In Brearley’s book, Dhoni doesn’t wash as captain

Mike Brearley, one of England’s finest captains, claimed recently that Mahendra Singh Dhoni was below the quality desired as Indian captain. Oh, yes, but then M. S. Dhoni, wicket-keeper, batsman and captain, would not have lost three Tests in a row if his players had performed as well as he did. By Ted Corbett.

Cricket captaincy. Now there’s a fiery subject for debate. Who’s the best captain? There’s a subject for toe-to-toe, shouting and screaming, “oh, you’re just biased”, red-faced, “don’t you talk to me like that,” mixed with a refusal to draw back and, finally, a determination to stick to your point of view whatever.

I raise the subject since Mike Brearley, one of England’s finest, wrote an oft quoted book on Captaincy and is generally considered to be an expert on the subject even though it is 33 years since he led England, claimed recently that Mahendra Singh Dhoni was below the quality desired as Indian captain.

His words came only a few days after I told a captain who led two English counties that I wished Dhoni had been England’s captain in the recent Test series. “He would certainly have been better than Alastair Cook,” said my friend, now long into his retirement like Brearley.

“He has a feel for the game, and I’m afraid Cook hasn’t.”

We will leave Cook’s name out of the rest of this piece. As leader of the side that won the last three Tests he has suddenly gained a reputation for captaincy greatness that I am not sure he deserves but that’s sport. Winning is everything and I’m not prepared to argue against that.

Brearley is reputed to be the best and I’m not going to protest at that call either, although in the era of their greatest triumphs he never led England against West Indies. He was also in the side only because of his leadership skills; his batting was rarely more than adequate.

Instead he managed to bamboozle the Australians and win the Ashes in the only result that matters to English fans. He would have had a shocking time against Michael Holding, Colin Croft, Wayne Daniel, Malcolm Marshall, Andy Roberts, Joel Garner and company and might have had to consult himself in his other role as a psychotherapist — yes, they used to call him Brearley the Brain — every time he faced their brutal deliveries.

The Aussies took their caps off to him, and one fast bowler Rodney Hogg said he had a “degree in people” and the idea he was the captain’s captain, the ideal skipper, the brightest of the bright has stuck.

Brearley has rivals for that title, but don’t be surprised. I told you that it was a debate for strong minds.

One was Len Hutton, perhaps England’s greatest opening batsman, who was brought up in that cradle of Yorkshire cricket at Pudsey. At the age of 16 he stopped a county game and asked the umpire to measure the pitch. True enough it was a foot too long.

Ray Illingworth, a candidate for that captain’s captain crown, reckoned Hutton was the greatest. “I was playing one of my first games for Yorkshire against Gloucestershire at Harrogate and he had me on to bowl very early,” he told me. “It was turning on the first morning and I got two wickets straight away. After three overs he takes me off and I go, ‘But I can bowl all this lot out, skipper,’ but he says, ‘No, Brian Close will get Tom Graveney with his big turn and then you can have the rest.’”

Illingworth finished off: “And that is the way it happened. I’ve seen nothing like it, before or since.”

All I will add is that young players often worship their first captain. Hutton went on to win back the Ashes in Australia, to get the best out of a young Frank Tyson by shortening his run-up and build the side that gave Peter May the basis of a great team in the 1950s and 1960s.

At the end of the 1960s and early 1970s it was Illingworth’s turn. He understood cricket and cricketers as few men have done, but he may have to lose a point or two because of his decisions over his own bowling. I mean he liked to bowl at the right time.

He also won the Ashes in Australia and a great deal of that success in 1970-1 was because of his tactical skill. Afterwards the team were relaxing on a yacht when Peter Lever, the workhorse fast medium bowler, fell overboard and had to be hauled out of the sea, more dead than alive.

Lever was a man noted for his wry sense of humour and when he came to, with his worried team mates around him, he said: “You know I thought for a minute there that I was a goner and that the skipper might have to bowl an over into the wind.”

Recently, another Yorkshireman told me Michael Vaughan had shown he was “a better captain than Ricky Ponting” during the 2005 Ashes series which was a fine compliment when you consider the Ponting success rate down the years.

I have concentrated on the English skippers because I know them best but we also have to look at Hansie Cronje — a fine captain despite his crooked ways — Imran Khan, a natural leader, Mark Taylor, a master of tactics and etiquette, Clive Lloyd, whose greatness lay in his ability to unite men of various islands, Arjuna Ranatunga, who gave the Aussies a run-around and Stephen Fleming, a one-man New Zealand rescue outfit.

Oh, yes, and M. S. Dhoni, wicket-keeper, batsman and captain, who would not have lost three Tests in a row if his players had performed as well as he did.