July 29, 2012

Strauss needs to get aggressive

He cannot wait for South Africa to make mistakes; which is why he should pick the attacking Steven Finn for the next Test

If ever confirmation was needed that captaincy can make a difference - both positively and negatively - the first Test between South Africa and England provided all the evidence required.

With the No. 1 ranking at stake, South Africa recovered spectacularly from a lethargic first day to take 17 for 358 over the remaining four. Meanwhile, England managed to get just two for 637 runs. Two attacks of similar standing and skill - so how could the results be so different on the same pitch?

There were a number of reasons, including the calibre of batting and the changing conditions, but the mindset of the two captains also played a part.

Andrew Strauss is most comfortable when he's strangling the opposition's scoring with accurate bowling and strategically spread fields. He could never be accused of over-attacking. Ironically, South Africa have used the same ploy for much of their existence, and it regularly works against lesser teams. Problems arise when the opposition is just as strong as, or stronger than, the team employing those tactics. Against top-class sides, captains have to provoke a mistake rather than expect they'll occur purely as a result of patience.

Captains who employ conservative tactics generally prefer to get into a position from where they can't lose before they aggressively seek victory. Judging by Strauss' approach, this was the plan against South Africa. The ploy backfired worse than a Ford Model T.

Bowlers react according to the fields placed. If the fields are designed to take wickets, most good bowlers will generally perform better attacking rather than concentrating mainly on containment. Batsmen also heed the field placings. The better players - if offered easy runs, particularly early in their innings - will mutter a quiet thank you and accept them gratefully. Players like Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis have the skill, patience and batting acumen to take what they are offered and give nothing in return.

Smith's leadership style used to be similar to Strauss', but following the selection of legspinner Imran Tahir, he has been forced to use his imagination. Since then, his captaincy has been more proactive.

This leads to the question: is Steven Finn missing from the England attack purely because Tim Bresnan better suits Strauss' captaincy style? Finn is an attacking bowler and his presence could be just the boost England need to revive their battered morale. However, his inclusion would be a stern test of Strauss' flexibility as a captain.

Richie Benaud has a saying: "Captaincy is 90% luck and 10% skill, but don't try doing it without that little 10%." I'm not convinced about those percentages but a certain amount of luck is required in captaincy. For instance, Michael Clarke enjoyed a slice when he took over a burgeoning pace attack, but his imaginative tactics have skillfully utilised those bowlers' talents to the fullest. Clarke carries his gambling instincts onto the field and creates an air of anticipation by going for victory from the first ball. There's an air of expectation about his leadership, as there was whenever Shane Warne led a team.

However, the ultimate gambling captain on a cricket field had to be former Australia allrounder Keith Miller. Described by Benaud as the best captain never to lead Australia, Miller was once leading New South Wales in a Sheffield Shield game against a hapless South Australia side. SA were in dire straits following a withering burst from the NSW pace attack when Miller tossed the ball to debutant batsman Norm O'Neill. Taken by surprise O'Neill could only manage, "But I'm making my debut." Pointing to the SA batsman on strike, Miller responded, "So is he. It should be a good contest."

When there's a decision to be made, a captain is usually best served, especially when he has a decent attack at his disposal, if he takes the aggressive option. No one expects Strauss to suddenly emulate Miller, but he should at least borrow from Clarke's playbook and desperately seek victory from ball one.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator and columnist