Oh this one’s tough. Is it Chris Cowdrey, the Honourable Lionel Tennyson, or John Emburey? There have been so many fantastic skippers over the years – not to mention some best forgotten short lived experiments – that it’s almost impossible to choose. Thankfully however, we don’t cower in the face of impossibility here at TFT. If you want to know who the best England cricket captain of recent times was then you’ve come to the right place.
First of all let’s set out the scope of this debate. I didn’t start watching cricket until the mid to late 1980s. Therefore there’s no point in anyone bleating “but what about Gubby Allen?” in the comments below. I wasn’t even a glint in my grandfather’s eye back in the 1930s so I’m afraid I’m simply not qualified to judge. Therefore this ‘analysis’ will begin with David ‘Lubo’ Gower.
Personally I loved Lubo. However, for all his considerable talents – winding up Graham Gooch probably being the best of them – Gower was probably too laid back to be considered a great England cricket captain. He couldn’t half read a match, and generally kept his sense of humour throughout, but a great Ashes win at home aside, an overall record of won 5, lost 18, and drawn 9 doesn’t really cut the mustard.
Next up was Mike ‘chuck us a pie’ Gatting. When I first started watching cricket, Gatt’s skippering skills were apparently legendary. He’d led England to a famous 2-1 victory away from home in the 1986-87 Ashes – a feat that wasn’t repeated for another 24 years – and that seemed enough for some to consider him the second coming of Mike Brearley.
Sadly, however, what not a lot of people know is that those two wins down under were the only two Tests (out of 23) that Fat Gatt actually won. He finished with a curious record of won 2, lost 5, and drawn 16 (yes, sixteen). Perhaps his team couldn’t bat, couldn’t bowl, and couldn’t field after all. No wonder he got the hump with Pakistani umpire Shakoor Rana. He couldn’t buy a win.
Next up was John Emburey (played two, lost two), the legendary Chris Cowdrey (played one, lost one), and then Graham Gooch. The less said about the first two the better. England desperately needed a couple of punchbags to absorb the blows delivered by the rampant 1988 West Indians, and these two just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Things slowly started improving, however, when Graham ‘Zappa’ Gooch came on the scene. The moustached Goochie, which sounded to me like a rival fashion brand to Gucci, briefly managed to turn a sinking ship around. We beat Sri Lanka, we beat New Zealand, and we also beat India in between getting hammered by the Aussies away, and then hammered again by the Aussies at home. The latter defeat spelled the end for the ageing skipper with his iconic mo.
Gooch was a strange specimen as England cricket captain. The positives were that he restored some pride and he instilled some discipline. What’s more, he was outstanding as a batsman – he averaged a whopping 59 when ‘burdened’ by the captaincy. The problem, of course, is that he was about as flexible as a plaster cast. It was his way or the highway. And for some very talented cricketers, including my beloved Lubo, it ended up being the highway. Had he been more accommodating then he might have finished with a better record than won 10, lost 12, drawn 12.
Old Zap’s replacement was briefly Allan Lamb. He won nowt and lost three. This led to the temporary reign of Alec Stewart, who managed to add another two Tests to England’s runs of consecutive losses. At this point, however, the selectors decided to invest all their shares in a fresh faced Lancastrian called FEC Atherton. FEC, of course, were initials his county teammates attached to his dressing room peg – Future. England. Captain.
In 1993, at the age of just 25, FEC suddenly because CEC. He managed one-off wins against the Aussies and the Windies (England still lost the series though) before the current England captain eventually stamped his personality and authority on the side.
For a while it looked like things might be improving. Team Athers beat New Zealand, drew with South Africa, drew with the Windies, beat India but continued to lose to Australia (although there was the odd outstanding and unexpected performance like Edgbaston in 1997). We only lost that series 2-3 by the way.
Unfortunately, however, a problem called Ray Illingworth soon began to undermine Atherton’s regime. The Yorkie and the Lancy clashed like cat and dog – who’d have thunk it? – and it wasn’t long before Athers was sunk. There was also an incident with dirt in a pocket but we won’t go there.
Overall I think Atherton was a thoroughly decent England cricket captain. He was super bright, knew what he wanted, and he generally batted heroically. In fact, there were times when Athers seemed to be holding the side together singlehandedly. The main problem, of course, was that his team was generally pretty crap. Not even Lionel Tennyson could’ve got more out of that motley crew. His team managed 13 wins, 21 losses, and 20 draws.
Next up was Alec Stewart. Obviously opening the batting and keeping wicket wasn’t enough for this glutton for punishment. The masochist wanted the captaincy too. So how did he do? Not bad to be honest.
Like Athers, Sir Alec didn’t have the advantage of great players. However, he did have Darren Gough (when fit) and a certain Dean Headley (when fit). The result was that famous win at the MCG in 1998.
Although England lost that Ashes series 1-3 it could’ve been 2-2 had Simon Awful not been wearing canary yellow tinted glasses at the SCG. Michael Slater was clearly run out but third umpire Awful apparently decided not to look at the many camera angles that proved it. Instead he chose one single angle where the crease was obscured by a fielder; therefore he decided there was enough doubt to save the batsman’s bacon. Slater obviously went on to score a century – despite walking back towards the pavilion himself when he saw the replay on the big screen. His runs proved to be the difference between the sides.
Stewart was one of the better England captains of the inconsistent 1990s. He beat South Africa and the Windies at home, but lost to Sri Lanka and Pakistan away. Was he the best skipper we’ve ever had? No. But we do remember him fondly as an able leader? Of course. His won 4, lost 8, drawn 3 record wasn’t great but he was totally devoted to the cause.
When Sir Alec stepped down the next man up was Beaky Hussain. When Nasser’s team initially lost to New Zealand at home we literally reached rock bottom – we were dead last in the world rankings. However, Naz was a stubborn sod desperate to turn the team around. And somehow he managed to do so.
Nasser’s partnership with wily old Duncan Fletcher was arguably the best captain / coach combination we’ve ever had. They forged a disciplined team that showed tremendous fight and pulled off some of England’s most famous wins of the modern era – the double success in Sri Lanka and Pakistan will long live in the memory.
Yes there was the odd disaster – who can forget his decision to bowl first at Brisbane in 2002 and his fateful decision to call Graeme Smith ‘what’s his name’? – but England really started to compete during Nasser’s time in charge. They won 5 series in a row between 2000 to 2001, and I cannot stress this enough, Nasser was the first England cricket captain to finish with a winning record since Bob Willis in 1984. He won 17, lost 15, and drew 13. Quite tidy really.
Nasser’s exit brought about another successful era under Michael Vaughan. The series wins soon began to pile up, and they did so by huge margins too. ‘Virgil’ only lost two of his first ten series – single Test reverses against Sri Lanka and Pakistan away – but his team swept everyone else before them including, most famously, the 2005 Australians. The greatest Ashes series in history? Yes it probably was.
This period of success seemed unprecedented to a twenty-something supporter like me. I’d been brought up on 0-3 and 0-4 defeats not brilliant wins against the Aussies and South Africa. I could hardly believe it. Having been reduced to a cynical shell of a man – a man who’d grown used to metaphorical kicks in the nadgers every time he checked the cricket score – the psychological wounds slowly began to heal. Maybe life wasn’t so cruel after all?
Or was it? The 5-man attack that served Vaughan so well soon hit the treatment tables harder than a drunk hits a bottle of JD at the end of a bad night. Simon Jones got crocked. Flintoff too got crocked. Harmison lost his mojo. Hoggard was inexplicably axed. And even his spinner Ashley Giles managed to irrevocably damage his hip.
The batting also fell away. Trescothick’s mental demons finally got the better of him, Vaughan himself couldn’t quite recover from a bad knee injury, and Geraint Jones went from useful keeper-batsman to useless keeper-keeper. The 0-5 reverse in Australia summed up how bad things had got (although Vaughan was personally absent).
Having said that, although it all went pear shaped in the end, Vaughan’s team was (in my humble opinion) the best England side I’ve seen. They played positive cricket without trying (this was no artificial approach encouraged by the board) and Vaughan himself turned out to be a natural captain – an excellent leader whose positivity rubbed off on his players, and a fine tactician who seemed to make the right calls at the right time. Basically Vaughan was a very good England cricket captain indeed. He won 26, lost just 11, and drew 14.
After a brief experiment with Freddie, a pedalo, and an Ashes whitewash, and then another short-lived experiment with KP and a man called Moores, England finally turned to the bloke who should’ve got the job in the first place – a certain Sir Andrew Strauss esq. Another era of success ensured. Indeed, Strauss’s troops finally managed to top the world rankings before it inevitably fell apart again.
The Strauss / Flower axis was a goodun. They were two men of similar mind. They valued discipline, hard work, and unfortunately for Pietersen had an almost zealous preoccupation with that nebulous concept ‘team culture’.
This formula worked well for quite some time. We won the series we were expected to win efficiently. We narrowly won the Ashes back at home, and then beat Australia away for the first time since Gatting’s lot triumphed in 1986. The only disappointment was that Strauss never managed to beat the Cricket Boks.
Although Strauss’s time as England cricket captain finished with a series of underwhelming performances, including a horrible 0-3 loss in the UAE and a shocker against South Africa when the opposition amassed 637-2 at The Oval, Sir Andrew left with his head held high. He didn’t quite win as many games as the Thunderbirds puppet but a record of won 24, lost 11, drawn 15 was a record to be proud of.
It was no surprise when Strauss clone Alastair Cook succeeded one of his mentors. In fact, a partnership of Cook and Flower promised more continuity than a Darth Sidious’s clone army. The famous culture hardly missed a beat. The result was a historic triumph in India in 2012-13 in which Cook batted absolutely superbly.
There was just one problem, however. Cook ultimately couldn’t lead like Strauss. And by the time his team arrived in Australia to defend the Ashes in 2013, change not continuity was required.
Our second Ashes whitewash down under in 2013 shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Thankfully for Cook, however, the ECB decided to make Pietersen the scapegoat and also moved Flower into a lower profile role. I can’t remember the exact reasons why Alastair himself survived but I recall the words ‘right sort of family’ ringing in everyone’s ears.
When Flower departed the ECB replaced him with that useless Moores chap again. Why? Because Paul Downton had less of a clue than the average contestant on Give Us A Clue. Cook was pretty much doomed from this point. Yes England were still good enough to beat the weaker teams but the real challenges proved far too tough.
Although he could ‘lead from the front’ i.e. not actually say anything useful and simply score runs (well, at least he scored runs when he wasn’t going through one of his lengthy slumps) Cook proved to be a likeable but ultimately ineffectual England cricket captain. There were morale boosting wins against Australia at home in 2015, South Africa in 2015-16, and India in 2014, but there was always the feeling that England were flattering to deceive against other sides in transition.
There were also some terrible defeats. The 0-1 home reverse against Sri Lanka felt a bit like the defeat to New Zealand at the start of Nasser’s tenure, and a disastrous 0-4 thrashing in India in 2016-17 finished Chef off.
Because Cook had more media supporters than any skipper I can remember, some pundits pretended he was England’s greatest ever captain because he led the team for a record 59 games. This is obviously nonsense though. His overall record was mixed – 24 wins, 22 losses, and 13 draws. It wasn’t bad, don’t get me wrong, but after the successful Vaughan and Strauss years it very much felt like a regression.
The problem for Alastair was that he inherited a team somewhat in decline. Meanwhile, the so called ECB ‘player pathway’ (yuk!) couldn’t find adequate replacements for the like of Bell, Pietersen, Trott, and Swann. However, what Chef did have was Anderson, Broad, Root and himself – that’s not a bad quartet to build a team around.
Consequently Cook underwhelmed as a leader. He often seemed to skipper the side by numbers and he never had the tactical flair of a Vaughan or even the ability to galvanise players like Hussain.
So there are your runners and riders ladies and gents. Who was the best England cricket captain? We could have a conversation about Joe Root too but his chapter in England’s history isn’t yet complete. And, to be honest, it doesn’t exactly promise a happy ending as yet.
Overall we’re basically left with a shootout between Hussain, Vaughan, and Strauss. Which one wins the TFT prize? My personal feeling is that we should eliminate Strauss first. Why? Because despite being a man of intelligence and integrity he never showed the flexibility or creativity of Vaughan or even Hussain.
Strauss’s success was essentially built on attrition. England bowled dry to take wickets. There was no real tactical invention. Yes England were very good under Strauss, but they were sometimes difficult to love. They were like a machine and ultimately lacked a bit of charisma as a unit. They were also unable to adapt when the overall methodology started to go south – the whitewash in the UAE being the prime example. They could only play one way.
But what about Hussain and Hussain’s England? Was Nasser better than Vaughan? He did take a failing team with a shortage of talent and turn them into a respectable unit after all. Indeed, one could argue that Virgil’s success would’ve been impossible without the foundation that Hussain built.
There’s just one factor that gives the edge to the adopted Yorkshireman though – his personality. Nasser was very intense. Some would say too intense. He also doubted himself at times and could be incredibly stubborn. Naz was exactly what England needed at that time, of course, but I doubt he’d have captained a more talented team as well. Indeed, he might even have been as divisive as Gooch had his star player been someone like Gower – or even, dare I say it, Pietersen.
Vaughan, on the other hand, got the best out of everyone he captained. Whilst Hussain insisted stubbornly on making Giles bowl outside Tendulkar’s leg stump, Vaughan always seemed to have a more eye-catching plan up his sleeve. He also filled everyone with confidence with his relaxed but confident demeanour.
Duncan Fletcher once said of Vaughan “he is quite outgoing and laid-back, but there is a toughness in him, which any good captain needs. He is pro-active and, while he has had good bowlers, he has managed them well.” This tells me that he was a better England cricket captain than Hussain. If Hussain’s best attribute was toughness, then this is a clearly a quality that Vaughan had in spades too.
The problem for Nasser is that this doesn’t apply in reverse. Did Nasser share Vaughan’s best attributes too? Sadly not. Nasser was an excellent leader and talisman but he didn’t have Vaughan’s infectious positivity, tactical acumen, nor his innate ability to make a shrewd move at exactly the right time.
But that’s just my view. What’s yours? And I’m not taking Gubby Allen for an answer.