All the wickets are equal but one is more equal than others

Virat Kohli’s latest master class against England during the fourth test prompted some mental perambulations. The Indian captain arrived at the crease with his team in excess of two hundred and fifty runs adrift of their guests. Another quick wicket and England would have sensed the opportunity for a sizeable first innings lead. Kohli produced a near faultless display though and the match turned irrevocably in favour of the hosts. One particular question floated around my mind: how important was Kohli’s contribution from his position as skipper as opposed to middle-order batsman?

The term ‘captain’s innings’ has been bandied around cricketing circles for some time now but how important is such a concept? The travails of Alastair Cook and England’s batsmen appear to highlight how Kohli’s consistent contributions possess great value. Not with regard to the currency of runs but a different, less tangible commodity. Compare how Cook and his chums appear twitchy and nervous at the crease, apt to being dismissed cheaply or cowed into frittering their wickets away. In contrast, do some of India’s batsmen (Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara for instance) bat with more confidence safe in the knowledge that the skipper will produce? Admittedly, home conditions play a large part in their confidence but Kohli’s consistent brilliance as skipper surely imbibes extra assurance amongst the rest of the team. In contrast, Cook’s struggle for form and runs is unlikely to breed said confidence amongst his charges. In an era when the role of the captain arguably does not possess the same input as generations past (would Mike Brearley survive in the modern era with his brilliant knowledge of people but limited skills with the bat?) due to hyper-analysis and various performance coaches, is the overall onfield performance of the skipper now evermore crucial?

Cast one’s mind back and think of some of the great innings played in the last quarter of a century. Amongst those performances discussed in hushed tones is Graham Gooch’s belligerence versus the West Indies at Headingly in 1991 when carrying his bat to an unbeaten 154 (nobody else scored higher than 73 in the match) against the lustrous attack of Ambrose, Patterson, Marshall and Walsh. Or Mike Atherton’s ten hour tour de force against South Africa at the Wanderers in 1995. For non-English performances, how about Brian Lara’s astonishing and savage unbeaten 153 to deny Australia by a single wicket at Barbados four years later? All three innings are examples of stellar batting brilliance but how much more import is attached because they were performed by the team’s captain?
As captain of a team for a number of years, many of which have included either opening the batting or batting at 3 or 4, I have personally felt the weight of captaincy upon my personal innings. Does my performance matter that little bit more? On at least one occasion I have heard the opposition fielders, upon my arrival at the crease, chirp to each other: “Right, this is the captain. This is the big one.” Or words to such an effect. The opposition audibly voiced their belief that dismissing the opposition skipper as cheaply as possible possessed a little more gravitas and would provide them with an extra fillip toward winning the contest. The standard of the contest was of course many light years away from test match level but aren’t psychological aspects of the game (scoreboard pressure and momentum for instance) relevant for all formats of the sport?

Intriguingly, a similar point was made about erstwhile England captain Mike Atherton. Memories of the particular details escape my forgettory but the mental matter informs me that the South African bowling attack once highlighted that if they dismissed Atherton cheaply then they felt like they could remove the remainder of the England batsmen fairly comfortably. Atherton’s role as the team’s skipper and its vanguard focused that particular opposition into a mindset that underlined his import, akin to taking the Queen in a game of Chess. Such an attitude provokes intriguing thoughts regarding whether Atherton’s run scoring performances inspired his team-mates? Or whether they had an adverse effect on the opposition bowlers? And are such factors still important in the modern day game?

Ultimately, all the wickets are equal but is one more cherished? Does dismissing the skipper cheaply produce an intangible surge in the fielding team? The term ‘captain’s innings’ isn’t part of the cricket lexicon for no good reason.

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