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The Ashes: cricket and the captainís curse

By David Rowe, Keith Parry and Matt Smith - posted Tuesday, 30 July 2019


The caravan of contemporary sport moves on at relentless speed.  Barely two weeks after England’s dramatic win over New Zealand in the men’s Cricket World Cup Final created ecstatic headlines, a home Ashes series is about to commence.

This contest between England and Australia has been running since 1882 and always generates a great deal of interest, both in the game itself and as an opportunity to discuss the relationship between the two countries.  The pressure on the captains, Joe Root and Tim Paine, will be intense, with every strategic and tactical decision subjected to rigorous scrutiny by cricket professionals and fans alike.

But this time, after last year’s Sandpapergate scandal, there is a particular frisson.  This incident, which attracted media coverage even in countries where cricket is a minor sport, involved a conspiracy by Australian team captain Steve Smith, vice-captain David Warner and rookie batsman Cameron Bancroft to alter the condition of the ball illicitly in a match against South Africa.

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After being sprung on live TV, Smith’s initial admission at a media conference that evening was heavily criticised for misleading both match officials and the public.  He lost the captaincy and all were given lengthy suspensions, which have now been served.  Now Paine, Smith’s replacement as Australian captain, must not only deal with the regular demands of the role, but also of leading a side containing senior players Smith and Warner, and probably Bancroft. 

Root must also handle his captaincy duties following the reinstatement of Ben Stokes to the  vice-captaincy of the England test side after a fracas in Bristol led to a court case and absence from the dismal last Ashes tour of Australia.  The responsibilities of cricket captaincy have never been more in focus.

Over the years, England and Australian captains have had to deal with various forms of player misbehaviour.  A recent study by one of the authors used autobiographies as a data source to understand the stressors that international cricket captains face in their role.  For example, it highlighted the scrutiny from the media that captains must confront and the challenges of having to perform the dual role of leading the side while trying to focus on their own form as a player.

The captains’ autobiographies analysed in the study highlighted the travails of managing player misconduct.  In the case of Australia, this included Ricky Ponting fighting in a nightclub under Mark Taylor’s captaincy and, later, captain Ponting himself handling the fallout from Shane Warne being sent home from the 2003 World Cup.

On the last tour of Australia, Root needed to respond to Jonny Bairstow being criticised by partisan media for greeting Bancroft with a playful head-butt, and some unruly player behaviour in a bar in Perth.

A dilemma for captains is that they are meant to be at the apex of team hierarchy while also functioning as a team-mate, friend and even, like former England captain Mike Brearley, psychoanalyst.  The research highlights the instance of Australian captain Steve Waugh having to tell senior wicketkeeper (now TV commentator) Ian Healy that he was dropped from the one-day squad, effectively ending Healy’s one-day career. In his autobiography, Waugh describes his raw emotions: “totally gutted, experiencing a grief associated with separation.  I felt our relationship had changed in those torturous two minutes of strained conversation”

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A similar situation could occur for Root in the current Ashes series in his dealings with Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, two exceptional bowlers in the twilight of their careers.  Sometimes, the captain must feel like the Grim Reaper.  But their own performance is just as much on show, and captains are vulnerable to the charge that they are judging other players’ performance and conduct when their own might be unsatisfactory.

The study also highlighted much more extreme situations that captains have had to face.  During the 1996 World Cup, Australia’s Mark Taylor had round-the-clock armed guards in Calcutta after the team refused to play in Sri Lanka.  One of his successors, Michael Clarke, was confronted with the tragic death of team-mate and close friend Phillip Hughes on the field.  He captained his team against India only a few days later.

Root and Paine may have to address rather less consequential questions of player management as they run their respective cricket teams.  In many ways, their situation is little different from that of any middle manager in a conventional workplace who must simultaneously act as leader and colleague.

The critical difference is that their performance is being closely monitored on live TV and that millions will have a ready opinion about it.  Not to mention that, given the historical importance of the Ashes, the pride of two nations who were once coloniser and colonised is at stake.

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About the Authors

Dr David Rowe, FAHA, FASSA is Emeritus Professor of Cultural Research, Western Sydney University; Honorary Professor, University of Bath; and Research Associate, SOAS University of London.

Dr Keith D. Parry is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Winchester and an Associate Fellow of Western Sydney University. His research interests are based on the sociology of sport, with a focus on sports fandom and the spectator experience.

Dr Matt Smith is a Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology at the University of Winchester. He is a social psychologist with particular research interests in leadership and group dynamics.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by David Rowe
All articles by Keith Parry
All articles by Matt Smith

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