Great players don’t always make great captains

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE, Johannesburg

IN resigning as SA’s test captain this week, Hashim Amla left one exclusive club and joined another. It includes some of the greats of the game, but not in a way they would like to be remembered.

Garfield Sobers could do pretty much what he pleased on a cricket ground: bat, bowl – seam, finger spin, wrist spin – and field. But he couldn’t captain for toffee.

Ian Botham stepped out of Shakespeare to inspire some of England’s finest hours. But he couldn’t captain for toffee.

Sachin Tendulkar was the calm eye of batting perfection in the hurricane that Indian cricket became around him. But he couldn’t captain for toffee.

Brian Lara was elegant fury at the crease, lusty even among left-handers and loved wherever the game is played. But he couldn’t captain for toffee.

Amla is a paragon of everything that is honourable about cricket, and a peerless player besides. But he couldn’t captain for toffee.

Of course, those judgement are harsh. The relative strength of a captain’s team – and of their opponents – is the most important consideration in parsing opinion from fact.

“There are many captains who don’t get the recognition they deserve because they don’t have the ammo – they don’t have the players,” former SA coach Graham Ford said. “And it’s very seldom that a captain who does a good job with a weak team gets recognised.

“There’s a lot more to captaincy than tactics. Very often, it’s the timing of someone being made captain that can make them or break them in that role.

“Suddenly, as captain you’ve got to worry about 10 other players, and the fringe players, and the media, and the selectors. The last thing you have time to think about is your own game.

“That extra time you would have spent in the nets is now taken up with going to press conferences and selection meetings.”

Amla aside, all of the above lost more tests than they won when they were in charge. The best of them was Sobers, who had nine victories and 10 defeats. Botham could not count a win among his dozen tests at the helm. Tendulkar’s record was 4-9. Lara presided over 10 successes and 26 failures.

In that company, Amla has done just fine: won four, lost four.

The assumption is that the best players make the best captains. Clearly, that is not the case. In that sense, it has to be asked whether appointing Amla was a mistake.

He is a fine player and a finer man, and Cricket SA deserve credit for being brave enough to give the leadership to someone whose faith and lifestyle, admirable though both are, could have put social distance between the team and a significant portion of the cricket public.

That South Africans of all races and cultures readily rallied behind Amla is something our chronically juvenile democracy should be proud of.

Indeed, were Amla’s timing better, if he had taken the reins when Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis and Mark Boucher were still the Big Three in the dressingroom, and had they stopped SA from losing as often as they did under Amla, his odd field placings and bowling changes would not have been noticed.

If Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander had been fit for the first two tests against England, would the visitors be taking a 1-0 lead into the third match of the series at the Wanderers on Thursday?

That said, Amla himself seems to think there are more suited candidates: “The decision has been purely based on that I think somebody else could do a better job.”

During the first test at Kingsmead, Dean Elgar, even though he was trying to pay the skipper a compliment, hinted that Amla didn’t quite fit South Africans’ idea of a captain.

“Hash doesn’t say much to us as a batting unit. He allows us to play and implement our gameplans, which is a massive feather in his cap. He doesn’t influence or interfere with our preparations and planning going into the start of an innings.”

Nevermind. If Amla scores another double century in Johannesburg and SA win, no-one will remember where AB de Villiers put his fielders.

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