February 15, 2012

Captaincy: not what you might think it is

Leadership isn't a quality, or about field placings. It is an effect that a player has on a group

A few years ago, I played in a charity match with an Australian cricketer. He was captain for the day and casually told the fielders to just "spread out". As we walked off at the end, after a laidback game, he said (at least half-seriously): "How can Tugga [Steve Waugh] get paid so much extra money just for doing that?"

The view that captaincy is easy - perhaps even irrelevant - is not uncommon. Professional sport is a macho culture that prefers to deal in physical realities rather than abstract concepts. That bowler is quick, that batsman is powerful, that fielder is fast - as skills, they are all easy to admire. Leadership, in contrast, is an elusive thing to identify. That captain is shrewd, that one is subtle, that one encourages the players around him to be themselves - sportsmen are not trained to recognise or celebrate those gifts.

But the evidence is overwhelming: leadership matters. Look at the turnaround in Pakistan cricket. Two years ago I was at Lord's on the Saturday before the News of the World published their scoop about spot-fixing. Pakistan were not merely losing, they were broken. When Salman Butt was bowled, he initially stood his ground, as though he was waiting for some outside intervention that allowed him to have another go. When Mohammad Yousuf was caught on the boundary, hooking, he too stood still in disbelief. It was sad to watch.

Now, under the captaincy of 37-year-old Misbah-ul-Haq, Pakistan are revived and victorious - and able to beat the world's top Test team 3-0. It is a powerful riposte to the critics who argue that no one should be selected as captain if he isn't an automatic choice as a player. In fact, the best team is simply the 11 players who produce the most effective cricket. If the presence of a good captain improves the team by a greater margin than the advantage gained by picking a slightly superior player, then it is obviously rational to select the superior captain. The best XI is the most effective team: end of story.

The next question is much harder to answer: what makes a good captain?

It is easy to fall back on familiar clichés: "the natural captain", "the leader of men", "the alpha male". But it is striking how many effective captains do not fit that mould. Take Andrew Strauss. When Strauss was appointed England captain in 2008, several English cricket legends criticised the appointment because he "wasn't a natural captain". What did they mean? They meant that Strauss is unshowy and undemonstrative on the field. Off the field, he is not the biggest, loudest man at the bar. Tactically he doesn't go in for flashy, "original" field-placement. In press conferences he avoids controversy. In short, he is isn't Mr Obvious or Mr Born to Lead. Strauss - we now know - has gone on to win two Ashes series as captain.

The whole business of captaincy is misunderstood. It tends to be thought of as a list of qualities, a set of boxes to tick - as though a good captain has to be x, y and z. In fact, all captains are different. Perhaps the only essential characteristic for any captain is the one that cannot be taught or emulated: he must be himself.

Instead, pundits look for qualities they recognise in themselves and assume that's what makes a good leader. When I was appointed captain of Middlesex, a senior figure at the club asked me what "kind of captain" I was going to be, as though I had a list of adjectives up my sleeve. When I asked what he meant, he said, "You know, are you going to be a strong captain?" I replied that I'd have to be seriously stupid if I announced at the outset that I wanted to be a weak captain.

We have captaincy in the wrong box. We should not think of captaincy - or leadership in general - as a characteristic or even a quality. Instead, it is an effect. If the captain has a positive effect on the group then he is leading effectively. That doesn't sound like much. But it is, of course, mighty difficult.

Off-field stability, good management and strong relationships at the heart of the team are infinitely more important than moving silly mid-off half a yard to the left

Captains are always being judged, but most of the analysis focuses on largely irrelevant side issues. During the deciding Test against Australia at The Oval in 2009 - it turned out to be the very day that the Ashes turned in England's favour - I bumped into a former England player who has become a leading voice in the media. "What a stupid mistake of Strauss', not using the heavy roller!" he began. "Schoolboy error! You just can't make mistakes like that!" I was surprised at the vehemence of the reaction. Despite many years as an opening batsman, it was often unclear to me when to use the heavy roller, or indeed if the decision was worthy of much analysis or energy.

Many "talking points" about captaincy are complete red herrings. Should he have a third man? Why is gully standing so deep? These "controversies" are often just convenient distractions to fill the airwaves and newspaper columns. Yes, very occasionally an inspired field placing can strangle a batsman, or a shrewd bowling change can lead to a wicket. But much more often we read far too much into surface decision-making, and radically underestimate the underlying foundations that lead to success: off-field stability, good management and strong relationships at the heart of the team. They are infinitely more important than moving silly mid-off half a yard to the left.

Captaincy is both overrated and underrated. It is overrated because people expect too much of it in the short term. Very few losing teams can be galvanised by a single stirring team-talk. "Gee them up!" is the commonest (and stupidest) advice given to captains.

But captaincy is underestimated over the long term. Losing teams often think that they should change the captain every five minutes "until the right person emerges". Quite the opposite happens: the latest captain merely takes over an unsteady ship. In contrast, successful teams quickly forget their debt to their captain, imagining that they would be just as good - or better - if they axed him. When you're winning, it's easy to underestimate the culture that helped you to win.

When it comes to leadership, cricket teams should remember a line from Bob Dylan: "No matter what you think about, you just won't be able to do without it."

Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman Ed Smith's new book, Luck - What It Means and Why It Matters, is published in March 2012. His Twitter feed is here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • James on February 17, 2012, 17:09 GMT

    Very good article - at the heart of it (my take on it anyway) is that great leaders (this goes for adminstrators and selectors too) look to the medium and long-term rather than the short-term e.g. it's not the heavy roller that makes the difference over the course of a Test match, it's who plays best (or least-worst) over the course of 5 days. Similarly, don't drop a player who has been out of nick for a few innings if you think he will come good over the long-term. Alastair Cook being a pertinent example. I keep saying this but this is the reason why England have been successful recently (and maybe Pakistan) and Aus less so. It's also the reason why I hate the phrase "It's a crucial first half hour" from commentators at the start of seemingly every session!

  • vajira on February 17, 2012, 3:07 GMT

    Brilliant analysis. The trust the players havewith the captain to make fair desiions is probably a key trait of succesful captains. If you are seen to be a unfair/ prejudiced that is the end.And for that to seal it takes time.

  • John on February 16, 2012, 22:36 GMT

    Interesting article. My memory stretches back to the late 1950s. In that time I have seen a handful of great captains, some good ones, a lot of ordinary ones and a few woeful ones. Among the greats, the stand-outs to me are Richie Benaud, Frank Worrell, Mike Brearley and Imran Khan. As a pure captain, Brearley was probably the best of the lot, although the other three were much better players. If I had to choose one captain for my all-time eleven of players I have seen, it would be Imran; he was not only a magnificent captain, but an extraordinary cricketer in every phase of the game. However, all four were wonderful inspirers of men and their records show that. In answer to Kathy (great to see a woman here) I'd put it the other way round. Every team that has had a great captain was a winning team. Not every game or every series, but in the long-term. A losing team might have a poor captain or an average one, maybe sometimes a good one, but not a great one.

  • Danish on February 16, 2012, 20:29 GMT

    Stephen Flemming,Nasser Hussain..these two were the great captains that i've seen playing.They were both great at tactics.ONE big difference though,Stephen Flemming was the team's best player too.the team won whenever he performed.Misbah is somewhere below these two i guess.He is NOT a great tactition,he does TRY to perform to his best abilities though.Its a pitty that he is just not that talented to perform like an Inzi.And well,he does have a masters' degree in Business and administration,which makes him a good choice for a captain.Misbah does NOT have the captaining abilities like steve flemming or nasser hussain though,and those abilities,playing with the opponent's minds,is what i call the real captaincy.

  • Rajesh on February 16, 2012, 14:30 GMT

    Brilliantly written! One of the best I have seen about leadership in general and sports leadership in particular. While off-field stability, good management and strong relationships are certainly important,I would like to add strategic thinking to it as well. And tactical thinking are essential as well.The impact of this skill vary from one form of the game to other. For instance, missing out on moving a silly point to another position may not change the course of the match in Test match, In a odi/t20,it cud make or break a match! And as for Dhoni not being a good test captain is concerned, its simple. He is simply not interested in this form of the game and when ur not interested you cannot even be a player, forget about leading!

  • Arun on February 16, 2012, 12:01 GMT

    Ed. Lovely, lovely piece!!! "Professional sport is a macho culture that prefers to deal in physical realities rather than abstract concepts." Bang on!

    A person watching the game from the outside is not really privy to the softer aspects like dressing room culture, 'effect' etc. So he goes ahead and analyses whatever he can see - the cover drive, the leg cutter, the runs scored... And comes up with conclusions which handle the surface and not the depth.

    Am looking forward to your next article!

  • Simon on February 16, 2012, 11:33 GMT

    It would be foolish to say that tactics have little part to play in captaincy. Stephen Fleming was a great tactician, knew how to get the best out of his bowlers. But I would agree that leadership itself has a certain transcendental quality, and is difficult to pin down to certain words or concepts. Perhaps the best way to define a good captain is that persons ability to raise his own game, and also raise the game of those around them. Dhoni is one who I believe has done that, as has Strauss and Misbah. Clarke has started well, with a few hiccups, but hopefully he will learn to extract the very best out of his player. @Nutcutlet - I agree. Sir FW was a great leader of men. Anyone who captains the Windies to any sort of success must be! If only more men in Windies cricket were like him.

  • Srinivas on February 16, 2012, 3:31 GMT

    oh Ed!!! Love you...love you...love you for such a beautiful piece. Awesome writing.

  • Dummy4 on February 16, 2012, 2:45 GMT

    Only in a winning team can an under performing captain be viable. And even so that is not guaranteed. A team that is constantly losing even matches they were supposed to win cannot afford a player who is there just for captaincy sake. In modern cricket a captain must be able to perform admirably on the field because no matter his leadership, social, man management skills, @ the end of the day it is what happens on the cricket pitch in terms of action & results that matter. Someone should not have the captaincy of his test team when individuals are around who can do a better job as a member of the team. They belong with the support staff or 'cheer leaders' where their non cricketing skills can be of assistance to the team without blocking capable individuals from being among the 11 men on the field.

  • rienzie on February 16, 2012, 1:58 GMT

    There is a huge difference between test, ODI and T20 captaincy. focusing on Test captaincy, you must have strategy and be willing to look at the big picture. Results are less instantaneous and a fair comparison of this would be playig chess and chequers! Looking at the quality of captains at the moment, I would put Clarke, Smith, Misbah and Mahela , at the highest level, with Taylor at the middle level. As for Dhoni he would be a very average captain and at the bottom of the pile would be Sammy, who not only doesnt deserve his place, has poor strategic ability. He is not bad in terms of getting the team to play for him, but he is extremely limited. Clarke is heading in the right direction and as for Smith , Misbah and Mahela, they are class acts. Dhoni should give it up and stick to the T20s and ODIs. I suggest Gambhir to take the test spot for India and to remove their current set of coaches

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