Gambling on captain Cameron may prove light-bulb moment for Durham

Vic Marks

Cameron Bancroft is not the first Australian to be made captain of a county cricket club he has never represented. In 1998 Somerset were in a similar quandary to Durham this spring. They were casting around for a captain as counties so often do because it is such a difficult job to fill satisfactorily.

In contrast to the majority of team sports the captain in cricket is much more than a titular post. He is the key man, who makes the most important decisions – in between clocking up vital runs and wickets – and the best coaches understand that. It is no coincidence that only one sport has triggered a publication entitled The Art of Captaincy and that is cricket. Mike Brearley’s book was published in 1985 and despite the advent of Twenty20, slower-ball bouncers and all those highly paid coaches it remains a source of wisdom to any aspiring captain, something to read on the long flight from Perth, perhaps.

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Dermot Reeve, a renowned lateral thinker, was Somerset’s coach in 1998 and I was the new chairman eager to hear his plans for the future. He advocated a change of overseas player at Taunton. “Fair enough,” I said. He wanted a batsman to bolster the top order. “Good thinking.” And someone who could captain an underperforming team. “Right.” He then mentioned Jamie Cox. I had to be honest; the name did not ring many bells. Reeve – ahem – reminded me that Cox was a Tasmanian opening batsman who had never played for Australia though he had a fine record in Sheffield Shield cricket. “What’s he like?” I asked and he replied: “I’ve never met him.”

Reeve had scoured the lists and somehow had divined Cox’s qualities and this relatively unknown Australian was offered the job. Around Christmas Peter Anderson, the Somerset chief executive, and I met Cox in Melbourne during the Ashes series and to our great relief he gave the impression of being immensely capable. It proved to be the case. Just as importantly he could bat as well. In 2001 he became the second Somerset captain to lift a trophy. He was, thanks to Reeve’s hunch, an inspired signing who stayed with the club until 2004.

Reeve did not baulk at taking a risk but his choice of Cox was surely less of a gamble than Durham’s enlistment of Bancroft. The idea the pantomime villain/victim of the sandpaper saga of 12 months ago, should be given a significant leadership role in English county cricket seems as preposterous as – well, we are spoilt for choice nowadays.

Almost exactly a year after Bancroft was discovered to be desperately seeking sandpaper in his trousers in a Test in Cape Town my colleague, Ali Martin, revealed the young West Australian had been appointed the captain of Durham CCC for the 2019 season. In less stormy times the nation would have been aghast.

On the subject of captaincy you never quite know who is going to be good. The post inspires some, diminishes others

In the immediate aftermath of that incident Bancroft was vilified and ridiculed in equal measure though there was perhaps more sympathy for him than the senior players involved, Steve Smith and David Warner, who really should have known better. For the summer of 2018 Bancroft had been engaged to play for Somerset, though not to captain them, but in the circumstances that offer was politely withdrawn.

Bancroft is one of several Australian cricketers heading for England this summer. But for the sandpaper he would not be the one with the highest profile: Peter Siddle, Shaun Marsh, James Pattinson, Glenn Maxwell and Joe Burns are some of the others and all will have an eye on the Ashes series. They will be here just in case they are needed to pop down to the Oval to hit the winning runs in September.

Suddenly England is a magnet for aspiring Australian cricketers. County cricket holds a remarkable appeal for them this summer. Oddly this can apply to other overseas cricketers of the modern era. It is a fact worth pondering that Virat Kohli has been tempted to play championship cricket in England but has absolutely no interest in participating in the Hundred.

From a distance Bancroft’s appointment seems a bizarre decision, though it is possible to see the links that bring him to Chester-le Street. Marcus North, the director of cricket at Durham, is a West Australian like Bancroft and Justin Langer, who has a high opinion of the young opener.

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There is another factor. As Durham’s chief executive, Tim Bostock, has explained the county had very limited options after the retirement of their long-standing captain Paul Collingwood. “We certainly considered two of our existing Durham players for the role,” he said, “but they didn’t want to do it. They wanted to focus on their own performance. We looked at Alex Lees and Ben Raine.”

So Durham have gambled. My reaction is not one of shock, horror or despair. Bancroft has served his time having been banned for nine months and he should be allowed to play – and captain – here if that is what Durham want. It will be intriguing to see how it works. My assumption is Durham will become far less likely to tamper with a cricket ball than any other county (and please – unlike the Australians 12 months ago – let’s avoid the trap of thinking everyone else tries to manipulate the condition of a cricket ball but that sort of thing does not happen in our own country).

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However it remains a source of some disappointment there are no homegrown candidates within Durham’s ranks. Perhaps they are too canny up there. They take the same view as Derek Underwood, who is quoted by Brearley in the introduction to his book. There a perplexed Underwood asks Brearley: “Why do so many players want to be captain?”

On the subject of captaincy you never quite know who is going to be good. The post inspires some, diminishes others. Sachin Tendulkar tried captaincy but was not enthused by the job, while many years ago Ray Illingworth was one who was clearly enhanced as a cricketer when he was in charge. Another was my former county captain Brian Rose who, once appointed by Somerset in 1978, starting blazing drives all around the ground after several years of grafting. He also surprised us with the clarity of his thinking and the ruthlessness of his decisions.

It is such a busy summer that visits to our county grounds will be restricted in 2019. However when I do pitch up I’ll be heading to the committee room at Taunton more frequently than usual, especially if they are playing Middlesex. It may be a sign of age but I realise two of my old mates have become presidents. Rose is the president of Somerset and Mike Selvey has undertaken the same role at Middlesex. Neither will be too bothered which way the port is passed.

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