Wednesday, July 2, 2008
The Art of (Bad) Captaincy
Captaincy: The ultimate honour, the peak of ambition. Yesterday I captained my team for the first time in a twenty20 game. Surely there can be nothing better than leading one’s men into battle ? The pride in seeing your side perform above themselves because of your inspiring example. The newly forged bonds of camaraderie and respect between captain and side. Well, not quite. The truth is, it wasn’t much fun. Perhaps KP didn’t realise what he was getting himself into last week. I certainly didn’t. We, like Pietersen’s merry British band, got marmelised.
Once the dust had settled and the casualties had been swept away from the field of battle, I couldn’t help wondering just how culpable I was. For answers I turned to the guru of captaincy himself, Mike Brearley. For war there’s Sun Tzu; for cricket skippership there’s Brearley. On the opening page of The Art of Captaincy he summed up my quandry rather nicely: ‘(the captain) tends to feel responsible when things go badly. He may of course be right. But there may also have been nothing more that he could have done.’ I began my quest for answers in chapter four.
Chapter four: my god, look what they’ve sent me: the captain and selection. Not much blame could be attached to any selectorial foibles on my part. This is intra-club twenty20, not a Test series touring party. You take what you get and run with it. We couldn’t even field eleven, so there weren’t exactly too many selection headaches. There were no protesting fans brandishing no Cummins no goings placards. Whoever showed up was thrust into the action. No scope for gaffes in this regard, so chapter 4 sees me in the clear.
Chapter Five: The morning of the match: reading the entrails. Well firstly the match didn’t start till a quarter to seven in the evening, so I was hardly there in the morning. Regardless, Brearley notes that a captain’s main focus before the game must be on the pitch. As we play on a mat, I could hardly be faulted for failing to note the density of grass covering, frequency of cracking or relative moisture content. Next is the toss. The undeniably sound advice here is to win it. Did that. There follows a treatise on when to bat and when to bowl. My logic was simpler and rested on the assumption that batting in the pitch-dark is trickier than bowling in it. Good old fashioned common sense!
Chapter Six: Batting Orders. Unfortunately Brearley lacked the foresight to mention twenty20. Nonetheless he surely would have appreciated the fact that the batting order was painstakingly formulated. Left/right hand combinations were put into place to frustrate the fielders and put the bowlers off their stride. Pinch-hitters alternated with proper batsmen. A defensive batsman opened with a hitter. Unhappily the former lasted two balls before leaving a straight one. The hitter hit one straight up in the air. The captain, steering his team from the engine-room of number five, lasted fully four balls before losing his off peg. The lower order slogged and slapped despite my most fervent appeals for them to consolidate and rebuild. Fourteen overs and we were history. Sorry Mike, but in all honesty I would’ve been as well off to determine the order by means of a hat and ten bits of paper. In fact, we probably would have done better had I inverted it.
Chapter Seven: Taking the field. Brearley’s pulling no punches here. ‘The art of captaincy culminates in the team fielding’ he declares. That’s what I thought too. Here I felt I was sure to be able to show off my innate tactical nous, my ability to astutely read the game and plan accordingly. The author outlines for the captain four basic requirements: 1. Getting the team on the field. Not the most arduous of tasks perhaps, but I managed that all right. Despite our dismal batting the boys were in bellicose and bullish mood. 2. He moves them around on it. I must confess, there weren’t too many mid-over field alterations, but it was getting dark… 3. He runs a brisk ship. Hmm, perhaps I shouldn’t have had the same man field at deep midwicket for both the left and right handers. In fairness I’m sure the exercise did him, if not the overall pace of play, untold good. 4. He must think ahead. Probably easier done in a 4 day match than when you’re trying to defend 77 runs in 20 overs. I was stuck very much in the present.
Chapter Eight: Placing the field. Brearley’s theories on field placings are comprehensive and instructive, but he fails to discuss what turned out to be fundamental issues. How does one set a field to bad bowling? What do you do when a bowler feeds the opener’s savage cut? ‘Pitch it up!’ I said. Bowl it short they did. Six. Four Six. 'Keep it outside the off,' I pleaded. On the legs they put it. Four. Six. Four. What then Brears? Furthermore, no amount of fielders will do much good if the batsman keeps smashing it over them.
Chapter Nine: Strategy, tactics and unusual plots. It must be said, I rather failed in the imagination department. I employed no leg slip, nor did I advise my bowlers to attempt the in-vogue slow bouncer. My fields stuck slavishly to convention and my advice was steeped in tradition rather than brimming with ingenuity. Definitely an area that could do with improvement. Brearley recalls how once he had a helmet put at short square leg in an effort to get the batsman playing against the spin hoping to gain the five penalty runs on offer. Maybe I’ll give that a go next time.
Brearley’s seminal tome has unfortunately solved few of my problems and answered few of my questions. If only he had written a follow-up, The Art of Intra-club Twenty20 Captaincy, I would be on more solid ground. When it comes down to it, the captain can’t bat 1 to 11, bowl from both ends and field in every position. Ultimately getting bowled for a duck did more harm than any tactical blunders. Derek Underwood once pondered ‘why do so many players want to be captain?’ After my first taste of it, I am inclined to agree.
photo by IanL, taken from Flickr. Reproduced under Creative Commons license.