By SB Tang
One day in year 8, our Tasmanian sports-loving religious education (“RE”) teacher — a lifelong South Melbourne Football Club supporter and a qualified cricket umpire — posed the following hypothetical to us in class: how would you feel about one of the worst cricketers in the year 8 “A” team captaining the side?
If you’re wondering why cricket was the subject of discussion in a RE class, I should add that this was a late 90s high school classroom in the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne. You were about as likely to find overt religiosity as a schoolboy with actual memories of an Ashes series defeat. In a broadly agnostic classroom in a broadly agnostic country, our RE teachers tended to focus on practical ethics and life lessons, rather than lengthy discourses on scripture.
Upon hearing the hypothetical, I immediately perked up in my comfy back-corner seat. The hypothetical had particular resonance for me because I was one of the worst three or four players in the 8A team. At that age level, pretty much every kid bats and bowls and the teacher-coaches just stick the best 11 all-rounders in the “A” team, the second-best 11 all-rounders in the “B” team and so on. The one exception to this general rule was the mercurial Sri-Lankan-Australian leggie in our 8A XI who could neither bat nor field, but could turn the ball square even on a synthetic pitch. As for the captaincy, this was typically awarded, with minimal discussion, to one of the gun players in the XI. Any of the top three or four players was fine, just so long as he wasn’t horrendously unpopular with his fellow players for some reason. That’s just how things go in Australian cricket, whether it be a year 8 schoolboy XI or the Australian Test XI. We simply don’t have a history of Mike Brearleys. The captain must be certain of his place in the XI on merit as an individual player.
This cultural context is what made the hypothetical so interesting. In Australia, you just don’t see one of the worst players in an XI captaining the side. It’s abnormal. Atypical. Weird. And I’m sure that’s why our RE teacher posed the hypothetical. In effect, he was asking us how we would react to a culturally atypical practice.
Every member of the 8A team who piped up said that they would be absolutely fine with having one of the worst players in the XI captain the side provided that he was the best captain in the XI. Our RE teacher seemed happy — he got the rational and ethical answer he was hoping for.
I said nothing. I believed that my teammates were being sincere. They were fine with it — in theory. And as Homer Simpson once wisely remarked: “in theory … in theory, communism works.” As the 8A team’s resident nerd, I would have loved the intellectual challenge of captaining the side, but I would never have accepted even a hypothetical appointment because I honestly believed that, in practice, the arrangement would not have worked, despite the best intentions of the other players — in the fundamentally meritocratic environment of Australia, it is not possible for better schoolboy cricketers to take orders from a clearly inferior cricketer without significant damage being done to team harmony, even if only at a subconscious level.
In reality, we never tested my teammates’ theory. Our gun player rightly stayed captain and we went unbeaten all season until our final game. I chipped in most weeks with a catch — dropped catches being a passport straight back to the B’s which you’re one of the worst players in the A’s — and quick-fire innings of five or six runs at roughly a run-a-ball whenever called upon at the death (I batted between seven and nine and we played 35 over matches).
Watching Michael Clarke captain Australia in all three formats of the game over the past few years, I’ve started to wonder — maybe I was wrong, maybe the theory can work in practice in an Australian side and Clarke is living proof of that.
Of course, at Test and one-day international level, Clarke is far from the worst player in the XI; on the contrary, he is one of Australia’s finest batsmen in the Test and 50-over arenas and a handy left-arm orthodox spinner to boot. However, before Clarke became Australia’s Test and one-day international captain, he captained Australia’s T20I side and, with his lovely classical batting technique and anaemic strike rate, he was clearly one of the worst players in that T20I side. That didn’t stop him leading them to what remains by far Australia’s best ever finish at a T20 World Cup — runners-up to England in the 2010 tournament.
When Clarke subsequently ascended to the Test and one-day captaincy, although there could be little doubt about his batting credentials (despite a rough trot during the 2010–11 Ashes series), there remained persistent rumours, widely circulated in the media and always attributed to unnamed sources, that he was unpopular within his own team.
Hypothetically, even if Clarke is unpopular within his own team (I note that there is not a shred of direct, reliable evidence to indicate that that is the case), his outstanding performances as captain have rendered that criticism irrelevant.
Clarke’s predecessor as captain in all three forms of the game, Ricky Ponting, fell neatly into the Australian cultural archetype of the gun batsman handed the captaincy primarily on the basis that he was the first name on the team sheet.
Ponting has a legitimate claim to being Australia’s greatest batsman since Bradman. As a batsman, he is decisive, assured and aggressive in everything from his footwork to his shot selection. In his prime, he didn’t just dismantle bowling attacks: he brutalised them into submission. The key was his Fred Astaire-like footwork which enabled him to get back and across to pull or hook anything fractionally short, and take a giant step forward to drive anything marginally over-pitched.
Paradoxically, as a captain, Ponting was dour, unimaginative and, at times, utterly inexplicable.
There is no better example than the First Test of the 2009 Ashes series in Cardiff. Australia dominated the match, piling on 6/674 declared in their first innings in response to England’s 435. In the first Ashes Test played on Welsh soil, Australia notched up four centuries (belonging to Katich, Ponting, North and Haddin) in an innings for the first time in Ashes history. When Ponting declared late on the fourth day with 45 minutes of the afternoon session to go and a 239-run lead in the bag, victory seemed probable. When Hilfenhaus and Johnson removed Cook and Bopara before weather intervened to end play on the fourth day, victory seemed a mere formality.
And although England’s elongated middle-order put up a decent fight the next day, victory seemed imminent when Siddle, wisely brought back into the attack by Ponting, managed to remove the typically obdurate Collingwood for a gutsy 245-ball 74 with 11.3 overs still to play and England down to their last wicket and trailing by six runs.
But then, at 6:20pm, with 7.3 overs remaining, Anderson struck consecutive boundaries off Siddle to erase the deficit and force Australia to bat again if they were to complete the victory. Ultimately, it became a matter of time — at 6:40pm there would not be enough for Australia to bat again so Ponting had 20 minutes to prise out the last English wicket, 20 minutes to win an Ashes Test. The clock was ticking.
At 6:20pm, Hauritz, the sole specialist spinner, and Siddle, the champion woodchopper and hit-the-deck enforcer, were in the attack. Meanwhile, Hilfenhaus, the swing merchant who had already taken five wickets in the match and would go on to be the leading wicket-taker in the series, and Johnson, the erratic left-arm quick who also already had five in his wickets column for the match, were cooling their heels.
When England’s tail-end duo of Anderson and Panesar held out against Hauritz and Siddle for another 14 minutes, Ponting had a decision to make. Siddle had already completed four overs of a typically wholehearted spell. Even Victorian axe-men tire. It was time for a bowling change.
So, who would it be: Hilfenhaus or Johnson?
In a perplexing inversion of the hoary old cliché, Ponting opted for quantity over quality — the part-time off-spin of Marcus North (Test wickets: 2; bowling average: 49; strike rate: 114). The BBC’s online commentary remarked: “Big call, but it could make him a hero.”
Anderson and Panesar survived two overs of North’s innocuous offies and two overs of Hauritz’s surprisingly threatening offies to make it to the 6:40pm deadline.
Having completed the great escape, England went on to thrash Australia by 115 runs in the following Test at Lord’s and regain the Ashes with a 2-1 series win.
One of Australia’s finest batsmen since Bradman became the first Australian captain since Billy Murdoch in 1890 to lose two Ashes series in England. In the same decade Murdoch suffered that ignominy, Joseph Conrad wrote in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine: “The horror! The horror!” Conrad was referring, of course, to the unimaginable horrors of European imperialism in Africa, but he could just as easily have been describing the humiliation inflicted upon a collection of Antipodean colonies by the mother country on the cricket field.
Clarke’s captaincy stands in stark contrast to Ponting’s — imaginative, resourceful and always thoughtful. When Clarke took over the Test captaincy on the 30th of March 2011, Michael Hussey was a 35 year-old batsman who had played 59 Tests and taken a grand total of 2 wickets at 52.50 apiece with his dibbly-dobbly medium pace swing bowling. His bowling strike rate was 93. Since Clarke became Test captain, Hussey has taken 5 wickets in 14 Tests at an average of 27 and a strike rate of 64.8. His victims, in chronological order, have been: Kumar Sangakkara, Tharanga Paranavitana, Daniel Vettori, Jesse Ryder and Darren Bravo.
To remove one specialist Test batsman with an elderly part-timer may be regarded as a fluke, to remove four (and one all-rounder) in the space of 14 Tests must be regarded as a tactical masterstroke.
Whereas Ponting failed to remove a pair of tail-enders with a part-time bowler and drew a Test match he should have won as a consequence, Clarke has removed four Test batsmen (and one all-rounder) with a part-time bowler and, in the process, has yet to lose a series as Test captain. I know of no other recorded instance of a batsman being discovered to be a key Test change bowler at the age of 35. Clarke saw something in Hussey — something which his predecessor failed to spot in the preceding five-plus years and 59 Tests of Hussey’s career — and acted upon it. He fully deserves all the credit which is now being heaped upon him in Australia.
His artful captaincy has dispelled, once and for all, any lingering teenage scepticism towards my 8A teammates’ captaincy theory and, perhaps, affirmed the enduring primacy of another aspect of Australia’s meritocratic culture — it really doesn’t matter how different you are from your colleagues; even if you dated a glamour model, have tattoos, wear ear-rings and model men’s underwear, so long as you’re good at your job, you will earn their respect.