October 12, 2008

Defence doesn't pay

India's containment tactics in Bangalore were inexplicable - especially from a bowler captain such as Anil Kumble



Kumble has been reactive in the Bangalore Test, while his opposite number has tried to make things happen © Getty Images

My grandfather, the former Australia captain Vic Richardson once advised me, "Son, don't think any tactic you try as a captain is new. They've all been used before. Like an old suit - keep it long enough and it comes back into fashion."

I'm not absolutely certain who made the early posting of a boundary-saving deep point and a backward-square-leg fieldsman as fashionable as an Armani outfit, but I'd guess Michael Vaughan in the 2005 Ashes series. Ricky Ponting quickly followed suit in the same series, and now this ultra-conservative tactic has reached epidemic proportions.

The weakness in the ploy is, it provides easy runs to the batsman who is sensible enough to accept gifts that are freely offered, and it ignores the fact that it's not possible to contain the top-class players. Ponting and Michael Hussey provided ample evidence of this in compiling wonderfully controlled centuries in Bangalore.

It's surprising enough that batting captains don't understand how offering easy singles can lead to dire consequences, as well as offend a bowler's sensibilities. So it's a huge shock to the system when Anil Kumble, a captain who is a bowler, falls into the same trap.

Former Pakistan allrounder Imran Khan quite correctly stated: "A good captain understands bowling." There are times when watching Kumble's field placings it's easy to forget he has taken more than 600 Test wickets. Bill Lawry, the former Australia captain, was a batting captain who understood perfectly one of the captain's commandments: "Thou shalt not give away easy runs." Lawry's approach smacked of a captain who thought, "The bastards never give me easy runs so I'm not going to concede any to their batsmen."

In an era where there are a multitude of limited-overs and Twenty20 games it's not surprising that modern captains are more adept at containment than their predecessors. However, it pays all captains to keep uppermost in their mind that the best containment policy is to dismiss a batsman. This axiom applies in any form of the game and was highlighted by Shane Warne's outstanding leadership in winning the initial IPL competition. Warne has a gambler's instinct and one of his greatest assets as a captain is he takes that intuition onto the field.

There's a wonderful example of the gambling captain in a story concerning Sir Garfield Sobers in a late-1960s limited-overs match. In the 50th over of the innings the opposition needed six runs for victory and Sobers' team needed two wickets. Bowling himself, Sobers claimed the first victim caught by the second of two slips, and won the match by having the No. 11 caught at leg gully. Sobers and Warne are captains who believed in the adage; "The best form of defence is to attack."

 
 
In an era where there are a multitude of limited-overs and Twenty20 games it's not surprising that modern captains are more adept at containment than their predecessors
 

The big difference between Kumble's captaincy in Bangalore and that of Ricky Ponting was the Australian captain's desire to make things happen, while his Indian counterpart waited for the batsmen to make mistakes. Ponting made the Indian batsmen think, he made them feel on edge, and he let them know in no uncertain terms that he was trying to dismiss them.

There's got to be a rhyme and reason to what a captain is doing in the middle; his moves have to relate to what is happening in the game and they should be designed to make life difficult for the opposition. Kumble, a citizen of Bangalore, might as well have hung out a sign welcoming Ponting and Hussey to the Garden City.

Rather than bemoan the fact that he no longer has a Warne or a Stuart MacGill to utilise favourable Indian conditions, Ponting has got on with the job of devising a plan for the attack he has at his disposal. That is one of the prime jobs of a captain: to fully utilise his assets and get the best out of his team.

There are times when Ponting is a little quick to resort to boundary-saving fieldsmen and 2005 was a perfect example. However, there's no doubt he's also a very resourceful captain, and one possessed of great determination.

He has had an excellent match so far in Bangalore. He scored his first Test century in India and he has out-manoeuvred his counterpart by utilising resourceful and positive captaincy. That is a winning combination that will never go out of fashion.

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