August 9, 2009

Lessons for leaders

Brearley, Ranji, EM Rose, and the art of captaincy

Of all the arts of cricket, there is one that has been invested with a special glow - captaincy. Yet, amazingly, there are few good books on the subject, especially considering that captains seldom seem to agree on anything (which is what makes for interesting discussions on the subject, and pays the salaries of columnists and television experts).

A successful player need not be a successful captain, and as Mike Brearley has shown, the reverse is also true. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the bible on the subject is Brearley's The Art of Captaincy. If it has a drawback it is that it is so clearly meant for the international captain, and how many of us are ever going to lead an international side?

Brearley's book stands apart from the few others on the subject for its authority, its simplicity, and for the range of personal examples the writer quotes. The bibliography mentions just nine books, including Ranjitsinhji's The Jubilee Book of Cricket, Don Bradman's The Art of Cricket, Ray Illingworth's Captaincy and Colin Cowdrey's MCC.

The Ranji book devotes over 40 pages to captaincy. One of its more interesting bits of advice is this: "There is a humorous saying that a captain's supreme duty is to win the toss. The chances are about even. The only fact with a glimmer of science about it is to call tails because the head-side of most coins is slightly the heavier, and therefore the more likely to fall undermost." Do we have any statistics on the subject?

I remember Sunil Gavaskar using a similar argument while speaking on television, although he might have been pulling his fellow commentator's leg. In any case, it didn't work too well for him. In 47 Tests as captain, he won the toss 22 times. Perhaps he hadn't read the Ranji book!

Brearley's book does not mention EM Rose's How to Win At Cricket, or the Skipper's Guide because that book was published three years later. Yet for your average club and school captain, the Rose book would probably be more useful since it speaks to him directly, offering practical advice on situations that do not arise in Test matches at all.

Great captains take more chances than the good ones; funnily enough, so do poor captains. The difference is that the former seem to have more luck

What do you do, for instance, when your players are held up by traffic or overnight revelry and are yet to turn up at the start of a match? Is it wiser to bat first (as most teams would do) or field? Rose makes the point that, "in a perfect world, and to save runs, one could manage adequately with six fielders apart from the bowler and wicketkeeper".

Since this is a book on how to win, there is a detailed chapter on the cricketing and psychological factors that lead to draws. There is, too, a chapter on enjoying captaincy. "Cricket should be fun," says Rose, "and captaincy is such a large part of the game that it should be the greatest fun of all, transcending as it does all the other arts of the game."

Part of the fun is in taking chances that make the captain look like a genius when they work out. Great captains take more chances than the good ones; funnily enough, so do poor captains. The difference is that the former seem to have more luck. Their decisions on the timing of declarations or change of tempo work out more often.

"There are only two types of draw," writes Rose, "One, when your side is on a hiding to nothing and you manage to get away with it. Well done! The other is when you fail to win. You then get all your team together and apologise profusely, for it is your fault."

What is the most valuable asset a captain can possess? Tactical sense, technical understanding, ability to read a game, instinct, luck must all be taken as given. In Richie Benaud's much-repeated words, captaincy is ninety percent luck and ten percent skill, but "don't try it without that ten percent." No piece on captaincy is complete without the Benaud quote.

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Neil on August 11, 2009, 16:59 GMT

    "Brearley's The Art of Captaincy... is so clearly meant for the international captain." Not so. Perhaps you're confusing this book with Phoenix from the Ashes, which is about the 1981 England-Australia series?

    The examples given in The Art of Captaincy cover county (and university) levels as well as international level - hardly surprising as the author captained Middlesex for 12 years and England for only three. The chapters cover matters of relevance to many levels of cricket e.g. choosing a captain; selecting a team; the batting order; placing the field; and the role of aggression in cricket.

    As another correspondent notes, the lessons from The Art of Captaincy can be relevant to general management situations, in sport or otherwise. He may have read Brearley's book more recently than the writer of the article.

  • Alex on August 10, 2009, 16:21 GMT

    aneeshk, I prefer Ian Chappel's advice on what to do when you win the toss as a captain. He saiys nine times out of ten, you should bat first. On that other one occasion, you should think about it for a little while, and then choose to bat first. Easy.

  • Ashwath on August 10, 2009, 3:19 GMT

    It is true that the tails lands more often than heads on a normal coin although it is unfortunate that this is visible only over an abnormally large field. Over 10,000 tosses tails is likely to come out over heads 17 times.

  • Rajasundram on August 10, 2009, 0:41 GMT

    I played a lot of cricket at the lower division in Singapore and captained the team in a lot of matches. When 'calling', I remembered a piece of advice given to me by a former All Ceylon wicket-keeper, H I K Fernando. He said that in grass you call heads on matting you call tails. Since most of the matches we played in the 70s to the 90s were playing on matting - the call was invariably tails and I had more than 60% success. As a mathematician, I would say that it should be 50%. But the luck of the toss seems to very important escpecially at Day-Night matches at the RPS in Colombo, where the team winning the toss invariably bats first and wins! Siva fron Singapore

  • David on August 9, 2009, 21:19 GMT

    Great comments about The Art of Captaincy. Were any of you aware that there has been an important new work from the great man, Mike Brearley, this summer? To find out about this Ashes legend's new interactive course on captaincy copy and paste the following into your browser:

  • Helen on August 9, 2009, 17:29 GMT

    Bob Woolmer's Art and Science of Cricket (full disclosure: I'm one of the co-authors, but a very junior one) has a substantial (76 pages) chapter on strategy and captaincy, although it is geared towards international teams. Some handy stuff for all teams and all ages, though. It also has a short but useful chapter on statistics that sheds light on the popular belief in the importance of winning the toss and batting first -- some interesting stuff. Bob rated Brearley's Art of Captaincy very highly.

  • Kamalakanta on August 9, 2009, 7:21 GMT

    Three years back, I read "The Art of Captaincy" when as a young player I was asked to lead a club in a US cricket league. Even though everyone thinks he/she knows a lot about cricket, after reading the book, I realized I know less than 1% about the technical aspects of it. It was an eye-opener and taught me so much about what goes on in the background.

    To be honest I had not heard about the book "How to Win At Cricket, or the Skipper's Guide" before. Now I am going to read that as well.

  • Aneesh on August 9, 2009, 5:42 GMT

    I don't think any slight biases in the coin from the ideal of 50% heads would be large enough to be detectable over the average captain's career of maybe 20-60 Tests in charge. The captain's time might be better spent figuring out what he wants to do if he wins the toss, and then using some psychological tricks to make his opposite number do the other.

  • Viswanathan on August 9, 2009, 4:55 GMT

    Thanks for the interesting article, Mr.Menon! Brearley's 'The Art of Captaincy' is one of my favourite books on captaincy and leadership and I feel that the learnings and lessons from it can be applied not just in sport but in real-world management situations too. It was nice to see your mention of Benaud's take on captaincy - it is probably one of the best things ever said about captaincy. I remember reading a book on captaincy by Graham Gooch (which was targeted towards younger readers) where Gooch wrote that Benaud was the best captain that he has ever encountered and Benaud would make one sell his / her own grandmother :-) The Benaud quote that you have mentioned is from 'Willow Patterns' which Benaud wrote after he retired from cricket - it has Benaud's interesting thoughts and take on captaincy.

  • No featured comments at the moment.