The Alistair Cook Effect – Does Captaincy Allow You to Soar Like an Eagle or is it an Albatross Around Your Neck ?

Recently England’s young captain, Alistair Cook, reached his 25th Test century, the most ever by a player representing the three lions of the ECB.

At just 28 years of age it is an outstanding achievement and there has certainly been much speculation and discussion around what place he might assume among the pantheon of greats once his career finishes.

Undoubtedly he will finish as his nation’s highest run scorer and century maker, and who knows, with good luck, form and health he might just surpass Sachin’s formidable tally, notwithstanding the great man’s refusal to acknowledge the appropriate time to go in a way reminiscent of the machinations of his own Board president.

However, what has really struck me is the remarkable output of runs and centuries Cook has enjoyed as captain. It reminded me of a quote from management and leadership expert Mike Myatt who once said “few can comprehend the heavy burden of leadership until it rests squarely upon their shoulders.”

It got me wondering about the effect Test captaincy has had on the performances of its recipients over the years because it is perhaps the most challenging on-field leadership role of any sport.

Essentially this is because there are two parts to it, captaincy and leadership. The captaincy piece is the most familiar to us as spectators; the naming of the batting order, the bowling changes and field placings; all of which can significantly change the course of a match. Then there is the equally important, but mostly unseen, aspect involving leadership off the field; coaching, managing personalities, setting standards and the like, not to mention the significantly increased media requirements of the modern age.

It is a weighty responsibility and one that has seen some of its holders soar like an eagle in terms of their personal contribution, but equally it has proven to be an albatross around the neck of many.

This piece is an attempt to find the eagles and the albatrosses by examining comparing the batting records of a group of international Test captains and comparing their personal output both as captain and as an ordinary member of the team.

I have selected batting as the prism through which to examine the question because there is no other discipline that so nakedly exposes a player in terms of their desire, fighting qualities and talent – after all it really is you against the other eleven at all times.

A qualifying mark of 1,000 runs scored as captain was set to ensure a statistically valid number of innings and basis of comparison, resulting in an illustrious group of 78 making the final cut – most are batsmen, some are all-rounders, with a few bowlers thrown in for good measure. A full list appears here Captaincy Effect.

Players are rated in terms of the percentage of performance difference which interestingly shows that among this group, 45 enjoyed a better average when captain, 8 were roughly equivalent within a 5% degree of variance, and the performances of the remaining 25 deteriorated by greater than 5% worse while they were captain.

So anyway, without further ado I present the list of captaincy eagles and albatrosses.

SOARING LIKE AN EAGLE

As seen above, statistically players appear to be more likely to thrive than not under the burden of captaincy, however some certainly soared higher than others. In reverse order here are the top 10.

10) Peter May (England)

Only Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss have led England on more occasions than Peter May, a very accomplished and stylish player, who scored a century on debut and was a pivotal team member and captain during a very successful era for his nation.

However, it was upon assuming the reins of the captaincy that May’s batting truly took off. In 41 Tests as captain, May averaged an outstanding 54.03 and notched a century once in every 6.50 appearances at the crease. This compares extremely favourably with his record across his other 25 appearances, in which he managed just 3 centuries (one in every 13.67 innings) at a rather more pedestrian average of 36.42.

9) Alistair Cook (England)

Alistair Cook was already an accomplished opening batsman prior to taking over the captaincy, scoring over 6,000 runs in 81 Tests at a very acceptable average of 46.36 with 18 centuries at a rate of one in almost every 8 innings.

However, since taking over the mantle from Andrew Strauss, Cook has been absolutely prolific, matched perhaps only by Australia’s Michael Clarke.

In just 11 Tests as captain, Cook has already notched up an amazing 7 centuries, at the unbelievable rate of one every 3 innings – in fact, he has converted EVERY score over 50 in this period into a century, and generally a game changing one.

It is perhaps not surprising that his average while holding the reins is a remarkable 69.00, and it is this rich vein of form since assuming the role that has seen him confidently predicted as England’s all time leading run scorer and century maker, not to mention an outside chance of surpassing Sachin’s formidable records in each of these categories.

8) Daniel Vettori (New Zealand)

I can still remember the young man who strode determinedly to the crease at number 11 against the Aussies on debut. Never in my wildest dreams could I have ever imagined him scoring a Test century, let alone being labelled as a genuine all-rounder, but such is the power of persistence, determination and lest it be said, the captaincy effect.

In 32 Tests as captain, Vettori averaged a very respectable 39.12, often batting as high as number 6, and racking up 4 very valuable centuries at a rate of one every 14 innings. Although his numbers are a little skewed by his early lack of prowess, they clearly illustrate the power the captaincy had upon his powers of concentration and leading by example – just 2 centuries in 119 innings at a rather more modest average of 25.73.

7) Bob Simpson (Australia)

Bob Simpson is well known as one half of one of Australia’s most successful opening pairings along with his more famous partner, Bill Lawry, during the 1960s, as well as being the man who, as coach, helped return Australia back to the top of the heap in partnership with Allan Border during the latter part of the 1980s.

The other little known fact about Simpson is that he is Australia’s most successful member of the captaincy eagles, a fact made even more remarkable by the fact that a quarter of these games came after his 41st birthday when he returned to lead his nation during the WSC years after an absence of 9 years from Test cricket.

It is truly remarkable that Simpson never scored a Test century until he assumed the Test captaincy, his other 23 appearances resulting in just 11 half-centuries at the Ed Cowan-like average of 33.67.

In fact, Simpson didn’t score a Test match century until his 30th Test, breaking through with a remarkable 311 at Old Trafford in 1964, a year in which he scored a then record 1,381 runs in the calendar year.

Once he had made the breakthrough, Simpson as captain, grew wings as a batsman averaging an outstanding 54.07 in 39 Tests as leader, including 10 centuries at a rate of one every 7.10 innings. Even more remarkably, 2 of these were scored during his return to the game after a 9 year hiatus.

6) Misbah-ul-Haq (Pakistan)

Although I would not seek to put Misbah in the same class as Simpson in terms of quality, the elixir of the captaincy has had a similar effect upon his batting with his captaincy average of 54.26 comparing rather favourably to the meagre 33.60 achieved for the rest of his career.

Much of this can be attributed to the responsibility of the leadership as he reined in his free-wheeling approach and concentrated on setting an example to his mercurial teammates. It is an approach that has yielded just the one century, however he has passed fifty on a further 14 occasions in just 34 innings, including a high proportion of not out scores.

5) Graham Gooch (England)

Goochy currently holds an honoured place as his nation’s highest ever run scorer, although I suspect it is an honour he will not hold past Alistair Cook’s 30th birthday.

That not withstanding he was a pretty handy slipper and opening bat across 118 Tests for his country, but I wonder how much better his numbers might have been had he discovered the captaincy caper earlier ?

Gooch led from the front recognising that what he did would set a tone for the rest of his side and the match, and giving them perhaps more purpose than they had shown for a decade.

As captain Gooch scored 11 centuries at the rate of one every 5.76 innings, a considerable improvement from his output in his other 84 Tests where he managed just 9, raising his bat just once in every 16.89 innings.

I am sure you will not be surprised to see a considerable difference in his averages as well. In his 34 Tests as captain Goochy averaged an outstanding 58.72 to stand like a colossus over his teammates, a figure so far removed from the 35.93 he averaged across the rest of his career that you might easily describe him as the protagonist in Jekyll and Hyde.

4) Ray Illingworth (England)

Although he could hardly be described as a genuine all-rounder, Illingworth often batted at 6 or 7 in the order with a fierce determination not to give away his wicket.

He was highly rated as a strategist and captain by Ian Chappell and certainly he tried to set an example through his personal performance about the discipline and focus he expected from his players.

As captain Illingworth averaged a respectable 28.62 over 31 Tests, scoring 2 valuable centuries and 4 fifties, contrasting rather favourably with his meagre output from his remaining 30 Tests where he managed to average just 16.11 with just a solitary 50 to his name.

3) Trevor Goddard (South Africa)

Having come to the captaincy almost by default, and leading a team derided by the press as no-hopers, Goddard famously led his nation to a drawn series against Australia in 1963-4.

He was regarded as a fine all-rounder, however when looking through his career I can not but help but think that it was his ascension to the leadership that provided the necessary impetus to his batting performances that enabled him to be described in this manner.

In the 28 Tests he played without the captaincy, Goddard averaged just 27.92, failing to notch a century despite reaching 50 on 9 occasions. However as captain his output soared as he racked up 1,092 runs in just 13 Tests and a very handy average of 49.63, scoring a century and a further 9 half-centuries, matching his previous output in under half the games.

2) Imran Khan (Pakistan)

The “Lion of Lahore” is without doubt Pakistan’s most influential player and in my mind their best, although Wasim Akram could make a case.  Regardless of where you sit on this question, I don’t think there can be much argument with the fact that Imran is one of the greats of any era as either an all-rounder or purely as a bowler.

Imran was an inspirational captain and a man whose sensational efforts made his team a genuine and consistent international force. And he just got better as he went on – just think that in his final decade of Test cricket he averaged around 50 with the bat and 19 with the ball across 51 Tests, considerably better than his career record in either discipline, and considerably better than any of the great all-rounders to have played the game.

Almost all of this excellence came during his time as captain and it was his batting that became emblematic of the change in his approach as he went from a moderately talented but inconsistent player averaging 25.43 with just one century in 40 Tests, to a man who could (and sometimes did) command a place as a specialist batsman alone.

His record as captain in 48 Tests was phenomenal as he averaged 52.34 (more than twice as good as his previous output) with 5 centuries and there is no doubt that the captaincy allowed this lion to soar like an eagle.

1) Heath Streak (Zimbabwe)

Perhaps a surprising top performer in the eagles category, but Streak would appear to have emerged from much the same mould as Imran in terms of the impact captaincy had upon his personal performance.

Although Zimbabwe were undoubtedly a far stronger outfit than today’s motley crew, Streak’s personal performance had much to do with this as he transformed himself into a genuine all-rounder capable of making an impact in both disciplines.

Again the batting is an excellent barometer with Streak averaging a very competent 36.17 as captain in 21 Tests, along the way scoring his only Test century and a further 7 scores over 50. disappointing 16.01 across 44 Tests with just 4 half-centuries. It contrasts extremely favourably with his far more meagre output in his remaining 44 Tests which saw just 4 half-centuries at the less than flattering average of 16.01.

AN ALBATROSS AROUND THEIR NECKS

And now it’s time to look at the flip side of the coin, at those for whom captaincy was a heavy albatross around their neck, dragging down their personal effectiveness as batsmen, and their overall records.

10) Mark Taylor (Australia)

‘Tubby’ is regarded as one of Australia’s best post-war captains; aggressive, tactically astute and diplomatic; and a man who guided the nascent careers of many of Australia’s golden generation.

He was also a quite accomplished opening batsman, but one who struggled to maintain his previous standards while bearing the burden of leading his nation, so much so that it was only a memorable century at Edgbaston in 1997 that saved his career following a barren period of 18 months without a Test century.

You can easily see this struggle reflected in his numbers – as captain ‘Tubby’ averaged just 39.63 with only 7 centuries at a rate of one every 12.71 innings, compared to his record of 12 centuries (one in every 8.08 innings) at a far more impressive average of 46.97 without the burden of leadership.

9) Sir Vivian Richards (West Indies)

Viv was one of THE great players, one who was very much a favourite of mine for his swagger, batting bravado and crushing strokes, however he was not immune from succumbing to some degree to the weight of the captaincy albatross.

As captain, Viv averaged a creditable 45.11 with 6 centuries at a rate of one every 12.33 innings. They are decent numbers but a far cry from those performances of earlier years which have seen him rightly labelled as a great of the game – 18 centuries at an average of 53.64, with a raising of the bat once in every 6 innings.

8) Sourav Ganguly (India)

I was genuinely shocked at his inclusion in this list as Ganguly always looked up for the challenge and seemed to relish the role, but it just goes to show that appearances can be deceiving.

Ganguly captained his country on 49 occasions and averaged just 37.66 with 5 centuries at a rate of one in every 15 innings. These numbers are certainly far removed from the rest of his career record where he scored another 11 centuries (one in every 10.27 innings) in 64 Tests at 45.15, an average much more in keeping with his level of talent.

7) Nawab of Pataudi Jnr (India)

His appearance might perhaps be a slight anomaly due to the fact that like Graeme Smith, he captained his nation for the majority of his career as a Test player but in his 40 Tests as leader he averaged just 34.14 compared to his first 6 Tests without the responsibility where he averaged a far more impressive 41.00.

6) Rahul Dravid (India)

Yes, that’s three Indians in a row which might say a bit for the unique pressures that come with the captaincy of such a populous and cricket-mad nation.

As one of the great batsmen in history, I am pleased that Dravid realised relatively promptly the detrimental impact that the captaincy was having upon his performance and that his nation might be better served if he concentrated on his primary role of scoring runs.

Dravid captained India just 25 times during his illustrious career but, weighed down by the burden of leadership, he could only manage 4 centuries (one in every 11.25 innings) at a far more mortal average of 44.51.

Contrasted against his record in 139 Tests without the captaincy where he averaged a stellar 53.73 with 32 centuries at a rate of one every 7.53 innings, it is hard not to come to the same conclusion that the great man himself did – captaincy was negatively affecting his performance.

5) Lord Colin Cowdrey (England)

Cowdrey was a giant of the English game, at one stage or another holding many of their records for Test batting, and indeed on the all-time list.

His inclusion is therefore surprising and perhaps owes more to circumstance and age than the burdens of leadership.

Cowdrey assumed the captaincy following an injury to Peter May and proved immediately successful with England undefeated in his first 10 Tests until Lords in 1961. May resumed the captaincy upon his return but it was commonly believed that it would revert to Cowdrey in the foreseeable future.

After choosing not to tour Pakistan in 1961-62, the captaincy went to Ted Dexter and for the next 5 or so years there was considerable conjecture around whether Cowdrey should assume the role in preference to Dexter and then Smith.

So through an unfortunate mixture of circumstance and politics it was not until 1966, when there were few alternatives and was into his mid-30s that Cowdrey again took the reins as captain, at an age much nearer to retirement than the continuing rigours of Test cricket.

In such circumstances it could be argued that his average of just 38.11 was due more to age than pressure, but it is worth remembering that close to half of his 27 appearances as captain came during his pomp, rather than his final years, and that he scored 6 centuries at a rate per innings vastly superior to the games in which he was not captain.

On balance I think it remains fair to look at his record across his other 87 Tests where he scored 14 centuries at an impressive average of 46.16, and make the argument that the captaincy had some negative effect, perhaps unsurprising given the circumstances of the period that led to him assuming the role.

4) Bill Woodfull (Australia)

Woodfull is perhaps best known as Australia’s leader during the Bodyline series but he was a very fine batsman, one who held a great many records at Sheffield Shield level in particular.

This level of quality is certainly reflected in his early career record where, unburdened by the leadership, he averaged 53.13 in 10 Tests with 5 centuries at a phenomenal rate of one every 3.20 innings.

As captain his record reverted from outstanding to merely good as he recorded just 2 centuries in 25 Tests at a far more moderate average of 42.94, and it is hard to escape the conclusion that captaincy may not have aided his personal performance.

3) Mushtaq Mohammad (Pakistan)

Mushtaq was a very fine player, perhaps generously described as an all-rounder despite the fact that his leg spin was shamefully under-utilised at Test level.

He captained his country in a third of his appearances but failed to shine as a batsman in them, averaging just 33.38 in 19 Tests with just 3 centuries. Without the leadership, Mushtaq performed far more creditably in his other 38 Tests notching 7 centuries at a much more acceptable average of 42.06 for a front-line batsman.

2) Richie Richardson (West Indies)

Richie Richardson was a very stylish player, a man seen as a miniature Viv, both in approach and appearance with his steadfast refusal to adopt protective headwear.

It would be fairly safe to say that this is generally where the comparison should end – Richie was no Viv in terms of his record – however, they share one important trait, and that is their flair and performance appeared to be significantly impacted by the burden of leading their team.

As captain in 24 Tests, Richardson managed just 2 centuries at a modest average of 35.18, a result in no way reflective of his ability – just take a look at his record in his other 62 appearances where he scored 14 centuries (one in every 7.64 innings) at a far more impressive average of 47.90.

1) Michael Vaughan (England)

For all of his recent merciless baiting of Australia, it gives me great pleasure to announce Michael Vaughan as the man who laboured under the burden of the captaincy the most.

I am sure that as the man who famously orchestrated the return of the Ashes after 16 long years of Australian dominance he probably doesn’t much care – in fact most England fans would probably agree with him.

There can be little doubt of his outstanding man-management qualities and the vast improvement in the fortunes of English cricket it brought about, however it came at a personal cost to his run-making ability.

No longer was he the batsman who scored 900 runs in just 7 Tests against Sri Lanka and India in 2002, nor the batsman who stood alone as a beacon of hope with over 600 runs during yet another failed Ashes bid in 2002/03, a man who in 31 Tests scored 9 centuries and averaged a tremendous 50.98.

Instead we saw a tremendous captain but one shorn of his batting profligacy, a man who could only average 36.02 in 51 Tests with just 9 centuries.

As I said, he will probably not care, and neither will England fans for his place in their sporting folklore is secure, but with a huge battle for the Ashes coming up, it is a fitting way to end this piece.

Until next time … that is stumps.

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2 thoughts on “The Alistair Cook Effect – Does Captaincy Allow You to Soar Like an Eagle or is it an Albatross Around Your Neck ?

  1. It surprises me that quite a few have increased their performances as captain, I always had it down as being a burden more than anything what with other things going on in the ticker as that West Indian quick steams in. Vaughan probably a little unlucky in that he was never really the same after his knee injuries and his batting form never recovered, though thank you for reminding me quite how imperious he was for a spell in the early noughties; that cover drive…

    Also shocked to see Beefy not in the second list!

    • You’re right David about “Beefy” – he avoided the list by virtue of his failure to make 1,000 runs as captain, which was the qualifying mark to ensure a decent number of games as captain, but there can be no doubting that his short reign was one of the more shambolic in the great traditions perhaps of another famous English all-rounder in the form of “Freddie” Flintoff.

      I think you are probably correct around the impact of Vaughan’s knee injury on his performances and that perhaps it was a larger contributing factor to his decline in output. Nonetheless, given his merciless sledging of Aussies and their performances in the lead up to the Ashes it was cathartic and satisfying to be able to get a bit back !

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