In cricket, some are born to the captaincy, some achieve it, and others have it thrust upon them. The Times journalist Alan Gibson once suggested that Raymond Illingworth should be nicknamed 'the liver fluke', so unlikely was the sequence of events that led to him becoming England's skipper back in 1968. Peter May and Ted Dexter had both left the game early, Mike Smith, though hardly a failure, had been judged to be not quite up to the job. The old bull Brian Close got himself into a rather undignified barney with a spectator at Edgbaston when Yorkshire were time-wasting in a match against Warwickshire, and so was stripped of the captaincy by the MCC, who told him that "his temperament had been found lacking". And then Colin Cowdrey snapped his achilles tendon.
"The liver-fluke lives inside a mammal, such as a sheep" Gibson wrote.
"Its larvae is excreted, and sets up house in a water snail. After passing through the snail it has to be eaten by a tadpole or a frog, which in turn has to be eaten by a mouse, which in turn has to be eaten by a mink or a weasel. It leaves the mink and, all being well, is eaten by a sheep. It is an appropriately named creature."
Illingworth, then, achieved the captaincy.
The latest man to take on the job, Alastair Cook, was, in cricketing terms, born to it. He was only 24 when he was picked to be Andrew Strauss's vice captain in January 2009. He had already led England U-19s and the MCC, but never had a run as a county captain. He admitted he was surprised when Strauss picked him for the role. "It was an unexpected bit of news," he said at the time. He had leapfrogged Paul Collingwood, Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff, the last two both men who had the captaincy thrust upon them – or, in Flintoff's case, possibly seized it for himself given that the coach Duncan Fletcher was motivated mainly by the fear of how Flintoff and his cronies would react if he didn't get it.
Cook has been groomed to do this job, and seeing as international players hardly get to play the county game anymore, that's as good a route to it as he could have had. But when a player has had so little exposure and experience as a leader, you can't be sure what will emerge from the chrysalis he's been sheltering in for the last few years.
It seems certain that Cook can be relied upon to score his share of the runs. His average in 50-over cricket was a meagre 30.52 when he was in the ranks, and has risen to 47.30 as captain. When he was Test captain in Bangladesh he scored 212 runs in his first match and 130 in his second, and in the two warm-up matches he has played on this tour he made 119 against India 'A' and 97 against Haryana. But then, as Cook's former opening partner Michael Carberry told Andy Wilson recently, that's almost a minimum requirement. "From my point of view, he did what he had to do," Carberry said of that tour to Bangladesh. "He scored runs, and we won the game." Scoring a fair share is more, at least, than Mike Brearley managed.
But then Brearley exemplified the fact, better than anyone else, that when it comes to captaincy runs alone are not enough, otherwise Geoffrey Boycott would surely have led England to Australia in 1978.
After this tour to India, Cook will soon come into direct competition with a man who has really blossomed since becoming captain. Michael Clarke may be the best skipper in the world cricket right now, and in many ways he is the perfect role model for Cook.
There is a four-year age gap between Clarke and Cook, but their careers have run oddly parallel. Clarke has played 84 Tests, and scored 20 centuries. Cook has played 83 and also has 20 centuries. Cook has scored a few more runs, but Clarke has a slightly higher average.
Both men served for three years as deputies, readying themselves for the top job. Neither has enjoyed much of a career as a T20 player, and in that both are free of distractions it brings. Like Cook, Clarke took over a team in a slump. Like Cook, Clarke has a battalion of young pace bowlers to manage. And like Cook, he has had to manage some awkward players. Australia, though, could afford to cut Simon Katich out of their team. England cannot do the same with Pietersen.
The captaincy hasn't just bolstered Clarke's batting, it has transformed it. After 16 Tests in charge, Clarke's average as captain is 66.36. Among all players who led in more than five Tests, that puts him third, behind Kumar Sangakkara and Don Bradman.
In the last 12 months, Clarke has scored three double centuries, his 259 in the latest Test against South Africa following his 329 and 210 against India. He's only the third man in history to do that, too, after Ricky Ponting and, again, Bradman.
That though, is the least of his achievements. There is a real touch of genius in Clarke's approach to captaincy. He says it owes as much to the lessons to what he learned from Shane Warne as it does to the apprenticeship he served under Ponting. Ian Chappell has praised Clarke for his "brave and aggressive" leadership. "His entertaining approach is based on one premise: trying to win the match from the opening delivery."
Against the West Indies last May, Clarke became the second captain in Test history to win a match after declaring while his team were behind.
In the next Test he declared again, dangling a chase of 215 in 61 overs before Darren Sammy, though the match was washed out. Since Clarke took charge, Australia have only drawn one match that wasn't affected by the rain, and that was to save a series in Sri Lanka. In their latest Test, Clarke was unstintingly aggressive throughout, always insisting that he was going to push for a result even though his team had only taken two wickets on the first two days. They came closer than many imagined they might, and were just five wickets away when stumps were drawn. "At least 50% of international captains consider a draw to be a good result," says Chappell. "And these captains are frightened stiff of the likes of Michael Clarke." Cook's batting is conservative, we still have to see whether he will be one of those 50%, Chappell mentions. Possibly, like Clarke, he might take us all by surprise. It wasn't so long ago that Clarke was being jeered by Australia's own fans. Now the papers are asking whether he might be one of their best-ever skippers.
Both England and Australia have enough in front of them right now without worrying about what lies ahead. England's current tour is as tough as they come – "nobody in their right mind can back England" was how Boycott put it, and given that India have only lost two home series in the last 25 years, it is, for once, hard to disagree with him. So Cook is going to be too busy to keep much of an eye on what is happening six thousand or so miles away in Australia, but if he wants a hint or two on how to handle his transition, it wouldn't be the worst place to look.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © britanglishman