Whenever there’s a debate around the next captain for any test team, the shortlist, inevitably starts and ends with batsmen. Bowlers are rarely even considered, let alone appointed. So few and far between have long term bowling captains been that you can count them on your fingertips and yet might go as far as the 80s.
There is a variety of reasons floated for this perceived injustice. Some justified and others not so much. For instance, that bowlers get injured more frequently is true and justified. However, this largely applies to fast bowlers and not spinners. Why then, is a quality spinner denied the honour?
Another reason I hear often is about the guarantee of a spot in the XI. This too is somewhat fair since a team typically plays six batsmen, one keeper and four bowlers, in differing combinations of pace and spin. While with the batsmen, their batting style matters comparably less than bowlers’ when picking a team for conditions. However, every team usually has one or two bowlers who make it to the team sheet irrespective of pitch or conditions.
Lastly, I present the most persuasive and enduring reason which was even cited by Don Bradman in his book. I paraphrase here, “Bowlers do not make good captains as they cannot objectively judge their own bowling and end up overbowling or underbowling themselves.” This makes sense. It should be easier for a non bowling captain to marshal his resources according to the match situation than for a bowler, who carries the additional burden of making those decisions for himself and this clearly involves a conflict of interest. This logic has survived for at least a century and has denied many a bowlers a deserving honour across the world. And this is something we take a closer look at.
The hypothesis is that there is going to be that there’s an unjustifiably significant gap in the number of over bowled by a bowler in matches he played under others vis-a-vis those where he was the captain himself. I have deliberately added an extra condition to cover for situations where bowlers who were doing significantly better should ideally bowl more and those doing worse should bowl less.
Additionally, we should consider what gap is significant. On average, a bowler who goes on to captain the side, bowls about 22 overs/innings pre captaincy. A 15% increase here means 3 additional overs which is arguably acceptable. In the interest of simplicity, let us consider this as the boundary condition, i.e., any captain bowling 15% more or less than he bowled as player, with no substantial change in performance is making bad calls.
Unfortunately the dataset is limited for players who have captained their sides for 10 or more matches and qualify as regular bowlers, bowling upwards of 15 overs per innings. With these guardrails in place, let us have a look at the findings
On average, the 22 players who fit the criteria have underbowled by 4%, which translates to less than an over per innings. They have seen no aggregate change in average. So, on the face of it, there does not seem to be much difference in how a bowler bowls as a player or as captain. However, a lake that’s 4 feet deep on average is unsafe. So, let us take a closer look.
Of the 22 examined, 3 bowlers significantly overbowled as captain. These are Richie Benaud, Sir Garfield Sobers and Daniel Vettori who increased their workload by 37%, 32% and 17% respectively. Without getting into situational context, among the three, Benaud also saw his average improve by a whopping 10% while the other two saw no change on either side.
Coming to the “lazier” captains, there are only two. One is Monty Noble of Australia, who played at the turn of the 20th century. He bowled 1/5th less as a captain or about 4 overs. The other and most intriguing is Fazal Mahmood of Pakistan. He reduced his workload by a good 6 overs (18%) WHILE his average improved by 29%. I must admit that I do not know the context of this but it would be very keen to learn about that.
To summarise, out of the 23 players examined, 5 or about 23% have deviated from their earlier workload. And if we justify Benaud’s deviation and remove Noble from the set, it leaves us with 14%.
Note: This still does not give us information from the planes which did not return*, i.e., we do not know about the bowlers who were denied the opportunity, such as, say Shane Warne or Murali. One possibility is that the selectors are smart enough to judge a bowler and only promote those to captaincy who they think can make the right call, even about themselves. The other possibility is that the selectors go by conventional wisdom and avoid backing a bowler because…. tradition.
*The planes that did not return
Note 2: Link to detailed dataset