Few countries have dominated a sport the way Australia has cricket. The national team has won the most Test matches (the traditional five-day format of the game), Ashes series (against its arch-rivals England) and World Cups. In almost all of these conquests the Baggy Greens—as the team is known, for the colour of their caps—has been led by a batsman. So when Pat Cummins, a fast bowler, was appointed captain for the latest Ashes series, which began on December 8th, many people were surprised.
This is the first time in 65 years a specialist bowler has led the Australian Test team. It is also a rarity in the sport. Of the 116 skippers since 1880 to have led their teams in more than 15 Tests, only 14 have been bowlers. Another 17 have been “all-rounders”, who bat and bowl. Batsmen-captains enjoy longer tenures too. Of the 20 longest-serving skippers, only one was not a specialist batsman: India’s Mahendra Singh Dhoni, a wicketkeeper who was also no slouch with the bat. Even in the shorter formats of the game, batsmen dominate in the role.
Captaincy matters in cricket, arguably more than in other sports. Coaches may help in the dressing room but, on the field, captains run the show. They decide the team’s strategy, from who bowls when to which fielders stand where. Many in the game feel that batsmen are more naturally suited to these roles. Without the burden of bowling, they have more time to mull over tactics. Some believe that players whose primary role is to bat have a better understanding of field placement. Others worry that bowlers as captains will keep bowling themselves, to the detriment of the team.
At first glance the data support these claims. Of the ten most successful captains, by percentage of games won, nine are batsmen. Steve Waugh, another Australian, tops the list with 72%, ahead of his compatriots Ricky Ponting and Don Bradman. The one exception is Waqar Younis, a fierce fast-bowler who led Pakistan with a win rate of 58%. All-rounders have tended to fare worse. Under Garry Sobers, considered one of the game’s greatest, the West Indies won less than a quarter of their Tests.
But a captain’s quantity of wins doesn’t just reflect his own leadership, but the quality of his team. Messrs Waugh and Ponting skippered sides packed with brilliant cricketers. No amount of tactical nous can help a captain leading a team of weak players against much stronger opponents. One study that adjusted for team quality found that Mr Waugh was indeed the best captain among those leading games between 1877 and 2010, but Graeme Smith, who led South Africa in the 2000s, was second-best, though he won less than half his Tests in the period covered.
And what about captains’ own prowess? Sometimes skill as a leader can compensate for deficiencies as a player. Mike Brearley, who led England in the late 1970s and early 1980s, had a mediocre batting record but still enjoyed a win rate of 60% (and three victorious Ashes series). Some players’ form dips under the responsibility of captaincy—for instance, Michael Vaughan, another Ashes-winning England skipper. But some thrive on it. Both the batting and bowling averages of Imran Khan, now Pakistan’s prime minister, were better when he captained the national cricket team than when he didn’t, although Pakistan won only 29% of their Tests with him at the helm. Mr Cummins, who started his tenure by dismissing five English batsmen, surely hopes it will be both as personally fruitful as Mr Khan’s and as influential as Mr Brearley’s. ■
This article is from our Graphic detail section.
Editor's note: Our next Highlight will be published on December 28th.