To butcher Ernest Hemingway’s assertion, every great aging cricket captain has two deaths.
The first is spiritual: everyone sees it happening long before the player themselves. They’re just not quite getting the runs or wickets. Cheap mistakes creep in. They look increasingly rusty and robotic, their confidence steadily eroding with every failing innings.
At one point, everyone realizes that this poor form is, in fact, irreversible decline. This is similar to the experience many are currently having with Cristiano Ronaldo, as the Portuguese finally cedes his epic marathon with time. Everyone—except the captain themselves, and probably some particularly blinkered fans—can see that the end is nigh. Their greatness becomes a fond memory to entertain fans around the grounds.
The second death is physical. It is the public humiliation of a fallen titan, the tragic deposition of a much-loved figure. Blind to their spiritual death, they attempt to soldier on when all around them can see the futility of their efforts. Their talents have waned to such a point that they become dead weight. They have to plan to compensate for their own shortcomings and poor individual performances can infect their decision making. They read the excoriating op-eds, but who gives a shit about what the journalists and ex-pros think, really? They just cannot quite comprehend that they have crossed the point of no return.
Then they are called into the director’s office one morning. The face should be a giveaway really, but the pressure has blinded them to reality. There’s a replacement lined up. They’re sent off to live on a delightful farm in Montana. No-one can visit.
Watching Aaron Finch and Kane Williamson in the Men’s T20 World Cup over the past month, a call to the director’s office may lie in both their near futures.
Finch is one of the greatest white-ball batsmen of his generation, still holding two of the three highest individual Twenty20 international (T20I) scores. He was nominated for men’s T20I batter of the decade and captained Australia to their first men’s T20 World Cup last year.
It is because of this former greatness that watching him mindlessly hack at the Sri Lankan bowling attack in Perth, or seeing his helplessness against New Zealand four days earlier, was quite so tragic.
Finch’s innings against Sri Lanka were just depressing. 31 runs from 42 balls is not necessarily bad, but it was the way he got there. For the first few overs, Finch played as though the ball were made of burning magma—that contact with it could kill him and anyone in the vicinity.
He watched his teammates bat with a domineering confidence that he has almost forgotten he once had. He finished with a strike rate of 73.81 against weaker and weakened opposition in a game that Australia needed to win. It was the slowest innings in T20 World Cup history of any batter who scored more than 30 runs.
Williamson is a generational cricketing talent by any measure, dominating all three forms of the world game at different points throughout the past decade. He captains this New Zealand side despite suffering through what was statistically the poorest Indian Premier League (IPL) campaign with the bat of any player this season. As captain of Sunrisers Hyderabad, he hit just 216 runs from 13 innings, averaging 19.63 at a strike rate of 93.50.
Finch and Williamson’s decline and incoming deposition follow in a long and noble tradition of white ball captains, with Eoin Morgan and Darren Sammy notable recent examples. But as with Morgan and Sammy, there are key questions around cricketing captaincy behind Finch and Williamson: When do poor personal performances outweigh the benefits of true leadership, such a scarce yet brilliant gift? Is having a great leader more important than the performance of one of your eleven players?
Former England and Yorkshire skipper Ray Illingworth wrote in his 1980 book, Captaincy, that a captain “needs the patience of a saint, the diplomacy of an ambassador, the compassion of a social worker, and the skin of a rhino.” Finch and Williamson, still the guiding hands and leading lights of their sides, both have these in abundance.
It is no secret that cricket captains play perhaps the most significant role of any sporting leader. As shown by the transition from Joe Root to Ben Stokes as England test captain, a change in leadership can overturn a team’s fortunes almost overnight. Clearly past their best with the bat, Finch and Williamson now exist within the purgatory between their spiritual and physical deaths as captains.
But without obvious replacements in the wings, Australia and New Zealand must carry Finch and Williamson until there are guarantees that someone stands behind them with a saint’s patience, ambassador’s diplomacy, social worker’s compassion and a rhino’s hide.
For Australia, is that the potentially returning David Warner? God, I hope not.
These sides can support a player scoring eight-ball-13s, but without their steady leadership, chaos could reign.
Ultimately, despite their obvious, tragic, age-induced decline with the bat, their sides’ successes highlight that Finch and Williamson have not quite reached the day of their physical death as captains. Whoever has the privilege of eventually replacing Williamson and Finch will hope that their own tenures are great enough that they can one day suffer the same ignominious downfall as their forebears.