Mike Brearley in conversation August 12, 2007

'You need to work by intelligent hunches'

Mike Brearley talks to Siddhartha Vaidyanathan about the essentials of good captaincy



Brearley: "a great pleasure and interest in tactics" © Getty Images

When director Sam Mendes was having problems on his film American Beauty, the first book he reached for was Mike Brearley's The Art of Captaincy. The former England player, considered one of the greatest captains ever, spoke to Cricinfo about the qualities you need to be an outstanding leader, illustrating with examples from his own career.

What are the broad segments you can divide captaincy into?
There are so many different qualities involved. You might divide them for convenience's sake into two - technical aspects and man-management.

Technically, you need to know the game completely. You need to have a great pleasure and interest in tactics. You need to be both inventive and cautious, and move between attack and defence without too much of a radical shift.

With respect to man-management, you need to get the whole group playing as a team, you need to get the best out of individuals. You can't do it with everyone but you can expect some to perform better than they would otherwise.

The late journalist John Thicknesse described you as intuitive, resourceful, sympathetic and clear-thinking. Could you elaborate on those qualities?
Let's start with intuitive. Although you can use logic, you also have to go by hunches. A person who can trust his hunch is one who knows his game thoroughly.

Nobody knows what's going to happen next. You can change the bowling and the new bowler may bowl leg stump half-volleys, go for 15 runs, and you lose control of the game. Or he may bowl just outside off, you get two wickets, and you've won the game. You need to work by hunches, but intelligent hunches.

Before the famous Headingley Test in 1981, you apparently told Ian Botham that he'd get a hundred and five wickets in the match. Which is exactly what happened.
A lot of things went into that transformation of Ian Botham, one of which was luck. To some indefinable extent I think I was able to combine with Botham. In that match I could see that he was running in in a rather delicate way. I took him off after three overs and I said, "How can I bowl you if you're giving medium-pace half-volleys?" On the one hand I was able to say that to him, on the other hand when it came to his batting, on what wasn't a very good pitch, I said, "Enjoy yourself, play the way you want." As a captain it would have been much harder for him to say that to himself.

Before the match I wasn't nervous about how he would do. I was nervous about our relationship: How would he be coming back? Would he be bitter about the captaincy? Would he be bitter about the team? Was he confident? I wasn't really sure about that, so I was trying to find out where he was. And I said hyperbolically that he could score a hundred and get five wickets.

Let's move on to resourcefulness.
It means having a range of options in your mind which you can turn to in times of need. Like England saw India get 664 in this match at The Oval. And they only had three bowlers for most of the day. That's when you've got to eke out the most out of your resources, have an alternate plan, propose something different. You've got to keep trying and you've got to keep it going. Sometimes all you've got is keeping it going. Bowlers are tired, batsmen are on top, all you can do is think, "It could be even worse, it could be slightly better."

Some of the great players haven't been great captains because they haven't been able to understand the struggle. You have to have an empathy for other players

Using spinners like John Emburey or Derek Underwood required that skill. Many captains bowled him [Emburey] a little flat and very straight. I sometimes tried to encourage him to bowl a little bit slower, a little outside off stump. Sometimes I'd say to him, "Let's try your way for a while. If nothing happens in four or five overs, we'll try my way." That was the way I got him to take a bit more risk.

Or Underwood bowling over the wicket in the 1977 Ashes Test at Old Trafford. He didn't want to do that at all. I talked to Intikhab Alam [the Pakistan legspinner] and sometimes he, like Abdul Qadir later, would bowl around the wicket into the rough. Underwood didn't like it, he liked around the wicket with orthodox set fields. It took a lot of talk and encouragement. It worked well.

Sympathetic.
Some of the great players haven't been great captains because they haven't been able to understand the struggle. You have to have an empathy for other players, and at the same time you have to say, "If this is the way you're going to go, you won't succeed." You've got to be tough, sometimes hard. The example that comes to mind is Geoffrey Boycott, especially in Australia in 1978-79, when he wasn't in very good form - he'd just been sacked from Yorkshire captaincy, his mother had just died. A combination of things made a great player look like ordinary. I didn't do that much but it was Doug Insole, the manager, who took hours of time talking to Geoffrey, sympathising with him - telling him that you can't really speak to umpires like that etc. Botham also helped him. Geoffrey, uncharacteristically kept getting hit off the short-pitched ball, and Botham said, "You're getting very rigid on the crease, standing stump to stump. You're not moving like a boxer. And he tried to get him a bit light on his feet." That was an example of sympathy.

And finally clear-headedness.
This is especially required when you're under pressure. If the bowlers are going for runs, they're tired, maybe someone's arguing with you, there's pressure on you for not scoring runs ... that's when you need clear-headedness.

I was in Perth in 1978-79 and there was Peter Toohey at the crease. He was a good hooker and puller. Botham tried to bounce him with the old ball and he kept hooking. And the new ball was due. Bob Willis was saying to me, "Whatever you do, take Botham off. We're losing control." John Lever was feeling aggrieved because he hadn't been given the ball, but that was only because I didn't think he was the most dangerous bowler. Mike Hendrick was reliable but hadn't done much in the match.



Brearley's book is an acknowledged masterpiece on leadership in cricket ©

So Lever was fuming because he wasn't bowling, Willis was fuming because of the way Botham was bowling, Botham was fuming because I'd taken him off. The new ball came and I gave it to Hendrick because I thought he would come with the most control for an over. Then the umpires came and said, "We won't allow you to bowl bouncers at Geoff Dymock [the tailender]". That was ridiculous. He'd been in for an hour and a half, they'd added 60 or 70 runs. Absolutely ridiculous. And I said, "I'm afraid I can't guarantee that we won't." Luckily Hendrick took a wicket straightaway - bowled Dymock without any controversy - but that was a moment where I felt it was hard to hold on to clear-thinking. You have all this anxiety in your way.

It's often said a captain is only as good as his team. Is that just a cliché?
It's a partial truth. Obviously if you've got second-grade players you wouldn't get the same result as with first-grade players. With a good captain a company, orchestra, any group, can be made to work - a good leader who makes them the best they can be under the circumstances they find themselves in.

Some captains are good when they're up against it, some are good when they're on top of things. Winston Churchill was a great war leader, but I don't think he was a good prime minister during peace. So you've got different situations.

You can't transform mediocre players into great players but you can transform them into good ones. Which makes a difference. In many Tests, even if the margin of victory is large, there can be phases where it can go either way. Like if England had got Sachin Tendulkar out for 21 and had a bit of luck, India might have been 150 for 5. And then England would have been on top.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is assistant editor of Cricinfo

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