The importance of a vice-captain

On the cricket field, people imagine that the role of the vice-captain is one of the most pointless roles ever. Perhaps only marginally pointful than the role of the captain in a game of football. The only time when a vice-captain is called for to show off his vice-captaincy is when the captain is unavailable (due to injury or whatever). And in cricket, that is not particularly common. So the vice-captain’s role is mostly pointless.

Some teams manage by committee – this is where you see the captain, vice-captain and two other (senior) guys assisting a bowler set his field. There the vice-captain might have a job to play. But in general the job is so pointless that sometimes teams don’t even bother naming a vice-captain, and name one only at the point of contingency. At other times, a senior player is made vice-captain (since it is a pointless role anyway) without really testing his fit for the role.

And sometimes, it can backfire spectacularly. I’m reading Martin Crowe’s account of the semi-final loss to Pakistan in Auckland in 1992, and he puts the blame squarely on his then vice-captain John Wright. Crowe got injured while batting and didn’t take the field. Wright led instead and made a mess of Crowe (a master tactician)’s carefully laid out plans. And Pakistan won in a canter. Quoting the article,

Crowe, meanwhile, was fidgety and restless in the dressing room. Along with New Zealand coach Wally Lees, he had laid out an elaborate bowling plan with a heavy emphasis on rotating bowlers. As many as 17 bowling changes were planned and Crowe had worked out how many over spells each of them would bowl in the chase.

“I was the only one who knew the script really,” Crowe says. “Lots of bowling changes, short spells, was the key really because that would not allow any batsman to get in.” But Wright decided to attack straightaway.


The point to be noted is that Wright had not even been part of the team for most of the earlier games in the tournament, where Crowe had come up with some revolutionary tactics such as quick bowling changes involving wibbly, wobbly, dibbly and dobbly (there were only three of those in this game, for Rod Latham had been dropped to make way for Wright), opening with Dipak Patel and careful use of bursts by Danny Morrison.

So when called upon to lead the team in Crowe’s absence, Wright was pretty much clueless, for he had not seen the plan of action from the field too much earlier in the tournament. And he made a mess. And New Zealand lost. Possibly their best ever chance of winning the World Cup till date.

Taking Crowe’s injury a given, would Pakistan had still won if someone else (say Ken Rutherford) who had played a full role in the tournament had taken over? The problem with Wright was twofold – he hadn’t played enough to be familiar with his team’s tactics, and he was probably too senior to just follow Crowe’s advice. The lack of thought in selecting the vice-captain had been shown up.

Management Guru Alert: So the point is that even if a role looks mostly pointless, you need to pick it carefully, and on merit. Because in a contingency the role stops becoming pointless, and you need the best available person for the job then.

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