Every game has its set of clichés and cricket is no exception to the ‘hackney’ rule. They say a captain is only as good as the team he gets and over the years this fact has been formidably established if not by any other unit at least by the successful Australian cricket team which flanked either sides of the birth of the new millennium with untiring – for others boring – laps of honour. At the opposite end of the spectrum, great players, world beaters in their own right, have made abysmal captains and to be honest the teams they skippered were far from scratch: I wonder if one needs to go beyond Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara to make a case in point.
And yet, hereabouts there has been a Samsonesque Imran Khan who could transmute a group of raw boys into world beaters in the 1992 World Cup or a Chanakya-like Arjuna Ranatunga who could manoeuvre Sri Lanka homeward to the world cup in 1996. The brood of Imran is as rare as it gets; Navjot Sidhu might just invent a new one-liner and say blue moons do not occur as frequently as stars on the sky. Yet the recent success enjoyed by the English cricket team in white and coloured formats is besides being a team enterprise a tale of two captains, neither of whom can inspire poets, terrorise opponents, seduce fans to sit up and watch their game all night or even give the faintest ‘impression’ they can win impossible games. Yet both Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood share one thing in common – a sense of unstated resilience.
These are fickle times when one wonders – aside the most pragmatic of advice to the contrary and sensible optimism that accords Test cricket the credit still due to it – if pantaloons, cheer squads and T20 will take over the official banner of cricket. These are also times when punk-like upstarts and pigmy boys join in a battle for manhood within the terrains of this great game. Under the circumstances, it is a blessing that in Collingwood and Strauss, England has found two unspectacular sometimes extraordinarily embattled batsmen who have always given their best to the team and who in their leadership roles have done and will only do wonders. To look at Collingwood’s and Strauss’ growth however will be to look at the demanding cultures they come from. That partly explains why the Middlesex left-hander and Durham right-hander have always come across as blokes who knew that their only way for survival, let alone getting to the top, was by doing the long yards and making most use of their ability.
Andrew Strauss comes from a South African backyard which had been blanketed and scarred by the cloud of Apartheid for several years. Strauss may not belong to an embittered generation which faced the cricketing ban or the ignominy and wrath that followed it, and yet in him you find an individual who is willing to work through difficult times even if he appears inelegant and ungainly rather than give his wicket away with an air of arrogance, a rash stroke or both. Even his strife against Shane Warne earlier in his career was just a question of a slightly loose technique being found out by the world's finest leg spinner and not of want of sincerity. Strauss brings a rather stern sense of doggedness to his batting and it probably influences his captaincy as well. It is indubitable that Strauss may never make a creative captain; or he may, time will tell. But he will always be a reliable man to go to especially when the chips are down as he showed with his wonderful batting in the Ashes last year. That is what you need from a man who opens the batting for you. Michael Atherton would agree. That is what you need from your test skipper. The likes of Graham Gooch would not demur.
Paul Collingwood’s background is not anything flashy either. He comes from a working class family in Durham, as Peter Roebuck writes, and there is the unmistakable touch of the frustrated but persistent workaholic about his stay in the middle. In fact, his ascendancy through the rank and file of the English batting line-up has mirrored a man coming to terms with his strengths and limitations and optimalising them in contributing the best to his team. Exemplified, his sixes do not have the flamboyant flourish of a Kevin Pietersen lofted stroke; his square-drive may not invite the purists to applaud; nor is his defence something a Dale Steyn or Muralidharan would lose sleep over and yet he braved the South Africans on the last day a couple of times earlier this year playing instrumental roles in the nail-biting draws they salvaged. At times, one gets the feeling that he has only half a bat as he nudges those singles busily into the gaps. But rest assured, beyond the superficially itinerant style is a thinking cricketer, a street-smart individual and a a man committed to the cause of his team. In his temperament more than anything else, there is a little of Dravid and a little of Steve Waugh about him. That he was at the helm for England when they won their first major limited overs tournament a few days ago may not be a selectors’ master stroke; but if it is coincidence let it be and he certainly deserves it. Importantly, he had a team which played to deserve it.
In a by and large conservative cricket country, England has two captains who are conservative by looks and in lacking the extravagance some of their compatriots have in the team. Yet neither can be bullied down into submission and Strauss and Collingwood are arguably among the top fighters in the team. In a rather non-obvious sense, they are a chip off the old block. One may wonder if I say this because of the splotches of success England has experienced under the two men. It may be true to an extent about Strauss, and yet why not? Nothing succeeds like success and Strauss’ Ashes campaign last year is among the most stellar skies seen by an England captain in a very long time. As for Collingwood, he has been a personal favourite for a while and it is heartening to see him being an essential cog in the English wheel. Together, Strauss and Collingwood have few more years of guidance and victories within their respective grasps. And if the England team does not fall inexplicable prey to spates of injury or disorientation like they have often done in the past then both can call time with their names in the Honours’ Board of England’s better captains. It would be nothing less than they deserve.