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Naming the Vice Captain

2017 Feb 15 by Suresh Menon

All teams need a combination of natural aggression and natural calm at the top. If the captain is aggressive, in-your-face, belligerent, team balance is best served by having a vice captain who is composed and controlled.

I don’t know how much thought goes into naming the vice captain of a team. Once the captaincy is decided, the job sometimes goes to the senior most player among the rest. This is illogical, since chances are that if the captain and vice captain belong to the same generation, they will leave the game around the same time. Most current captains, however, were marked out at an early age and simply grew into their roles.

Joe Root, the new England captain turned 26 in December last. His vice captain Ben Stokes will get there in June. Yet if that seems like a successful pairing now, it is for another reason which might be more important than the age gap. It is the gap in temperament.

All teams need a combination of natural aggression and natural calm at the top. If the captain is aggressive, in-your-face, belligerent, team balance is best served by having a vice captain who is composed and controlled. And vice versa. The decision to name Stokes, the combative, confrontational all rounder as vice captain to the increasingly amiable and fun-loving Root should serve English cricket well. Stokes is climbing towards the rung occupied by all rounders similar in temperament – Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff – and indicated recently that captaincy may not be his cup of tea.

But no matter. Great vice captains need not necessarily make great captains. Neither Botham nor Flintoff will be remembered as captains, although their all-round skills will always be recalled with awe. If England see Stokes as a more useful No. 2 than the main man, while someone younger (or older) comes through the system, that is a call for selectors to make. Shane Warne was a terrific vice captain to Steve Waugh – duly acknowledged by the latter – but would he have made a terrific captain? We can only speculate.

In India Rahul Dravid was vice captain to Sourav Ganguly, and that clicked. Some of the best men never to have led their countries, have, nevertheless, been crucial to the success of those who did. Len Hutton had Trevor Bailey by his side, Waugh had Warne, Tiger Pataudi had Chandu Borde (who led in one Test).

Skipper Virat Kohli is so well established in his job that India’s national selectors do not bother to name his deputy. The main candidates in the team just announced to play Australia in the first two Tests are all older than Kohli. Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara were born in the same year as Kohli, 1988, while R Ashwin is a couple of years older. Murali Vijay is four years senior.

Traditionally, in home series, India do not name a vice captain, although the selectors might have decided on a name. This has caused embarrassment in the past when the captain has had to leave the field even for a few overs; the Indian team has then looked rudderless. Sometimes when a senior man has taken over, he has been told that someone else should do the job.

This might have been because, again traditionally, no Indian captain has been a hero to his vice captain, and sometimes two power centres in the team have caused problems. But Kohli’s team, much like Dhoni’s team earlier, has been a far tighter unit than Indian teams of the past. Both these captains have enjoyed the authority to nominate their deputies to handle things in their absence, although neither has needed to use that authority.

Still, it does make sense to have a vice captain named before the team takes the field. The candidate with the strongest claims, Rahane, led an Indian team to Zimbabwe and was vice captain to Kohli on the tour of the West Indies. He is Mr Calm to Kohli’s Mr Aggro, and that is exactly what a team needs at the top. This combination is set to serve Indian cricket for a while, so there is no immediate danger of the two best Test batsmen in the side leaving a vacuum at the top.

The case for Ashwin is strong. He is a thinking player, understands the needs of the team and has been its biggest match-winner. Bowler-captains, however, tend to make selectors nervous. Only four of India’s 32 captains have been pure bowlers.

If the Indian captain is expected to lead in all three formats of the game, a possible future vice captain might be Lokesh Rahul. He is 25, intelligent, and while currently labeled an all-or-nothing batsman, scoring big hundreds one moment and failing miserably the next, he has time on his side.

Root led in only four first class games before landing the England job. With his appointment, the Fab Four (the attraction of that label never dies) of modern batsmanship are now captains of their teams: Steve Smith, Kane Williamson, Kohli and Root.

No one talks about Fab Four or Terrific Three or Deadly Duo among vice captains, but that is the nature of sport.