THE NEW MIDDLESEX CAPTAIN
The list of former captains of Middlesex CCC is long and illustrious. The first, in 1864, was Teddy Walker, an old Harrovian and ‘a fine driving bat and the leading lob bowler of his generation’. Scrolling down the list, you can find names that are probably better known than Mr VE Walker: Plum Warner, Frank Mann, Walter Robins, George Mann, Bill Edrich, Ian Bedford (Ian Bedford? Yes indeed - his niece was my first girlfriend), Fred Titmus, Peter Parfitt, Mike Brearley, Mark Ramprakash, Justin Langer, Angus Fraser, Andrew Strauss, Ed Smith…….et al.
This winter, Middlesex are going to have to engage their signwriter to inscribe on their honours board the name of Middlesex’s latest captain, another illustrious leader of men, my nephew, Tim Murtagh. He is, as you well know, no lob bowler but his fine driving – in a car – is greatly admired.
Not before time, you might say, for Tim is now in his fortieth year, no great age for a batsman but Tim is a bowler, not of express pace – fast-medium is how it is described – but physically demanding enough to make his longevity in the game a marvel. To date, he has bowled something in the region of 50,000 balls in his county career, plus an uncountable number in the nets. He is fortunate in two respects. He has a natural and repeatable action, which has needed no tinkering over the years, so no undue stress is placed on his body. Thus he has remained remarkably free of injury with no long spells out of the game, contemplating a life beyond cricket. He has been a loyal and successful servant of Surrey, Middlesex and Ireland cricket, naggingly accurate, with a little bit of movement off the seam and an uncanny knack of taking wickets. (“Uncanny, Uncle Andy? It’s called skill!”)
Traditionally, bowlers were rarely made captain. This had much to do with the amateur ethos that permeated the game right up until Len Hutton’s appointment as the first professional to captain England in 1951. You see, batsmen were usually amateurs; the hard grind – the bowling – was always done by the professionals. Since the abolition of the amateur status in 1962, captains have still tended to be batsmen. The reason is logical. A batsman can stand chewing his nails at first slip while contemplating his next move, or stand at mid-off, working out the angles for the disposition of his fielders, whereas a bowler, especially a fast bowler, has to gather his strength to charge in, his mind fixed only on the spot where he wants to land the ball. And on his way back to his mark, he wants to catch his breath, not look around and adjust his field. It can be done, it has been done, but bowling captains have been thin on the ground.
Remarkable therefore that Tim, a bowler and not in the first flush of youth either, has been elevated to the most important job at the club. I was anxious to discover from the man himself how it had come about and what he felt he could bring, experienced professional as he is, to the role.
“You’ve never captained before, Tim, have you?”
He was outraged.
“Yes I have! At school. John Fisher in Croydon.”
In one sense, you could say that Tim is the Accidental Captain, his appointment coming as the result of a series of chance occurrences. Middlesex were playing against Gloucestershire at Cheltenham College towards the back end of last season. The captain, Peter Handscomb, fell ill and Tim deputised for him. It was no more than a one-off, he believed, so he relaxed into the role, determined to enjoy it, come what may. “And we won!” Not a familiar outcome for Middlesex during what had been a disappointing summer. But once Handscomb had tested positive for Covid-19, and in view of the quarantine restrictions imposed in his home country, he decided to return to Australia with immediate effect, thus leaving Tim in charge for the rest of the season. Middlesex won three out of their remaining four fixtures and everybody sat up and took notice of an immediate upturn in the county’s fortunes. Particularly in the new leadership.
“Actually, I rather enjoyed it,” Tim said, “It was only for four games, a bit frenetic at times but everybody fell in behind me and made my job that much easier. I probably would not have played all four games on the trot like that but as captain I did and survived physically.” In point of fact, he relished the role so much that he now feels a touch of frustration that he had not had the confidence to put himself forward for a leadership role earlier in his career. “As you know, bowlers don’t usually make captains but I think I was able to help the young bowlers in the side because I knew what it was like to be a bowler, when they needed a rest or encouragement for one last over, where to bowl and so on. We are a young side – apart from me – and they all responded positively.” There was no pressure – your being in charge for just four games? “Exactly. I had no long-term ambitions. How could I at my age?”
An end-of-term forum of county members changed all that. Owing to Covid restrictions, none of the players was heading overseas for winter employment so practically the whole squad remained at home. Handscomb was in Australia and the date of his return was not known….and still isn’t. The club lacked a figurehead during winter training and Tim was now the obvious candidate. “The Chief Executive, Andrew Cornish, sidled up to me just before our end-of-season lunch and offered me the club captaincy,” he said. “I was flabbergasted but accepted readily. ‘Good,’ he said, ‘I’m just going to announce it to everybody.’ God knows what he would have said had I declined!”
Frankly, it was a good-news story that the club desperately needed, following the sacking of their coach, Stuart Law, after a thoroughly underwhelming season – that is until Captain Tim took over. The relationship – not always an easy one between captain and coach - is pivotal to a happy and successful team. Will your opinion be sought when Middlesex appoint Law’s successor? “I’m on the interview panel!” But he would not be drawn on any list of runners and riders. Lord’s is traditionally cagey sort of place.
Roy Marshall, a vibrant and attacking opening batsman in the Fifties and Sixties – an era not famous for positive cricket - underwent a total personality change when he was appointed the Hampshire captain He became cautious, defensive and risk-averse, a remote and uncommunicative figure in the dressing room, quite different from the friendly, easy-going Barbadian that his team-mates had known hitherto. I can’t imagine you as a whip-wielding disciplinarian, Tim. How will you characterise your captaincy style? “Consultative! I’ve already told them, ‘Let’s work together and look out for each other.’ Look, I won’t be round for long so there is no pressure for me to build a new dynasty. I see my role as encouraging the young players. Together, we can play better.” And your goal? “Get into Division 1.”
Of all the names of Middlesex captains on that board – those who are still with us, I mean – would he be seeking advice from any of them? “Gatting, Emburey and Fraser are ever-present and willing to chat. And Robson and Eskinazi, current players, have done the job before so I shall not lack help and advice. Toby Roland-Jones is a good mate. He’ll have my back, reminding me when I need it that deep cover needs to come in for the last ball of the over. Little details like that which can evade your attention, especially when bowling.”
Which captains that you have played under impressed you the most? The answer was a surprise but then, on reflection it should not have been. “Maybe it was because I was young and just starting out on my career at Surrey but Adam Hollioake made a deep impression on me.” Indeed. Under his captaincy, Surrey won the county championship in 1999, 2000 and 2002 and England won the Sharjah Trophy, a one-day international competition in 1997. “He was such a strong character,” Tim said, “He led from the front and everybody followed him. Tactically sound as well. I admired him.” It is strange to think of Tim playing in the same team as Hollioake in another era, another century.
Tim has always been delightfully vague about his plans after cricket. For the time being, his elevation to the captaincy has given him “an excuse not to think about it,” as he cheerfully put it. “I did ask for a two-year contract,” he suggested mischievously, “but turning forty, I was never going to get it!” Well, good luck, son – I mean nephew – this could be the making of you. In truth, he is already well made - has been for a number of years – but you never know….Jack Bond took over the captaincy of Lancashire when he was in his late thirties and led them to unprecedented success in the late 1960s and early 1970s, becoming something of a legend at the club. Tim’s legendary status amongst the Middlesex faithful is already secure. A cup in the trophy cabinet at the end of the season? That is the stuff that dreams are made on.