Allan Massie: The importance of strong captains

Grant Gilchrist: Cotter's captain. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Grant Gilchrist: Cotter's captain. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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RICHIE BENAUD used to say that captaincy in cricket was 90 per cent luck, only 10 per cent skill, though you needed that 10 per cent to be successful. Whatever his skill, England’s Alastair Cook is, at present anyway, clean out of luck.

Benaud himself was one of Australia’s finest captains, but would, I’m sure, be the first to admit that he was lucky enough to have the first requirement for success, a couple of match-winning bowlers. He was one of them himself of course; the other was the fast-medium left-hander, Alan Davidson whom I would have opening the bowling with Ray Lindwall, ahead even of Dennis Lillie and Glenn McGrath, in my imaginary best Australian XI of players I have seen.

Davidson, incidentally, was also a dangerous batsman, coming in at number 8, and a magnificent close fielder, outstanding even in a time when the standard of close catching was higher than it is today. Nobody has ever questioned the importance of captaincy in cricket. This is still the case now, even though the captain is supported by a manager-coach and an array of back-room staff, specialist coaches and analysts. There may, indeed, be too many of these, spoon-feeding players who may therefore have less need to think for themselves. This is true of other sports too. Ken Scotland once remarked to me that, in the absence of coaches, rugby players of his era had to learn to work things out themselves as today’s may not have to do.

In the nature of things, cricket, on account of the duration and pace of matches, has always seen more emphasis placed on captaincy than in other sports, notably football and rugby. The cricket captain has time to ponder a decision which may change the course of a match as football and rugby captains don’t. Moreover, captains in these sports now have much less authority than they used to have. They are rarely dominating figures as, long ago, for example, George Young was with Rangers and Scotland, or Billy McNeill with Celtic. Indeed, I daresay many football fans couldn’t name their club’s captain, though they will all have ideas about the ability and quality of the manager. This shift in balance is one reason why managers now come and go so frequently. They are far more associated with a club’s success or failure that they used to be.

Yet, as I remarked the other week, successful rugby teams are still usually ones in which the captain is a powerful and inspiring figure. Admittedly, there’s always an element of which comes first – the chicken or the egg – about these things. Even so, it’s desirable to have a captain who is evidently the man in charge, something Scotland have lacked, or been denied by their coaches, for a good many years. Usually an effective captain is someone whose place in the team is secure. This is important even if there may be a better player available in his position. There has been some doubt in England as to whether Chris Robshaw is the best
No 7 available, even whether he is a No 7 at all. Nevertheless, it seems to me that England’s improvement under Stuart Lancaster owes a good deal to his decision to make Robshaw captain and stick with him.

This is why I hope that Vern Cotter will identify a captain to carry us through this coming season and into the World Cup. There are two reasons to think he may do so. First, he is a New Zealander and the All Blacks have very seldom been without a strong leader on and off the field. Second, his experience at Clermont-Auvergne points in this direction. His ability to weld a heterogeneous group of players into such an effective unit that they were all but unbeatable at home owed much to the presence and captaincy of Aurelien Rougerie, a tremendous player himself, but, more importantly, one who embodied the spirit of the club, much as Alastair Kellock does Glasgow’s. Cotter’s decision to make the young Edinburgh lock, Grant Gilchrist, the Scotland captain against Argentina and South Africa was interesting. He evidently sees him as a leader. One wonders whether Alan Solomons will take the hint and entrust Edinburgh’s captaincy to him too.

Of course, as I say, coaches are now deemed more important than captains, so much so that some of them may underestimate the importance of the captain. All the talk of needing a number of leaders on the field supports this opinion, as does the too frequent willingness of coaches to call their captain off and replace him well before the end of a match. To my, probably old-fashioned, mind, this should never be done unless a game had evidently been already won and the coach wants to save the captain for the next match. Otherwise, he should surely be on the field from kick-off to final whistle.

A last reflection, to temper the stress we now tend to lay on the importance of the coach – what Richie Benaud said about cricket captaincy may well apply to rugby coaches and football managers too: that the job is 90 per cent luck and only 10 per cent skill, but you need the skill to deserve, and even to get, the luck.