They do things differently there #3: England cricket captains

Watching the coverage of Andrew Strauss’s resignation press conference, it occurred to me that England cricket captains these days have had far more control over the manner of their departure than those in previous decades. Strauss, Michael Vaughan and Nasser Hussain, the three recent incumbents with serious time in charge all took their leave on their own terms.

The obvious omissions from the list of happy decampers are of course Flintoff (who was only appointed because of Vaughan’s absence through injury) and Pietersen.

However both the length of Pietersen’s tenure and the manner of his removal from office used to be the norm, rather than the exception, as a quick run through the fate of England captains of the 1980s will reveal.

Since 2000, England have had only six captains, and two of those were deliberately short term appointees (Flintoff in Australia and Cook in Bangladesh). England had nine captains from 1980 to 1989, one per year for those of you who are mathematically challenged. Two retired in the post, one survived the decade, the rest were sacked or jumped immediately before being pushed.

The first captain of the 1980s was I.T. Botham, in his early incarnation a whirlwind of a cricketer with bat and ball. However the captaincy hung heavily on Botham and his subsequent loss of form led to England going entirely winless (admittedly against the West Indies and Australia) in the 12 matches of his leadership. Although not strictly speaking dumped – he resigned in a strop after two Tests of the 1981 Ashes – his mood was unlikely to have been improved by the revelation to the media that Alec Bedser, chairman of selectors, was going to sack him anyway. Botham had the final word, in a sense, in that his performances in the following Tests ensured the series would be ‘Botham’s Ashes.’

Botham’s replacement, Mike Brearley, was only ever a stopgap until the end of that victorious Ashes series. The next holder of the post was Keith Fletcher of Essex. Like Brearley, Fletcher had been away from the international team for a few years, but was appointed in time to lead the team on a 6 test tour of India. The series was attritional on and off the pitch. Negative tactics saw runs scored at a glacial rate (Chris Tavare 35 off 240 balls in the fifth Test) and India won 1-0. However goings-on elsewhere took the headlines. At least half the party opted to go on a rebel tour to South Africa organised during the  stay in India, and had one eye on the booty rather than events on the pitch. Fletcher himself nobly refused to join the rebels. His reward on returning home – the sack from new chairman of selectors Peter May.

Bob Willis took over, somewhat reluctantly, and led for two years until injury forced his retirement. His successor, bon viveur David Gower, possessed a manner that suggested he was born to do the job. In the 1930s, rather than the 1980s. He had the misfortune to twice encounter the West Indies at their ferocious peak (5-0 series defeats in 1984 and 1985-6) which bookended a victorious Ashes campaign in 1985. However, not for the last time, the selectors decided to terminate a captaincy after the first Test of the summer. India, 1986. A defeat in the Lords test meant England had lost six tests in a row, albeit five of them against the aforementioned West Indies. The board asked Gower to resign, presumably because someone else would have given the West Indies a good hiding; Gower refused so was sacked instead.

Mike Gatting, the man who followed him, managed to survive two years at the helm, a broken nose courtesy of Malcolm Marshall and a stand-up  row with Pakistani umpire Shakoor Rana, but could not survive a tabloid witch hunt. Although, as Ian Botham observed, ‘anything that goes into Gatt’s room after 10pm he eats’, a barmaid was photographed entering the hotel room of the England captain on the eve of the second Test against the West Indies in 1988. The image was subsequently splurged across the front page of the Sun. The TCCB (as was then) lived down to expectations ‘We don’t think he made love to barmaid, but he shouldn’t have invited her to his room.’ Result = sacking.

What happened next was the lowest point in the history of the England captaincy. John Emburey was called upon to replace Gatting, predictably lost the next two Tests and was promptly fired. Then things got surreal. Chris Cowdrey, son of England legend Colin, reasonable county batsman and probably a decent chap, was called up not just to make his debut but to lead England in the final test of the summer. They lost. He never even had a sniff of another cap.

Graham Gooch saw out the 1980s as England captain and managed to avoid further dramas. Hopefully his protege, Alistair Cook, will be able to do the same for the next few years.