We’ll get to the captain’s reach in due course, but first, its roots, which go back to the days when amateurs — often hitters of varying skill levels — nearly always ruled the professionals. The upper classes used this construct to maintain their superiority over others, who dared to ask for money for their time. The horror. How could such people be entrusted with the spirit of the game?
However, do you aggressively challenge the English construct behind the supreme captain’s upper class when, for a change, the person who probably benefits is the first black African man to lead South Africa in international cricket?
Bavuma may not have gotten the captaincy because of his race, but race is becoming an important consideration in deciding his future as a T20 player and captain.
Then again, cricket has always been weird when it comes to dealing with underperforming captains. Once the XV has been selected and the reins passed to the captain, it’s really up to him to let go. Coaches know better than to be energetic. More so in the case of Bavuma. It’s not unimaginable that there’s an added incentive for selectors to stick with him and fight because there’s a stereotype to beat that black Africans aren’t natural leaders.
Not that a leader wants to question himself. They don’t make it to international cricket doubting their prowess. You wonder, though, if one or more of Bavuma, Finch and Williamson aren’t quietly wanting the decision taken away from him. The biggest games of this T20 World Cup are yet to come, and they don’t want to get stuck in the middle where they can’t hit or get out so other hitters can maximize their time at the wicket.
It can be a lonely place trying to decide if you should play for yourself. Bavuma hopefully keeps some good advice. Dropping can be a sign of weakness, contrary to the instincts of elite competitors. At the same time, you have to think about the absent player and what he can bring to the team.
Some say that pruning from XV to XI is a captain’s most important job, but the job itself is not properly described. At modern amateur levels, the captain creates a WhatsApp group, finds fixtures, gets enough players to commit, tracks team dues with them, and only then thinks about batting orders and bowling changes. Often they don’t have to select an XI, because often only so many players show up, even when others have confirmed their attendance.
The definition of the captain’s role at the professional level is less clear. Some teams tend to give them full control – coaches listen to them when they choose the XV, they also choose the XI and run the game – while others only give them control on the pitch. At the elite level of the modern game however, the plans on the pitch are mostly pre-decided, the longer the format, the more the fate of the team depends on the fitness and depth of their bowling attack, the players have become increasingly responsible for themselves, and coaches and support staff are playing a greater role in the management of T20s.
There are still the hollow parts of the job description such as maintaining good body language, shaping the team in their image, etc., but leaving all that aside, the fact remains that we still like the idea of a boss with whom the responsibility stops. In cricket, he’s the captain: he faces up when the team loses and takes credit for the wins. Maybe it also makes sense, because the coach doesn’t really know the conditions in the middle, and that feeling of play is important for making crucial decisions. In it lies the assumption that, say, a Keshav Maharaj, as vice-captain, cannot make those decisions, but if Maharaj is made captain, the next person in line cannot make those decisions. And therein lies the assumption that these decisions are more crucial than runs and wickets.
It might not be ideal – it might be too disruptive – to do it in the middle of a big tournament, but it’s a conversation cricket needs to have: how important is captaincy? There are no data to measure the impact of the captaincy. Attributing a team’s winning and losing record to a captain is cricket’s oldest problem: it disregards the strength of the team or the opposition, and leaves undue credit and criticism at the captain’s gate.
Now that the ICC has ended the old tradition of banning captains due to excessive rates, here’s another thought: what would this cunning Sri Lankan team have done if they had an underperforming captain guarding a better option out of the XI?
Sidharth Monga is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo
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