As befits the nation who gave the game of cricket to the world, England have enjoyed considerable success over the years. No small part of this is down to the choice of Captains they have made during that time. The role of Captain is pivotal to a team’s harmony on and off the pitch as well as having the responsibility for match tactics. A good Captain can win games that should be lost or drawn with one field or bowling change.
England have had some truly exceptional characters in the Captain role and their sharp, astute cricketing minds have made the difference between defeat and victory many times. Their tough mental attitude and superb leadership skills make other players want to follow them and fans want to hug them.
Let’s look back at the ten best Captains England have ever produced:
10 Nassar Hussain
Nassar Hussain was one of the most able players to have captained England and during his reign there was a significant improvement on the field. Indeed, under Hussain England won four series on the trot and climbed to a lofty third in the overall Test rankings. This shows what a great leader he was but also what a clever cricket mind he had. Known as a great motivator, he ranks as one of the best England captains ever. On a personal level, he was a tough right-handed batsman who could play the full range of strokes when at the crease.
Initially starting life as a leg-sin bowler, he moved his focus to batting and was signed up professionally by Essex in 1987. He would stay at this club all his life, playing 334 games and making 20,698 runs in all.
At international level, he made his Test debut in 1990 against the West Indies. Although he did well, his reputation as a hot-headed person led to him not being selected again for three years! In fairness to Hussain, he knuckled down at First-Class level and forced the selectors to pick him again due to his good form. Eventually he became England captain in 1999 and would be in charge for 45 matches before leaving the role in 2003.
Hussain’s record as captain stands comparison with others – he achieved 17 wins and his win percentage at Test level was better than the previous five incumbents. His best achievements as captain were the four-straight series wins against New Zealand, West Indies, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, along with seeing England rise from ninth to third in the overall rankings.
9 Michael Atherton
One of the best captains England have had in recent history is this Michael Atherton. A determined, gutsy leader with a never say die approach, his period in charge was a successful one for English cricket. He was also totally unflappable as an opening batsman and would not be intimidated or distracted by any sledging that might have gone on.
A one club man at county level, Atherton played for Lancashire all his First-Class career. Notching up 21,929 runs in 336 games, he proved himself a superb player to open an innings with bat in hand. Known primarily for his defensive style, he would grind out big scores and was adept at occupying the crease for long periods.
The England captaincy became his in 1993 during the Ashes series against Australia. Graham Gooch had resigned in frustration at a poor English showing and Atherton was handed the role aged just 25! Atherton led his team to a final match of the series victory which was England’s first win against the Aussies in 18 Test matches.
Atherton carried on with a steady record with series wins against sides like New Zealand and Zimbabwe, but his English teams did struggle against the better sides such as Australia. This less than expected progress and a chronic back condition led him to resign as captain in 1998, although he did continue to play excellently for his country until 2001.
8 Brian Close
Making his England debut at the tender age of just 18 years and 149 days, Brian Close was a true icon of English cricket. Not only that, he was unbeaten as England captain with a record of seven played, six won and one drawn. There are not many captains out there, English or otherwise, who can brag of never getting beaten! Indeed, Close himself was always annoyed it wasn’t a 100% win record, as, in his view, England should have won the Test match that ended in a draw.
A highly charismatic person, Close led Yorkshire to 4 county championship titles while captain there. After moving to Somerset later in his career, he is also credited with using his cricketing brain and people skills to get the best out of Ian Botham and Viv Richards. Indeed, many credit Close with turning them into the players we all know today.
His brief period as England captain began in 1966 when he was put in charge for the final game of a five Test series against the West Indies, which England had performed poorly in. His clever instruction to John Snow to bowl a first-ball bouncer at Gary Sobers to entice him into an ill-advised hook shot worked perfectly, as the ball fell to Close at short-leg. England went onto win the match and it showed what a bright and innovative thinker Close was as captain.
It is arguable that Close should have had more matches in charge of England but his rebellious attitude and run-ins with selectors curtailed his reign. Sadly, he has now passed away but will always be remembered as a great man and player.
7 Andrew Strauss
If you ever wanted to create your own England cricket captain by moulding all the classic character traits, Andrew Strauss is pretty close to what you would end up with! Privately-educated, very posh and self-effacing, he encapsulated all that had gone before in the English game. A man who led with an understated yet clear authority, his laid-back approach would fit well with the players at his disposal. England’s rise up the world rankings to the top was made under his rule and he obviously had the natural leadership skills to bring the best out in those around him.
An excellent left-handed opening batsman and slip fielder, Strauss played for Middlesex the majority of his First-Class career, scoring 17,046 runs in 241 games overall. Known for playing off the back foot he had particularly effective cut and pull strokes in his locker.
Appointed England captain in January 2009 after a rift between former skipper Kevin Pietersen and manager Peter Moores, he got off to somewhat of a shaky start with an away series 1-0 loss to the West Indies. This was soon rectified by a 2-0 turnaround series victory later in the year when the West Indies toured England.
This led on to one of Strauss’s most famous moments as an England captain and player – the 2009 Ashes victory against Australia. After a poor start in the first match of the series, Strauss led his team to a 2-1 overall series victory to take the Ashes back. Going into the final match of the series, it was level at 1-1 but Strauss kept his nerve to make sure his team got over the line.
In fact, the Ashes were a very happy stomping ground for him, as he achieved the fine feat of winning an Ashes series both home and away. After the 2009 win, Strauss led England to Australia in 2010/11 hoping to secure another famous victory and keep the urn. They did just that and it was in no small part down to his leadership and astute tactics. A 4-0 whitewash against India in 2011 also confirmed his ability to motivate a team and read the game as it unfolded before him.
6 Alastair Cook
Widely regarded as one of the finest batsmen and English captains of the modern age, Alastair Cook is quite a player. He operates as a left-handed opening batsman and is a run-scoring machine with many big innings to his name. Many experts believe him to be one of the most prolific and elegant batters of his generation.
It is as a captain that we are interested in him, though, and in those terms he deserves a mention here. While some have questioned his leadership, he holds the record at 59 games for an English player to skipper the Test team. His calm approach and ability to galvanise the English team behind him make him one of the best to do so.
His obvious cricketing talent caught Essex’s attention and they handed him his First-Class debut in 2003 after he had finished his studies. He did well in this match against Nottinghamshire, particularly in the second innings where he scored 69 not out. Still currently playing, he has notched up 25 matches and 20,145 runs to show his talent.
His fine form at county level drew the international selectors’ attention and he made his Test debut in 2006 against India. He scored 60 runs in his first innings and then a fantastic 104 in the second to show that he had the character to settle into international cricket seamlessly. In fact, he was only the sixteenth Englishman to score a Test century on his debut. Continuing to be a regular in the team, Cook took over the captaincy from Andrew Strauss after he retired in 2012.
This seemed to spur him on even more as he skippered England to a series victory in India, their first since 1984/85, and also scored an amazing 23 centuries in that series. More runs followed in the years to come and his captaincy allowed England to taste success on many occasions. In 2015, Cook became the leading English run scorer in Test cricket, surpassing Graham Gooch. He finally retired the captaincy in 2016 having done a sterling job for his country.
5 Douglas Jardine
Douglas Jardine, who has now sadly passed on, will always be remembered as one of England’ finest skippers and also a superb batsman in his own right. Standing six-foot-tall and with a strong build, he had particularly good on-side strokes that he would score regularly with. Combined with a great defence, he was a batter bowlers hated facing.
As England captain, he is probably best known for the ‘Bodyline’ controversy in the 1933/34 Ashes series against Australia. Looking for ways to win, Jardine came up with a new line of attack (literally!) He packed the leg-side field and instructed his bowlers to send the ball down the leg-side – short and quick. The theory was that the batsman would be forced to play the ball into the waiting fielders hands or risk being struck on the body or head. While the tactic worked, it provoked huge outrage and eventually had to be dropped.
A clever, ruthless leader, as this shows, Jardine continued to lead his country well including a Test series win against India before retiring the role in 1934. A strict captain, Jardine nonetheless was popular with his players who remained loyal to him until the end.
4 Michael Vaughan
A dry, obstinate Mancunian in the classic mould, Michael Vaughan would turn out be one of England’s greatest captains, certainly in the modern era. Perhaps his greatest trait as skipper, though, was his calmness and refusal to panic, even if things weren’t going well. This stopped his players getting too emotional and led him to rescue situations that may have seemed lost.
Playing for Yorkshire all his career at domestic level, he was a brilliant batsman as his 16,295 runs in 268 games shows. Moving into the England set-up, he became captain in 2003 after Nassar Hussain chose to step down from the role. His superb man-management skills and reading of the game in the field soon became apparent. His subsequent record, such as beating the West Indies away for the first time since 1968 and South Africa away for the first time since 1965, shows just how good he was. This was in addition to winning all 7 home matches over the summer of 2004 also!
But it is the stunning Ashes series victory in 2005 that is his crowning glory as captain. England had not won an Ashes for 18 years prior and his effective leadership allowed them to do just that. The 2-1 overall victory was a famous and much celebrated achievement in England at the time. Retiring from the role in 2008, he was truly one of the best captains England have had.
3 Ray Illingworth
One of the most successful and shrewdest players on our list is the Yorkshire-man Ray Illingworth. A gruff, tough and canny competitor, his desire to win pushed the England teams he captained to many victories. As a player, he was also up there with the best as a brilliant all-rounder. His pin-point accurate off-break bowling wore batsman down until they effectively gave him their wicket and his defensive style of batting allowed him to stay at the crease for long periods.
At First-Class level, he was mainstay of the Yorkshire team during the late 1950s and 1960s and would also play for Leicestershire in what was a stellar domestic career. He is only one of nine players to have scored 20,000 runs and taken 2,000 wickets at that level which shows his talent. This fine form soon brought him to the attention of the England selectors and he made his debut in 1958 against New Zealand.
It soon became obvious to all that not only was he a great player but a natural leader of men. The England captaincy finally came his way in 1969 when he was the grand age of 37. His no-nonsense style soon rubbed off on his team as they acted and played more professionally. David Gower has even noted that even if Illingworth liked a particular player, he would not pick him unless the player would do as he was asked.
Another impressive facet of Illingworth’s man management was his ability to get the best out of talented but difficult players like Geoff Boycott and John Snow. He managed to foster an amazingly close team spirit among the English players, which stood them in good stead when in close matches out on the field. If you add to this his inspired bowling changes and clever use of field placement to frustrate batsman, you can see why he was such a success.
What really makes Illingworth stand out as one of England’s best ever captains, though, is his results. Most famous of them was regaining the Ashes in Australia in 1970/71. Although the team he took over was initially dismissed as a ‘Dad’s Army’, Illingworth’s inspired leadership and the mental toughness he instilled in his players gained them the series victory.
His overall record as captain is equally impressive, as he led his country for 31 tests and was only beaten in 5 of them. That means in an incredible 26 games under him, England were not beaten. Granted only 12 of those were victories but it’s still a superb achievement.
2 Len Hutton
One of Len Hutton’s claims to fame is that he was England’s first ever professional captain. Taking over the role in 1952, it was quite controversial at the time as previously it was thought professional players were not suitable to be captain. Hutton soon proved them wrong though!
A truly fantastic batsman, he sits at the top table of English cricket as a player due to the run he scored and the style he had when playing. This led him into the international scene where he soon settled and showed his class. His 364 at the Oval surely stands out as one of his most well-known and greatest achievements.
After taking over the role of captain Hutton soon showed his skill again, but this time also his sharp cricketing mind and no-nonsense approach. Although sometimes cautious in his field placements and use of bowlers, this was always done for tactical reasons. A series win against India did his reputation no harm, but it was the 1953 Ashes win against Australia that stands out when you look at his record as skipper.
England had not won an Ashes series since 1934 and were not fancied going into this one against Lindsay Hasset’s side. It turned out to be a very close series that went down to the final game, but Hutton’s inspired leadership handed his team the series victory. This was followed by a winter tour to Australia where he also excelled to lead his team to a 3-1 series victory. After that he retired due to health reasons and has since sadly passed away.
1 Mike Brearley
It should be no surprise that Mike Brearly is at the top of our list – after all, he has written a book called ‘The Art of Captaincy’! What is unusual about him, though, is that, as an individual player, his record in Test cricket was quite poor. He never scored a century and only averaged 23 with the bat in his international career. However, the fact that he kept getting picked and remained captain shows just how fantastic a skipper he was!
With an uncanny ability to motivate and inspire people, he was able to mould a team into a formidable unit. The Australian bowler Rodney Hogg once said he had “a degree in people,” which best sums up this side of him. He also understood the game intimately and could react in-play to anything that was happening.
Brearley’s best achievement as England captain was the 1981 Ashes series against Australia. After England lost the first Test and drew the second under the guidance of Sir Ian Botham, Brearley was installed as captain. The turnaround he oversaw was quite remarkable as England stormed to an unlikely series win. Many would say that he was fortunate to have so many fine players like Gower, Willis and Botham to rely on when in charge but it was his skill that made them a team.
An outstanding captain and great thinker, he really was the cream of the crop when it came to skippering his country. 31 games in charge with 18 wins and a 58.06 win percentage backs that up!
As you can see, not only have England had some fine players to put in the role of skipper over the years but they have also had lots of outstanding characters. This mix is what makes them stand out and also makes them so successful as leaders. With these guys in charge, their teams knew that no matter how the match was going, they always had a chance!