Who is cricket's greatest captain? Science has the answer

Last Updated: Thu, Jul 12, 2012 13:34 hrs

​You can always depend on a Bengali to fuel a debate. Satyam Mukherjee, from Northwestern University’s department of chemical and biological engineering, has just revived one that was never quite dead. Mukherjee, says the Economist, has run some numbers, constructed matrices and ranked cricket captains in order of greatness in a scientific paper that is currently under review.

Mukherjee’s top three, in all Tests played between 1877 and 2010 are: Steve Waugh; Graeme Smith and Ricky Ponting. In ODIs, 1971-2010, the order is: Ricky Ponting; Graeme Smith and Imran Khan.

What? No Brearley? No Ranatunga? And Dada slipped in strategically in the late teens in both forms of the game…

Message Board: Waugh, Dada or Dhoni? Let us know what you think!

This is the sort of thing that makes you want to take a quiet moment to shape your thoughts into an argument so incisive and elegant that it would reduce the paper to a fine piece of kirigami. (No such argument exists, yet.) Alternatively, you could roll up your sleeves and settle the issue with a short, quick jab to the nose of anyone who supports the rankings; or indeed has a ranking that is different from your own. (Cricket is personal; so you would have to punch an awful number of people.)

To get back to Mukherjee’s paper. The scientist has applied Google’s PageRank algorithm to evaluate cricket captains. PageRank, was developed by the founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergei Brin, and made them very rich. It has since evolved into a flexible tool that has been used in to rank things like scientific papers and tennis players.

This isn’t just about who won how many games. It factors in who won against what quality of opposition; head to head results and so on. Large sections of the paper are indecipherable to those of us whose Greek is weak, but we should take the good scientist’s word that the formulae have been applied correctly and that the results are honest. Many of them do not match more widely read official rankings; but that is the point.

So should we accept the findings? Most certainly not - or any other ranking for that matter.

The PageRank algorithm started out taking less than half a dozen factors into account while ranking the relevance of pages. This has now expanded I’m told, to about 200 ‘signals’; complicating matters, but delivering better results. Even so, no one can reasonably claim that any calculation takes everything into account.

Delivering the MCC Colin Cowdrey lecture in 2011, Kumar Sangakkara spoke movingly about the development of cricket in Sri Lanka and the contribution of one man: Arjuna Ranatunga. It was Ranatunga, said Sangakkara, who first inspired Sri Lankans to play like Sri Lankans; to express who they were through their cricket. It was Arjuna who gave them enough belief to set that colonial hand-me-down - the coaching manual - aside and spin it like Murali; slash it like Jayasuriya; and later, sling it like Malinga.

Is there an algorithm that can run through the heads of these players and measure how much the captain contributed to their self-belief. Or of those who benefited from his legacy?

Mike Brearley was a pretty lousy Test Cricketer. Even his usually understated teammate Bob Willis would say that Brearley didn’t quite cut it as a batsman. But apart from all the tactical genius of the man, there was something else of immeasurable value that kept Brearley in the side, and in the famous 1981 Ashes series, saw his return as captain. Brearley was the only man in England who had control over the otherwise completely unmanageable Ian Botham. Brearley replaced Botham as captain with England on the verge of a dispiriting Ashes loss. When the Ashes ended, however, they were called Botham’s Ashes.

What kind of algorithm factors in the greatness of a man who rehabilitates a genius gone rogue in a matter of days and restores national pride in a few weeks?

Cricket captains influence the game the moment they step onto the field--their luck with the toss sometimes decides the outcome - and every minute they are on it. They must make more decisions than captains in most, if not all, other sports. These decisions have a bearing on results and it is here that we can begin to do the math on their greatness.

But what else should we consider? Graeme Smith is near the top in both forms of the game according to Mukherjee. And on this one, I have a point that reinforces Smith’s claim: he took over the South African side when in his early 20s, still a relative newcomer to top tier cricket. It takes a special kind of leader to be able to manage a dressing room full of older, more experienced, and in Smith’s case, more talented individuals.

Before we get any further ahead, let me say that the new rankings proposed aren’t all that counterintuitive: they are, to a fair extent, in line with overall results achieved (the good old wins and losses method) but with a few surprises thrown in. Nasser Hussein is at 10 in Tests; Imran Khan, outside the top 20. His world cup win is probably why Imran is at 3 in the ODI rankings. But how about a few points for winning all those games against Pakistan’s political, whimsical, sometimes comical, cricket establishment?

Waugh and Ponting both had amazing runs of 16 consecutive Test wins; they both have claims at the top. But do those results surprise you when you know that Shane Warne and Glen McGrath were bowling a few overs for them?

Virender Sehwag recently made the apparently controversial comment that India had enjoyed success under MS Dhoni (8th in ODIs; 9th in Tests) because it is a great team.

There is something to be said for this. Clive Lloyd’s West Indies was blessed with six of the era’s fiercest bowlers and three of its finest batsmen. It was a great team. How could it lose?

It did, occasionally - as we all remember. But everyone who played for the West Indies at the time also says that it was Lloyd who transformed them from a bunch of entertainers to team of winners. But is a captain really only as good as his team? And what other factors should we take into account to complicate a ranking system to everyone’s satisfaction? (Please note that I’m not saying the rankings will satisfy everyone; just that the complications must!)

And with that, I come to my own rankings using the TATOAT method. Kindly make your own, and lets start arguing.

(Note: TATOAT=The Arbitrary Top5 Of All Time)


1. Clive Lloyd

2. Mike Brearley

3. Imran Khan

4. Ian Chappell

5. Steve Waugh


1. Arjuna Ranatunga

2. Imran Khan

3. MS Dhoni

4. Kapil Dev

5. Allan Border

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Currently a visiting fellow at INSEAD, France, Avirook Sen has been a journalist and writer for over 20 years. A former resident editor of Hindustan Times (Mumbai) and editor of Mid-Day, he has written with passion and insight on subjects as varied as sport and terrorism for top publications across the world. His first book, Looking for America, was published in 2010 to enthusiastic reviews. You can write to him at avirook@gmail.com

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