Allan Massie: Success rare without strong leader

Al Kellock: Leadership skills. Picture: SNS
Al Kellock: Leadership skills. Picture: SNS
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GRAEME Smith, the recently retired South African cricket captain, once remarked that from the age of ten or 11 he had usually been captain of any team he played for.

He wasn’t boasting, just stating a matter of fact. Indeed he was made captain of his national team when he was only 22 and there were much older established players in the side.

Captaincy of course matters more in cricket than in most games – which is why Alastair Cook’s came under such close and often hostile scrutiny this summer. It matters more because when the opposition are batting, the fielding captain has to make decisions about bowling changes and field settings, and has to carry his bowlers along with him. As in all sports he also has to lead by example, and this is difficult if he is not performing well.

Back in 1956 the disintegration of the Australian touring side was evident when players began going to the scorer and asking what were the skipper’s bowling figures today.

There are natural captains, men of authority like Graeme Smith, and you are lucky if you have one. In recent years France have sometimes played badly even when their captain Thierry Dusautoir was there to lead them – but they have scarcely ever played well when he was missing on account of injury. Nobody questions what Richie McCaw means to the All Blacks – even though the All Blacks’ ethos and style are so well established that you might think the captain scarcely matters.

One sometimes thinks that weak coaches prefer not to have a strong captain, or that they are at least content to have a captain whose own place in the team is not assured and who is therefore less able to challenge, or even seem to challenge, the coach’s authority. The expectation is that Vern Cotter may be different, sufficiently self-confident to appoint and trust a captain who is a leader on and off the field.

The difficulty of course is finding someone with the right qualities who is also unquestionably the best player in his position. Last year Scott Johnson made Kelly Brown captain, and then played him at number 7, instead of at 6, his best position. This was not satisfactory. If Brown is to captain, he should be at 6, and should remain on the field for the full 80 minutes, unless – happy thought – we are so far ahead in the last quarter that he can be safely withdrawn.

It should be an understood thing that the Scotland captain will play every match and normally do so for its duration. Being a club captain is a different matter. Nobody can expect the captain of a professional club to play every game, week after week. Much of his work is likely to be done off the field, in training and in team meetings. So it’s no surprise Gregor Townsend had kept Al Kellock as Glasgow’s captain for what will be his eighth season in charge.

He has done so even though Kellock is out injured for a couple of months, is unlikely to start more than one match in two, and may rarely now last the full 80 minutes. The likelihood that his international career is now over is another reason for retaining him as captain. There are several reasons why Glasgow have done so much better than Edinburgh in what is now the Guinness league, but one is surely the leadership Kellock has provided.

I’m aware that I have written about the importance of captaincy before, but I do so again because I think it matters. Just as last week I wrote that we would not have a successful national team until most of the names of the starting XV were written down without any need for discussion or argument, so also with captaincy.

It’s very rare in rugby, football or cricket to enjoy success without having a captain who is obviously in charge and also leads by example. You might say of course that the relationship between success and captaincy is a bit like the old teasing question: which comes first, the chicken or the egg? But I think it’s clear enough. Good teams have good captains, partly because good captains make for good teams.

It is very rare for any team which is inadequately led to meet with more than occasional success. Any follower of amateur club rugby is well aware of this, as is any follower of English county cricket. Get the selection of the captain right and you have taken the first step towards having a winning team.

There have now been seven Rugby World Cups. The men who lifted the cup were: David Kirk (New Zealand), Nick Farr-Jones (Australia), Francois Pienaar (South Africa), John Eales (Australia), Martin Johnson (England), John Smit (South Africa), Richie McCaw (New Zealand); all outstanding as men and players.