News of Michael Clarke's latest injury has set the cats amongst the captaincy pigeons, and could not have come at a worst possible time. Australia's batting has a callow look about it, and the poise and maturity of Clarke would have provided some much needed ballast.
There is no doubting the innate talent of many of Australia's batsmen, but their inability to adjust their game in response to changing situations has to be in question after their capitulation to the South African machine. Bravado and aggressiveness may win the day in a majority of cases in the helter skelter world of T20, but Test cricket demands the ability to change gears, both up and down.
Nor can it be assumed that India will be the pushovers we saw last time. They appear filled with a renewed confidence, and Virat Kohli is perhaps the most exciting young batsman in the world. Few would have thought that after the retirement of the that India would be able to assemble a batting line up that realistically has be admitted to edge Australia's. It will be their bowling that Australia will need to target, but our batters would be hoping for little swing and plenty of bounce.
Word has it that Brad Haddin will take the reins but, while that is a prudent choice, it is not the sort of daring selection most Australians would prefer. Personally, I find Shane Watson unpalatable even as a player, let alone a captain, and I think there is a real case to be made for Steve Smith. He is one of the few batsmen who have shown the inclination to knuckle down and play gutsy innings, rather than simply go for glory, and has a sense of purpose about him in the field. He definitely is not the wide-eyed child who first pulled on the Baggy Green. But, while this may be a series too soon for him, I am predicting that when Clarke's creaky body finally gives way completely, Steve Smith might be the next permanent captain.
All this talk about captaincy gets one thinking, and looking back over the past 70-80 years of cricket, you can see a clear pattern. In Australia, we have generally eschewed the English model of picking a captain then working out the team, instead generally giving the captaincy to the best player in the team, or at least someone who can hold down a place. It has also been very rare for players to continue playing after handing over the reins, none of this having a team with three or four ex captains playing!
But, what I find even more interesting is that there seems to be two types of captains. While it no doubt has origins before their time, I am going to call them the "Bradman" and the "Miller" after those colossi of Australian cricket—Sir Donald Bradman and Keith Miller.
The "Bradman" is generally a conservative captain who will bat upon winning the toss nine times out of ten, and on the tenth think about bowling, then bat. They tend to have a set plan, and can sometimes be caught flat-footed by sudden twists in the game or oppositions that refuse to go along. They seem to prefer to lead by example, and struggle when their own form is down because it their contribution, more than their tactical nous, that they bring to the table. To a Bradman it is better to make sure you can't lose before worrying about winning.
"Millers" are far more experimental, more likely to try odd field placements or throwing the ball to an unlikely bowler to create a breakthrough from thin air. They operate more on instinct, and are more likely to take risks in an attempt to gain an advantage. They'd rather lose going for a win than grind out a draw.
Some captains naturally fall into one of those categories, others are pushed into it. Border was a conservative Bradman because of the team that fate dealt him, and by the time the Aussie team was as good as he deserved—and able to risk losing to win—he was an old dog unable to learn new tricks. Taylor, who inherited a great team, was able to indulge his natural Miller-esque inclinations.
Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting were most definitely Bradmans, able to execute their predictable formulas and win in situations that should have by rights been draws because of their freakishly good teams. It was sad watching Ponting struggle with a declining team who could no longer execute the same strategies that had won a hundred times before, and how dependent his authority was on his own form with the bat. When that started to go, the writing was on the wall because he had no cunning tactical sense to fall back on.
And then there is the "greatest captain we never had", the indomitable Shane Warne. The few chances he had to lead showed a Miller, a captain willing to take risks and ignore conventional wisdom when confronted with an unconventional situation. There is no doubt Australia would have batted first at Edgbaston in '05 if it had been his call, and one of the greatest Test matches ever would have gone very differently—perhaps changing the course of the Ashes (or keeping them on the same course towards inevitable Aussie victory). A Shane Warne captaincy might have been many things, but never boring.
These are, of course, massive generalisations, but that is far more fun than nuance. And, one is not necessarily better. As with Border, sometimes we need a conservative captain to rebuild. And, as always, there exceptions to every rule, and times when captains act in an uncharacteristic manner—like the time Sir Donald inverted the batting order to take advantage of sticky wicket, despite how Miller-ish such a tactic was.
I think, thought, that is a reasonably fair rule of thumb, and leads to the obvious question—what will Smith be, given the chance? It's more than the fact he has blond hair and bowls leg-spin that leads me to think he will be a "Miller", and it's why I hope he gets a chance sooner rather than later.
David Goodwin's archive of articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/david-goodwin.html