Allan Border talks to Ian Chappell ahead of the Sydney Test

Allan Border (left) and Ian Chappell inherited relatively weak Australian teams and passed on much stronger teams to their successors

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Stats feature

Which Test captains had the greatest effect on their team's fortunes?

Plus, the canniest captaincy tactics, the zaniest declarations, the luckiest toss winners, the overachievers, and more

Anantha Narayanan  |  

What does a football captain do? He wears an armband on the field, and perhaps receives a trophy at the end if it is a title match. That is all. Maybe that is also what a hockey captain does. The non-playing Davis Cup captain in tennis selects which players play the singles and doubles and perhaps discusses strategy. For some games like basketball and baseball, I do not know if a captain is needed at all.

In contrast, a Test captain in cricket, even if he is advised by the coach, bears the ultimate responsibility in these areas:

  • He handles the toss and decides whether to bat or field
  • The playing XI is largely selected by him
  • He determines the bowling sequence
  • He decides on the batting order
  • Who fields where is also partly his decision
  • He decides on declarations
  • Whether or not to review an umpire's decision when fielding is ultimately his decision
  • He has to take a firm call on tactical decisions - whether to play safe or aggressively
  • He has to perform - as a batter, bowler or wicketkeeper
  • He handles the media

Inarguably, a Test captain occupies the position of greatest responsibility among all sports.

How does one evaluate Test captaincy? It has to be a combination of objective, anecdotal and subjective evaluations. Since we do not have a handle on why exactly a captain does something on the field, many inferences have to be drawn. An intuitive change of bowler could result in a key wicket. He might place two fielders in close mid-off positions to snare a catch on the drive. How does one get such data elements from the scorecard? Virtually impossible.

While analysing a captain's career, looking only at the results he achieved is, at best, a surface-level analysis. Good results can be achieved by a captain who is fortunate to consistently lead very good teams. The true measure of what a captain achieved is also a measure of the relative strength of the teams he had under him and the teams that he was playing against, so we need innovative methods to measure success.

This analysis is in three parts: a numbers part, a people part, and an anecdotal one. It is current up to and including the Karachi save by Pakistan against New Zealand in early January. Except where indicated otherwise, the eligibility cut-off for all tables is minimum 20 Tests as captain.

A. The numbers behind the captains

This is a series of self-explanatory tables. In absolute numbers, Graeme Smith captained in the most Tests (109), won the most Tests (53), and lost the most too (29). Allan Border drew the most Tests (39). The captains in the tables below, however, are arranged not by absolute figures but percentage values.

Girish TS / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Smith leads the table for Tests captained in terms of the percentage those games accounted for among their total tally of matches: he played in 117 Tests and was a captain in 109 of these, a whopping 93%. Abdul Hafeez Kardar and Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, undisputed leaders of their respective emerging teams, also captained in a very high percentage of Tests. The man with "a degree in people", Mike Brearley, led in nearly 80% of the Tests he played, while in recent times Daren Sammy and Misbah-ul-Haq almost touched that mark.

When it comes to win percentages, Steve Waugh unsurprisingly leads, with a mighty 72%. Don Bradman won just over 60% of Tests he led in, as did Ricky Ponting. Virat Kohli is near the top, with nearly 60%.

The draws table is dominated by England captains, led by Mike Gatting and Mike Smith. Kapil Dev and Sunil Gavaskar too drew over 60% of their Tests each.

It is not a surprise that Zimbabwe's Alistair Campbell leads the losses percentage table, followed by Jason Holder for West Indies. David Gower's appearance next is perhaps unexpected but, as we will see later, Gower was a poor captain indeed.

Girish TS / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

We now come to captains' performances home and away. Waugh won 68% of his away Tests, a terrific performance. It is not a surprise that he is followed by Ponting. They are, in turn, followed by two great West Indians - Viv Richards and Clive Lloyd. Misbah, no doubt helped by the fact that UAE is considered an "away" location for Pakistan, splits these pairs. Kohli won 43% of his away Tests, but it is at home that he is king, having won over three out of every four Tests he led in. Waugh and Ponting follow. Kane Williamson and MS Dhoni are well placed on this table.

Girish TS / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Next we look at which captains did best and worst with the toss. In addition we also look at captains who decided to field first most often.

The laws of probability say that given a decent sample size, all captains should win around half of their tosses. Real life is quite different. Lindsay Hassett beat all odds and won three out of four tosses - across 24 Tests. That is statistically unbelievable. Garry Sobers won an amazing 69% of tosses in the 39 Tests in which he captained; Sanath Jayasuriya won 66% and Peter May 63%. These numbers are beyond explanation. At the other end, Wasim Akram, Bill Lawry and Javed Miandad lost nearly 65% of their tosses and Brendon McCullum just over 60%.

Kraigg Brathwaite has put the other team in almost every time he has won the toss. Geoff Howarth and Williamson also did this quite frequently.

We move on to a more analytical study. The table below covers the a captain's career performance taking into account Team Strength (TS) indices - his own team's as well as the opposition's.

Girish TS / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

We start with the Results Index (RI) value, which is based on the tried-and-tested 2-1-0 valuation: two points for a win, one for a draw and none for a loss. A 50% RI value in a career of 30 Tests as captain indicates a combination of ten wins, ten draws and ten losses. As such, it indicates a par value. Successful captains achieve higher values - 55% is above par, 60% well above par, 66.7% is excellent, and anything above 70% truly exceptional.

To determine the Performance Index of a captain, I divide his Career RI value by 55. This is to ensure that the Performance Index has a substantial weight. It would require an above-par RI of 55.0 to reach a Performance Index level of 1.0.

Then, for each Test the player captained in, I work out and sum up the Location-specific Team Strength Index values for his teams as well as the opposing teams. I determine the mean of these two values. The Team Strength Index (TSI) is determined by dividing the own team's mean TS value by the opposing team's mean TS value. The TSI, therefore, indicates the extent of difference between his own teams and opposing teams throughout his career as captain.

Finally, the Performance Index divided by the TSI gives us a clear indication of the player's overperformance or underachievement. A value above 1.0 means that he has done well and a value below 1.0 indicates that he has done poorly.

Here are the values for Bradman, to illustrate how this works:

Bradman captained Australia in 24 Tests. He won 15, drew six and lost three Tests. This works out to an RI value of 75% (36 out of a possible 48 points), and that converts to a Performance Index of 1.36 (75.0/55.0).

In these 24 Tests, the mean TS value for Australia was 65.4. The mean TS value for their opponents was 58.4. This works out to a TSI of 1.12 (65.4/58.4). It means that Bradman, on an average, captained teams with a 12% edge.

The final index ratio for Bradman, therefore, is 1.22 (1.36/1.12), indicating an overachievement of 22%.

Brearley had a final index value of 1.18. Ian Chappell was close behind at 1.14. Kardar led a poor team but still achieved a ratio of 1.13.

At the other end of the table, the prominent names are Brian Lara, Bishan Bedi and Gower. All took over declining teams and had rather average careers as captain, with ratios around 0.65.

The next two tables cover the contrasting ways in which cricketers performed when they were just players versus when they were player-captains. Here I have used the sturdy Runs-per-Test (RpT) and Wickets-per-Test (WpT) values rather than averages. The cut-offs are 1000 runs while playing as a captain for batters and 50 wickets as captain for bowlers.

Girish TS / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Bowling allrounders who led their teams improved their batting dramatically when captaining. Look at the numbers of the top three: Ray Illingworth, Heath Streak and Daniel Vettori. Maybe they pushed themselves up the order and batted in better company. Bobby Simpson, Graham Gooch, Chappell and Misbah also batted a lot better while leading their teams than when not.

Sourav Ganguly's batting dropped the most when he was captain. Later in the article we see that Ganguly and Chappell did very well as captains. However, captaincy had a diametrically opposite effect on their performances as batters, when compared to each other.

Girish TS / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

In contrast to their output with the bat, bowling-allrounder captains - Sammy, Illingworth, Streak and Imran Khan - performed poorly in the bowling department when captain. On the other hand, two other allrounders, Richie Benaud and Sobers, raised their bowling game dramatically while leading. Bedi, too, thrived on the additional responsibility.

It is possible that captains tended to bowl themselves more when they led, which accounts for their higher returns in WpT terms. This is certainly true for Benaud, whose 40 overs per match as a player jumped to 64 overs per match as captain - a 40% increase - as well as for Sobers. Bedi had only a marginal increase. Holder actually curtailed his bowling, as did Imran. The bowling table, therefore, has to be viewed with a pinch of salt by the side.

The last table in this section looks at outstanding contributions of captains in individual Tests. The qualification criterion is that the team should have secured at least 33.33 Team Performance points - that is, a decent draw or fighting loss at a minimum. The methodology for calculating individual batting points, bowling points and team points can be found here.

Girish TS / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Topping the list is Holder, who contributed over 40% of his team's efforts in a match West Indies lost to Sri Lanka. Back in 1955 against Australia, Denis Atkinson, with a record seventh-wicket partnership and consistent bowling, contributed nearly 37% of his team's performance.

Sobers' magnificent all-round efforts in Leeds in 1966 won the match for West Indies, as did Vettori's in Chittagong and Border's in Sydney against a powerful West Indies side.

The entries featured here are predominantly all-round performances. The best specialist contribution is Courtney Walsh's 13 wickets in Wellington in 1995. In batting, Michael Clarke's 151 in Cape Town in 2011 falls just outside the list. Sobers and Imran have two entries each on this table and three each in the top 20.

One of the greatest upsets in Test history was Afghanistan defeating Bangladesh away in 2019. Rashid Khan's match performance as captain - 11 wickets and 75 runs - was phenomenal. But his total of 21.0 points clocks in at 29.2% of his team's, and just misses the cut: Afghanistan secured 71.7 match points, a tribute to their very comfortable win.

B. Captains who transformed their teams

Now for the part of the article where we determine the impact captains have had on their teams, by determining three Result Indices based on the same 2-1-0 points system explained earlier.

The first RI is for the last ten Tests the team played before the captain in question took over. This is a group of Tests likely to cover two to four series, and so, long enough to give us a clear indication of the state of the team the captain inherited.

The second figure is the career RI for the captain. This is a clear indication of how the captain performed. Did the team's performance go up or down, or did they maintain status under him?

Finally, we will look at the RI for his last ten Tests as captain. This is a clear indication of how he left the team for his successor. In this analysis, it is a secondary measure.

Using the three indices, we get a clear handle on what the captain inherited, how he performed, and what he left behind.

I have adopted the following guidelines for selection in the first graphic:

  • The captain's career RI should at least match the inherited RI. I have selected high-flyers who have this ratio at well above 100% - some even over 200%
  • The captain's career RI should be at least 55, ideally higher
  • Their RI at the time they left the captaincy cannot be below 50

For the second graphic, the selection criteria are the opposite to those of the first table. The two graphics are presented in order of the ratio between the inherited RI and career RI. I have featured captains who led in at least 24 Tests.

Girish TS / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Ganguly inherited a disorganised and weak team, led in a lacklustre manner by Sachin Tendulkar and Mohammad Azharuddin, with a very poor RI of 25%. He ended up with a good career with an RI of 58.3, helping the team improve its performance by a remarkable 233%. In his last ten Tests he had an excellent RI of 80.0, leaving the team in very good shape.

Howarth inherited a New Zealand team with very poor results (25.0), at a time when they did not have much success. He had a captaincy career with a lot more wins than losses (56.7), and left the team in good shape (60.0). Chappell's performance was similar, and Border's marginally lower. Both Chappell's and Border's were good figures for two decidedly rough periods for Australia.

Kohli inherited a 35.0 team, had a career RI of 67.2, and left with 60.0 in the last ten Tests. Bradman inherited a good team (75.0), had a great career as captain (75.0), and left the team in outstanding shape (90.0).

Girish TS / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

We now consider captains under whom the side slid. Tendulkar had an eminently forgettable career as captain. No doubt he inherited a poor team but he could not make any improvements and he finished very poorly.

Pataudi inherited a middling team but, contrary to his reputation, the figures show that he had a poor captaincy career and left the team in sub-par shape. His last ten Tests present a challenge, as they are split over two periods separated by five years, yet taken together, the ten matches were not great for India.

Lara could not make any headway with a team that lost its stars quickly. That was the case with Sobers, who, despite taking over a very good team, could not even reach 50% with his career RI. Gower had a terrible captaincy career, attaining a paltry RI value of 29.7.

C. An anecdotal survey

After hours of analysing the scores and perusing the stories behind the Tests concerned, I have selected 21 Tests in which captains used tactical moves that resulted either in great wins or lost opportunities. Thus, I look at both ends of the spectrum.

1. Innovative tactics by captains
Rawalpindi, 2022: England 657 and 264 for 7d beat Pakistan 579 and 268 by 74 runs
The first match featured is the out-of-the-world win by England in Rawalpindi a few months ago. This was arguably the greatest demonstration of captaincy ever, by Ben Stokes. Let me summarise why.

Stokes and England understood that it was a dead pitch and scored at 6.5 runs an over in the first innings. They stepped this up to over 7 when they got an opening on the fourth morning, scoring at over 7. The declaration was timed perfectly, leaving the match open. England used the short ball to get key early wickets in the second innings, and then switched to reverse swing and spin. They delayed taking the second new ball, and got their spinner to use it when they did take it.

Brisbane, 1950: Australia 228 and 32 for 7d beat England 68 for 7d and 122 by 70 runs
A match of bizarre, but tactical, declarations on a Brisbane sticky. Freddie Brown declared over 150 runs behind and Hassett countered with a declaration at 32 for 7. Australia then bowled England out to win comfortably.

Bridgetown, 1935: West Indies 102 and 51 for 6d lost to England 81 for 7d and 75 for 6 by four wickets
A match somewhat similar to the previous one but with a lower first-innings score. This time England, led by Bob Wyatt, won chasing a low total. Wyatt and Jackie Grant also juggled their batting orders. Grant's final declaration was very generous indeed.

Melbourne, 1937: Australia 200 for 9d and 564 beat England 76 for 9d and 323 by 365 runs
England declared over 100 runs behind. Bradman countered by sending his bowlers in first, came in at 97 for 5 and scored a masterly 270. Australia won by a huge margin. Great tactical masterstrokes by the master batter.

Johannesburg, 1902: Australia 175 and 309 beat South Africa 240 and 85 by 159 runs
After conceding a crucial lead, Warwick Armstrong recovered by changing Australia's batting order. He opened the innings with Syd Gregory and carried his bat through for 159. The final target proved too many for England.

2. Win the toss, field first - and succeed
There are several instances in which captains have put the opposition in to bat and bowled them out for a sub-100 totals. Here are the most notable ones.

Auckland, 2018: England 58 and 320 lost to New Zealand 427 for 8d by an innings and 49 runs
Williamson inserted a reasonably strong England team, New Zealand dismissed them for 58 and went on to win by an innings.

Hobart, 2016: Australia 85 and 161 lost to South Africa 326 by an innings and 80 runs Faf du Plessis inserted the strong home team, saw them dismissed for 85, and South Africa won by an innings. To do this at Hobart, not exactly a bowler-friendly ground, was indeed commendable.

Melbourne, 2010: Australia 98 and 258 lost to England 513 by an innings and 157 runs
The visiting English team, led by Andrew Strauss, put in the strong Australian team, bowled them out for 98, then scored heavily and won comfortably.

Kandy, 1994: Sri Lanka 71 and 234 lost to Pakistan 357 for 9d by an innings and 52 runs
The visiting captain, Saleem Malik, armed with a very strong bowling attack, sent in the home team in Kandy. The pace bowling pair of the Ws dismissed them for 71, paving the way for a comfortable win.

3. Win the toss, field first - and fail
In the instances below, a captain chose to bowl, but the team conceded over 600 runs and lost the game. I have left out four Tests in which weak teams were in this situation (Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and West Indies twice).

Lord's, 1990: England 653 for 4d and 272 for 4d beat India 454 and 224 by 247 runs

Headingley, 1989: Australia 601 for 7d and 230 for 3d beat England 430 and 191 by 210 runs

Sydney, 1969: Australia 619 and 394 for 8d beat West Indies 279 and 352 by 382 runs

Brisbane 1954: Australia 601 for 8d beat England 190 and 257 by an innings and 154 runs

What prompted Azharuddin, Gower, Sobers, and Len Hutton to put the other team in on good batting pitches is something only they can answer. Well, they certainly paid the price.

4. Not enforcing the follow-on and missing out on a win
I have selected these matches because of the way the teams came close to a win, and missed out narrowly. There are other Tests in which the follow-on was not enforced but the teams comfortably held out for draws.

Karachi, 2022: Australia 556 for 9d and 97 for 2d drew with Pakistan 148 and 443 for 7
Australia secured a 400-plus first-innings lead, batted for 22 overs in the second dig, and declared. Pakistan held on for 171 overs. A follow-on might very well have secured them a win. Pat Cummins probably missed a trick.

Dubai, 2018: Pakistan 482 and 181 for 6d drew with Australia 202 and 362 for 8
A spin-heavy Pakistan, led by Sarfaraz Ahmed, secured a first-innings lead of 280 and decided to bat again. The 60 overs they took in the second innings cost them as they finished two wickets short.

Antigua, 2009: England 566 for 9d and 221 for 8d drew with West Indies 285 and 370 for 9
Very similar to the previous match. This time England needed a single wicket at the end. Strauss decided not to enforce the follow-on.

The Oval, 2007: India 664 and 180 for 6d drew with England 345 and 369 for 6
India, leading the series going into the final Test, secured a first-innings lead of well over 300, decided to bat again, scored at a pedestrian pace, and missed out on a win. Rahul Dravid, the captain, scored 12 in 96 balls in India's second innings.

Kingston, 1929-30: England 849 and 272 for 9d drew with West Indies 286 and 408 for 5
Granted, this was a timeless Test. However, having batted over two days for 849 runs, England secured a lead of over 550, and instead of enforcing the follow-on, batted again for 80 overs. Finally, George Headley saved West Indies, batting out the seventh day. Freddie Calthorpe was the muddled "gentleman"-captain of England.

5. Quixotic declarations in third innings and losing the match
Sydney, 2006: South Africa 451 for 9d and 194 for 6d lost to Australia 359 and 288 for 2 by eight wickets
Graeme Smith made a challenging declaration in this away match, giving Australia 76 overs in which to score 287 runs. Australia breezed through with time to spare. The Proteas bowling was not strong enough to warrant this risk.

Port-of-Spain, 1968: West Indies: 526 for 7d and 92 for 2d lost to England 404 and 215 for 3 by seven wickets
What was Sobers thinking? That he could dismiss a strong England team within two sessions with a weak bowling attack? Maybe one of his racing punts. But it was at best a quixotic declaration.

Port Elizabeth, 1949: South Africa 379 and 187 for 3d lost to England 395 and 174 for 7 by three wickets
Worse than the Sobers declaration above was Dudley Nourse's in 1949, which left South Africa half a day in which to get ten wickets while leaving a very strong English team a sub-200 target. The only post-facto justification could have been the seven wickets that England lost.

While featuring these Tests, I have not included those declarations that gave the declaring teams good chances - Headingley 1948; Headingley 2001; and Port-of-Spain, 1976.

Who would I want captaining an all-time World XI?

Bradman, Lloyd, Steve Waugh, Chappell and Ponting immediately come to mind. I am not completely confident about Lloyd's use of spinners. Waugh and Ponting led outstanding teams very well and Waugh had a better overall record than Ponting. Chappell led a not-so-powerful team very well. Among the dark horses, Ganguly lost his batting form when captain, Brearley makes it a ten-player team, and Kohli is too abrasive for my liking.

On balance, I would go for Bradman - the greatest batter ever by a mile and an astute tactician who knew how to use top-quality spinners very well. Maybe also for the simple reason that Bradman is the only player certain of his place in an all-time World XI.

Anantha Narayanan has written for ESPNcricinfo and CastrolCricket and worked with a number of companies on their cricket performance ratings-related systems