T:he career of an England Test captain, like a life in politics, always seems to end in failure. Maybe it’s at: a tearful press conference: after back-to-back thrashings by South Africa. Or by a hastily arranged England Cricket Board statement sent out after: a row that also cost the head coach his job:. Or off the back of an almighty spat with your star batsman that started when he was: caught sending texts: to the opposition slating your leadership. Or at the fag end of a slump of form in which the team: lost five series in a row:. In the end the job seems to break everyone who takes it on.
Experience tells you that whoever takes over next – and it looks as if it will be: Ben Stokes: – will end up in a similar place. Sooner or later, the captaincy becomes a study in watching a good man get ground down. The question is what he and his team can achieve along the way.
It makes you wonder what it is about leading England in particular that seems to take so much out of a cricketer (and why, as Derek Underwood once asked, “so many players want to be captain anyway”). Doug Insole:, who led Essex in the 1950s and did a stretch as Peter May’s deputy when England toured South Africa in 1956-57, said a captain needs to be “a public relations officer, agricultural consultant, psychiatrist, accountant, nursemaid, and diplomat”, as well as a player, selector and tactician. It tells you plenty about how stiff the job is that Joe Root ended up in the position he did even though he seemed to do so well in so many of those different roles.
He had the batting. Unlike Mike Brearley, Root always demanded a place in the team, since he was the best batsman in the country; unlike Michael Vaughan, he was able to maintain the best part of his form while he was leading it, even if his batting average did drop a few points. And he had the man ‑ management. Unlike Andrew Strauss, Root always seemed to have the support of all of his players, who never had a bad word to say about him (in Afrikaans or any other language).
But Brearley, Vaughan and Strauss will be remembered as three of the best captains England had. Unlike Root. Root never ended up on the front pages of the papers after being accused of having a tryst with a barmaid in his hotel room during a Test, never squared off with an umpire in the middle of a match because he did not agree with his decision , never got caught rubbing dirt on the ball, never called a foreign journalist a buffoon in a press conference, never turned up for practice so hungover that his coach made him sit out the session because he thought he was still drunk (if that last one seems like a low bar, it is still one that one of his predecessors failed to get over).
Root did not look at his team and say: “My God, look what they’ve sent me,” which is what Archie MacLaren came out with when the selectors announced his side to play Australia at Old Trafford. And he never greeted one of his debutants with: “Gracious me! Don’t tell me you’re playing! ” as Johnny Douglas is supposed to have done. He was never run out by one of his own teammates because they were so fed up with him, like Geoff Boycott, never provoked one of the most pitiless attacks ever put together by promising to make them “grovel”, like Tony Greig:.
What Root did not have was that touch of the mystic that may just be the most venerated quality of all. “Captaincy,” he said Richie Benaud:“Is the ability to think ahead of play, not be left responding to it.”
Root did not have a feel for bowling changes or field placings. Although, since everyone in the game has got an opinion on how to do the job, you do not have to look far to find good judges who will tell you that side of it is overrated anyway. “‘A dynamic bowling change’ you write about is probably sheer luck nine times out of 10,” said Graham Gooch when he was captain. “OK, you bring on someone and he gets a wicket – great, but I have not solved the mysteries of the universe have I?”
There are myriad ways to fail, so many that even when you’re winning, there will be plenty who think you’re going about it in the wrong way (as Strauss found out). It feels as if the England captain is not just leading the 10 other players on the field, but the entirety of English cricket.
Perhaps the last man who really managed it was May, who Wisden described as “the ideal beau of English sportsmanship”. However, even he fell out with the press when he brought his fiancee on tour.
May finished with the captaincy when he was 31. After he quit, Wisden waited nine years before publishing a tribute to him because everyone was hoping he would make a comeback.
There’s a lesson there for Stokes when the time comes: it’s best to quit while you’re ahead if you can. They’ll remember you better for it.