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

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