchance to lead

Giffen: you have a problem if I bring myself on now?

George Giffen, perhaps Australia's first great allrounder, was more of a bowler than a batsman, with seven five-fors and one century from 31 Tests. As a captain he was, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, cantankerous and a bit too trusting of his own bowling. In Farewell to Cricket, Don Bradman mentions a time when the crowd had to shout at Giffen to "take yourself off". He acceded ... and changed ends.

In his four Tests as captain Giffen bowled 236.2 overs (1418 balls, as opposed to 4973 in his other 27 Tests) - and that after not bowling at all in one innings. In his first Test as captain, Giffen also became the first man to put an opposition in. Although he took 26 wickets in those four Tests, at an average of 22.34 and a strike-rate of 54.50, both better than his career figures of 27.09 and 62 respectively, that was the last series in which he captained Australia. Giffen possibly embodied everything what is traditionally thought of to be wrong with bowler-captains. He wasn't the first bowler-captain in Test history, but none of the breed till then had had a run longer than ten Tests.

A bowler leading a team somehow doesn't sit well with traditional cricket thinking (win the toss and bat first, remember?). Bowlers are only the henchmen, the doers; batsmen are the shrewd planners. A bowler-captain is supposed to over-bowl or under-bowl himself, be imbalanced and over-aggressive, too simplistic and instinctive. It is no surprise that out of the 71 men in the history of cricket who have captained a team for 20 or more Tests, only ten are either bowlers or bowling allrounders or plain allrounders. The last time two bowlers went out for a toss in a Test match was in January 2003, when Shaun Pollock and Waqar Younis did the honours; 226 Tests have been played since then.

A captain is at his busiest when his side is in the field. A batsman-captain can focus his energies on strategising and leading the side, which gives him an obvious advantage over a bowler, who has to think about his own bowling, apart from making sure he has the right fields set and that he has used his other bowlers judiciously. It is physically taxing, too, especially if the captain in question is a fast bowler. "You are worried about your own bowling, about the batsman you are bowling to, and then at the end of a tiring or frustrating over, rather than switch off, you have got to captain for the bowler at the other end," Mark Taylor, one of the more acclaimed modern captains, points out. "As a batsman you field in the slips and can tend not to worry about the bowling, and can spend a lot of time thinking about changes of bowling if necessary."

It is tough for bowler-captains in other ways too. To return to popular perception: a bowler is regarded as a simple creature, when reduced to essentials - give him a set field and he will try to hit a rhythm of bowling to that field, and as far as possible not diverge. A bowler, especially a pace bowler, hates somebody coming up to him every ball and telling him what to do. Captaincy is a bit more complicated than that. A batsman is naturally more flexible and more innovative, and thus more suited to the task of leading a side.

These are perceptions, and commonly held ones, and not always true. Is a bowler not best placed to understand the requirements of a side, considering the bulk of captaincy work happens when a team is fielding, and has to do with the taking of wickets? Imran Khan writes in All Round View how, at one point during the Barbados Test in 1976-77, Mushtaq Mohammad overlooked the wishes of Sarfraz Nawaz and Imran, who were reversing the ball at the time, and took the new ball. "We were right, and the new ball got thrashed about all over the park ..."

The secret is to pick a good bowler as a captain. The good bowling captain will only get better under his own leadership because he'll have the right fields Ian Chappell

Imran strongly believed that only a bowler-captain could understand what another bowler was trying to do. "... Allan Border tells me he did not fully understand what his pace bowlers were trying to do, and is honest enough to admit he didn't know what advice to offer them when they were being hit."

"The secret is to pick a good bowler as a captain," Ian Chappell, himself a batsman, and one of the best Australian captains of all, says. "[Richie] Benaud and Imran are good examples ... Then they will justify bowling a lot. The good bowling captain will only get better under his own leadership because he'll have the right fields."

Imran concurs, referring to how he would get irritated by a batsman telling him what to do with the ball. "Being a bowler helped my captaincy a great deal," he writes. "Having bowled in different conditions, I felt confident of handling my attack, and capable of advising the younger bowlers in the side. It was easy for me to advise and encourage them because I understood what they were trying to do.

"I used to study a bowler's run-up and delivery, and suggest what he might be doing wrong ... If a bowler bowled a long-hop, my comment - if any - was not the parrot-cry of 'pitch it up'. I'd ask if everything was all right."

With captaincy, a lot of it is about adjusting to the added responsibility. Imran did that well, was a good man-manager, and his captaincy brought the best out of his team and himself. Pollock took his own game to a higher level when leading South Africa, but he will also go down in history as a captain who failed to get the best out of his team. Daryll Cullinan, who played under Pollock, says that that period in Pollock's career will be remembered for his lack of man-management skills and insight into what captaincy was all about.

As Chappell says, "A bad captain, whether he is a batsman or a bowler, will make mistakes not because of what he does, but because of his ineptitude. Both a batting or bowling captain have to make adjustments once they have the extra responsibility. The good ones do it and the bad ones can't."

Although Imran was self-admittedly helped in his captaincy by his being a bowler, and Pollock not necessarily hampered by the same, the truth is there hasn't been a highly successful bowler-captain since Imran and Kapil Dev. It may be unfair to judge Courtney Walsh, Heath Streak, Waqar, and Andrew Flintoff solely on the basis of results: Walsh and Streak didn't have the strongest teams to lead, and Waqar and Flintoff were way off their best when their selectors ran out of options or the first-choice captain was injured.

A tale of two leggies
In recent times, a certain legspinner promised to make an innovative captain, and thereby prove bowlers could make for leaders the equal of batsmen. But one indiscreet phone call too many and Shane Warne, deputy to Steve Waugh at the time, lost his chance forever, leaving a host of questions unanswered.

Would he have brought himself on as soon as he saw Cullinan at the crease? Would he have been instinctive or patient, just like Warne the bowler? Would he have raised his own game even higher? Would he have been aggressive - as he showed in the few ODIs he led Australia in? How ready would he have been to play out draws? How good an off-the-field captain would he have made?

Following Warne's retirement, Anil Kumble has done two things Warne never managed to: score a Test century and lead his national side in Tests.

In his Tests as captain Kumble has shown he possesses the qualities of a statesman - which not many credit bowlers with...

When he captained Karnataka in Ranji Trophy games before he took over the Test captaincy, Kumble would walk up to the stumps to direct the point fielder to the exact angle he wanted him at. The mind immediately saw something special, something it was not used to seeing. In the Tests that have followed, the tough character of Kumble the bowler has accompanied that of Kumble the captain. He hasn't glaringly under-bowled or over-bowled himself, has handled his young bowling attack well, and has emerged unscathed from the toughest tour a modern captain can make, Australia. In tricky times he has shown the qualities of a statesman - skills not many usually credit bowlers with.

Yet he was not the first choice for the job, only getting it because Rahul Dravid resigned, Sachin Tendulkar refused the job, and Mahendra Dhoni was too inexperienced. Was it not the same prejudice against bowlers that Kumble was not thought of as a contender for captaincy till there were no alternatives at hand? Even after he started as captain, it seemed he was just keeping the seat warm. That should be far from the case now.

Warne's Australia against Kumble's India would have been a dream contest. Two of the greatest legspinners of all time, two of the smartest bowlers of all time, trying to lead their teams in the prime rivalry in Test cricket, adding that final missing feather to their hats. That won't happen now. One last gripe with Warne will always remain.