More and more, captains are opting to return to the ranks when they step down. Tim de Lisle explains ... 

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2011

In most team sports, a floodlight is forever trained on the captain. He, or she, is seen as both a general and an emblem. But there is another role, far less talked about, which has become vital too: the ex-captain.

A side has only one captain, but may have several ex-captains. There are a lot of them about, for a number of reasons. The big football clubs have vast squads and rotation policies: Manchester United have been led recently by Rio Ferdinand (pictured), Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville and Nemanja Vidic, with a few outings for Wayne Rooney and Patrice Evra. Neville has now retired, but all the rest are first choices, so Vidic often leads out an XI containing two to four ex-captains. 

None seems to mind that Vidic has been preferred, even though English is his second language. Ferdinand and Giggs, tabloid exposés notwithstanding, act as elders of the tribe for the young players to look to if Vidic is injured, suspended or busy roughing up opposing strikers. If you weigh up the talent at England’s top teams, United lead only in having more leaders. Arsenal have barely had one captain since Patrick Vieira left, for all Cesc Fabregas’s skills; and Chelsea have had only one, John Terry.

Ferdinand is now a full-time ex-captain, lumbered with the same role for England. Which brings us to the second reason why ex-captains arise: because some managers have no feel for captaincy. Fabio Capello’s stint with England has been a masterclass in mismanagement, with the captaincy as a prime case in point. Capello inherited John Terry as captain in 2008, made him go through a sing-off with Ferdinand and Steven Gerrard, and then gave him the job anyway. Two years later, Terry was caught with another kind of ex: a team-mate’s only-just-ex-girlfriend. Capello sacked him as captain and handed the armband to Ferdinand, who then got injured, so Gerrard took over as acting captain. These moves were reportedly conveyed to the players by the assistant manager; Capello doesn’t see man-to-man chats as a part of his £6m-a-year job. And England continue to flop on the big stage.

For much of this time, David Beckham was in the squad too. He took the classic ex-captain’s tack, playing the elder statesman. Terry did not. At the World Cup in South Africa, with Gerrard wearing the armband, Terry played the deposed king. At a press conference that verged on a mutiny, he berated the way the show was being run. Capello retorted that he was making “a very big mistake”. Not that big: in March Terry became England captain yet again, even though he remains a less than unifying figure.

Rugby sets greater store by captaincy. In 1999 fans were shocked to find an England captain caught in a drugs scandal by the News of the World (a Sunday paper of the period). This was Lawrence Dallaglio, who had pipped Martin Johnson to the job. Johnson took over and went on to win the World Cup—with Dallaglio, cutting a penitent figure, as an exemplary ex-captain, the only man on the field for every minute. He later regained the captaincy, but carried on with the penitence, raising millions for charity. 

In cricket, ex-captains are a familiar sight. The Indian team, until recently the world’s best, have two, Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid. The reason is the Indian habit of treating stars as demi-gods, which dictates that the best player—or batsman, anyway—becomes captain. Tendulkar is India’s biggest star ever, and Dravid close behind, but neither was a natural captain: both were exemplars rather than enablers. So they have played on as veterans under M.S. Dhoni, a more natural boss—outgoing, combative and good at maximising his own talent, which should mean he can get the best out of others too. When the Indians withdrew a controversial run-out appeal in England in July, Dravid said on television that Dhoni had led the decision “beautifully”, even though reports suggested that the moral qualms were mostly Tendulkar’s. Ex-captains, like ex-lovers, need to be discreet.

Kumar Sangakkara of Sri Lanka, a lawyer in his spare time, has just resigned as national captain in protest at an overpoliticised cricket board. So Sri Lanka will have a second ex-captain in the ranks, alongside the serene Mahela Jayawardene. But, even in cricket, some teams disapprove of ex-captains. The Australians, world-beaters from 1995 to 2009, once prided themselves on this. Captains would emerge—gritty types carved from pure granite, like Allan Border and Steve Waugh—and put in long hard stints, but when the time came they would exit swiftly.

Lately, with Shane Warne and six other big names retiring within two years, the Aussies have tasted mediocrity. The last star standing, Ricky Ponting, has quit as captain after losing to England in three Ashes series out of four. But they still need his runs, so, after a record 531 games for Australia, Ponting soldiers on under Michael Clarke. It will be intriguing to see if this foreign notion works in a team culture that is wary of imports, whether they are ideas or coaches.

English cricket has a great daisy-chain of ex-captains going back 25 years. Ian Botham played on under David Gower and Mike Gatting, who played on under each other. All three played on under Graham Gooch, who played on under Mike Atherton, who played on under Alec Stewart. Both Atherton and Stewart played on under Nasser Hussain, who played on under Michael Vaughan, who didn’t play on as his knees had given out. While he was injured, Andrew Flintoff and Andrew Strauss both filled in. Strauss played on under Flintoff, and both played on under Kevin Pietersen, who now plays on under Strauss—who is the first of them all to lift the Test Championship mace. 

The best captain of the lot was probably Hussain, now an astute pundit, but the best ex-captain was his commentary colleague Atherton. He became captain young —too young, at 25—and, even after a record 54 Tests in charge, still had years left in him. He became a model ex-captain, loyal, mildly amused, and still able to produce the vital effort known as a captain’s innings. 

The trend has even spread to politics. David Cameron has two former Conservative leaders in key roles: William Hague as foreign secretary and Iain Duncan Smith as secretary for work and pensions. They lend experience to a front bench filled with novices, both Tory and Lib-Dem. Whether Cameron’s line-up will do as well as England’s cricketers remains doubtful.   

Tim de Lisle is editor of Intelligent Life and the rock critic at the at the Mail on Sunday in London.

Picture credit: PA