September 12, 2012

The art of captaincy: catching the mood of the moment

Leadership of cricket teams involves a fair amount of a sort of luck
19

Alastair Cook will soon take the field for the first time as full-time captain of the England Test team. As is the case with every new leader, he has already been exposed to the judgement of innumerable pundits and armchair psychologists. Is he "a good captain", with the "right qualities to lead", and the "appropriate personality for the job"?

Captaincy is generally talked about in this way, as a list of personal qualities: charisma, resilience, bravery, nous, optimism, confidence and so on. And all those things are important in different ways.

But I am increasingly unconvinced that this mythic "natural captain" actually exists. I am unclear that the characteristics of a good captain can be identified and summarised in such a simplistic way. There is a second, vital part of the sentence "Is he a good captain?" that is usually omitted. It is this: "Is he a good captain for this team, at this moment?"

Captaincy is better understood as an effect rather than a set of skills. If the team is enhanced then the captain is doing a god job. But there is always an element of mystery - and unpredictability - about how that effect is achieved.

Richie Benaud's adage that "Captaincy is 90% luck, only 10% skill - but don't try it without the 10%" has become one of the famous lines in cricket. But it becomes even more interesting if we deconstruct what luck means in that context.

Yes, the luck of having strike bowlers. Yes, the luck of leading a strong side. But there is a subtler way that luck informs the career of every captain: the luck of having the right personality to lead that particular group; the luck of taking the reins at just the right time in the team's evolution; the luck of accidentally possessing a character that suits the nature of the challenge and the mood of the times.

Few people picked out Nasser Hussain as a natural captain. As Mike Atherton put it recently: "When Alec Stewart resigned from the England captaincy, the ECB was surprised when Nasser Hussain, previously thought to be from the Pietersen school of selfishness, performed well at interview, before becoming a fine England captain."

The crucial point here is that Hussain was the right captain for those times. In 1999, England were languishing at the bottom of the Test rankings. It was not a moment for tactical flourishes and devil-may-care self-expression. Hussain's central assets were will power, directness and fighting instincts. They suited an England team that was searching for a simple and clear sense of direction. I heard some Australian cricketers of that era - players who belonged to one of the greatest teams in history - question whether Hussain was a "natural captain". Maybe Hussain wouldn't have been a natural captain of the best team in the world. But Hussain - just like Allan Border - was a natural captain of a team beginning the long road to recovery.

Michael Vaughan, inheriting a team that had long battled hard, could encourage England to play with more freedom and joy. The team was ready for a new mood, and Vaughan had the emotional intelligence to create it. Then, after an uncomfortably unsettled period, Andrew Strauss offered stability and understatement. In each case, the circumstances were as significant as the new man's temperament.

Instead of believing that "captains always behave in this way", Cook should wait until he has discovered what type of captaincy is required in this instance. That in turn requires the ability to resist being pigeonholed

Indeed, if Hussain, Vaughan and Strauss each completed the same personality test, I doubt they would have many characteristics in common. Vaughan is quick-thinking and intuitive; Strauss is measured and considered; Hussain is strong-willed and volcanic. So how can we possibly provide a meaningful answer to the question "What makes a good captain?"

The same point applies to business and politics. What makes a good CEO? What makes a good prime minister? Not a static list of qualities, but the right personality to fit the circumstances of the moment.

Sometimes the circumstances are outright impossible. The Conservative party that John Major inherited in 1990 was so hell-bent on its own self-destruction that it didn't matter who led them.

Margaret Thatcher thrived on the sense of righteous conflict - a just battle that had to be fought. In the intransigence of the trade unions, she found the ideal opposition. But postpone her career by just one decade and the job description had radically altered. The Tory party didn't know what it was looking for to follow Lady Thatcher, but it certainly wasn't another Lady Thatcher.

Tony Blair's triumphs at the polls make him the most successful electoral leader in the history of the Labour party. But had it not been for the party's desperation to win - after well over a decade in opposition - they would have been unlikely to turn to such a conservative-sounding leader. For all his political gifts, if Blair's career had not coincided with the moment when Labour was prepared to move to the centre, he wouldn't have reached the top.

As with the cricketers Hussain, Vaughan and Strauss, the politicians Thatcher, Major and Blair have remarkably different personalities. And yet, between them they governed for 28 consecutive years.

There is no static "right" personality for a leader. So a central strand of leadership is the ability to catch the mood of the moment. Ian Chappell did this. The restless, iconoclastic atmosphere of the 1960s fitted well with his personality. He might have found it much harder captaining during the more conservative mood of the Coronation tour in 1953.

In order to embody the expectations of those around you, a leader's optimal personality - far from being fixed in stone - needs, in fact, to be a mixture of strength and flexibility. Instead of believing that "captains always behave in this way", Cook should wait until he has discovered what type of captaincy is required in this instance. That in turn requires the ability to resist being pigeonholed, to avoid being cornered into a character profile that can - and will - be over-simplified and misinterpreted.

Cook is already one of England's finest batsmen, and few players have been better prepared to take over as captain. He needs no advice from me. But if I was forced to offer it anyway, I would say only this: stay light on your feet; wait to see what needs to be done; first discern the outline of the lock, only then cut the appropriate key.

And, of course, be lucky.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • chathuradil on September 13, 2012, 12:01 GMT

    Nice article Ed. i am wonder how u missed the Ashes here. It would be the most important thing in English cricket. So to be one of best captains, you got to hold the Ashes tight in your hands. Also do need to solve the KP's situation. I am always behind the TV when you are playing in Tests. all the best Chef.

  • cloudmess on September 13, 2012, 11:58 GMT

    England have had 3 fine captains in the last 13 or so years, and it's interesting how their sides almost became extensions of their own personalities. Hussain's teams were tenacious, attritional scrappers (most evident in the period around 2000 and early 2001), but with a tendency to retreat into neurotic paralysis when facing the Australians. Vaughan's England were more confident and quick-thinking, and cared little for reputations - but once scaling Everest (as Vaughan himself had briefly done with his batting), they struggled to keep their focus and ambition. Strauss' England have been very solid, well-balanced and professional, but with a tendency to become a little leaden-footed, conservative and set in their ways once success has been reached.

  • FallsDown on September 13, 2012, 4:40 GMT

    Nice article Ed :) BTW, "armchair psychologists"...what other kind of psychologist is there? :D

  • on September 12, 2012, 19:17 GMT

    This is a good read. Ed Smith as ever has something interesting to say about cricket and leadership generally.

  • R_U_4_REAL_NICK on September 12, 2012, 18:41 GMT

    Cook has taken 6 first-class wickets at an average of 34. It's clear he has great potential as not only England's new test captain, but their key bowler as well. Best of luck Cook! Lead from the front... er, foot?

  • bigdhonifan on September 12, 2012, 16:53 GMT

    Ed Smith- Here is 5 great captains Imran Khan, Saurav Ganguly, Arjuna Ranatunga, Stephen Fleming, Mark Taylor

  • on September 12, 2012, 16:20 GMT

    If KP is not picked then that luck factor is already diminished for Cook...

  • bluebillion on September 12, 2012, 14:49 GMT

    Cook cut a sorry figure and looked to have run out of answers during the 5 - 0 ODI loss to India last year. He will need to do much better in tests in India this time round. A drawn series will put him in good stead.

  • soham1303 on September 12, 2012, 12:53 GMT

    Not since Michael Atherton have I come across a brighter cricket writer in the modern era.I won't call his writings as 'biased' in favour of England rather he is focusing on the part of the world he is familiar with. I am sure, with the passage of time in print and electronic media, he will be a global voice in cricket. The article is extremely thought provoking and kind of rubbishes Mike Brearley's 'Art of Captaincy'. Brilliant Ed , a weekly dose would be better.

  • LakshmiNarasimhan_S on September 12, 2012, 10:40 GMT

    Saurav Ganguly was the captain which India needed post the match fixing debacle, he was strong willed, had a good eye for talent and backed those talented players(yuvraj,sehwag,harbhajan,zaheer etc) during highs and lows and most importantly enabled us to compete outside the sub-contient after a long time(Azhar's era and Sachin's brief era). He cud be termed as natural captain and a natural leader of men.

  • chathuradil on September 13, 2012, 12:01 GMT

    Nice article Ed. i am wonder how u missed the Ashes here. It would be the most important thing in English cricket. So to be one of best captains, you got to hold the Ashes tight in your hands. Also do need to solve the KP's situation. I am always behind the TV when you are playing in Tests. all the best Chef.

  • cloudmess on September 13, 2012, 11:58 GMT

    England have had 3 fine captains in the last 13 or so years, and it's interesting how their sides almost became extensions of their own personalities. Hussain's teams were tenacious, attritional scrappers (most evident in the period around 2000 and early 2001), but with a tendency to retreat into neurotic paralysis when facing the Australians. Vaughan's England were more confident and quick-thinking, and cared little for reputations - but once scaling Everest (as Vaughan himself had briefly done with his batting), they struggled to keep their focus and ambition. Strauss' England have been very solid, well-balanced and professional, but with a tendency to become a little leaden-footed, conservative and set in their ways once success has been reached.

  • FallsDown on September 13, 2012, 4:40 GMT

    Nice article Ed :) BTW, "armchair psychologists"...what other kind of psychologist is there? :D

  • on September 12, 2012, 19:17 GMT

    This is a good read. Ed Smith as ever has something interesting to say about cricket and leadership generally.

  • R_U_4_REAL_NICK on September 12, 2012, 18:41 GMT

    Cook has taken 6 first-class wickets at an average of 34. It's clear he has great potential as not only England's new test captain, but their key bowler as well. Best of luck Cook! Lead from the front... er, foot?

  • bigdhonifan on September 12, 2012, 16:53 GMT

    Ed Smith- Here is 5 great captains Imran Khan, Saurav Ganguly, Arjuna Ranatunga, Stephen Fleming, Mark Taylor

  • on September 12, 2012, 16:20 GMT

    If KP is not picked then that luck factor is already diminished for Cook...

  • bluebillion on September 12, 2012, 14:49 GMT

    Cook cut a sorry figure and looked to have run out of answers during the 5 - 0 ODI loss to India last year. He will need to do much better in tests in India this time round. A drawn series will put him in good stead.

  • soham1303 on September 12, 2012, 12:53 GMT

    Not since Michael Atherton have I come across a brighter cricket writer in the modern era.I won't call his writings as 'biased' in favour of England rather he is focusing on the part of the world he is familiar with. I am sure, with the passage of time in print and electronic media, he will be a global voice in cricket. The article is extremely thought provoking and kind of rubbishes Mike Brearley's 'Art of Captaincy'. Brilliant Ed , a weekly dose would be better.

  • LakshmiNarasimhan_S on September 12, 2012, 10:40 GMT

    Saurav Ganguly was the captain which India needed post the match fixing debacle, he was strong willed, had a good eye for talent and backed those talented players(yuvraj,sehwag,harbhajan,zaheer etc) during highs and lows and most importantly enabled us to compete outside the sub-contient after a long time(Azhar's era and Sachin's brief era). He cud be termed as natural captain and a natural leader of men.

  • Noman_Yousuf_Dandore on September 12, 2012, 9:59 GMT

    Very well-written Ed; exactly my sentiments!!

  • kk777 on September 12, 2012, 8:15 GMT

    A bit too English for me...but definitely worth more than a read. An advice that any new captain in the office should heed.

  • pchalla on September 12, 2012, 7:45 GMT

    Cook's test will be in sub-continent this winter on tour to India. Cook is not popular in India owing to his derogotory comment about mumbai taxi ride and comments about IPL. New captain coming with a team who haven't done well in sub continent conditions with a hostile crowd and decent opposition will test his leadership. Cook did well in his debut in India scoring a century. Interesting to see how well he will do as a captain

  • Nutcutlet on September 12, 2012, 6:52 GMT

    Your articles are always worth the wait & worth their weight too, Ed. This is another nugget. Your subjective comparison of England's recent captains & the useful analogy of political leaders over a longer timespan has encouraged me to consider other ages and their captains (whether on the field or in the House). The maverik Winston Churchill was undoubtedly the right captain in 1940 & the same could be said of Nelson Mandela in SA, & Mahatma Gandi in India in their times. 'Cometh the hour, cometh the man' indeed. Back to cricket. The dour, battling Len Hutton was the right man to bring back the Ashes in '53; Frank Worrell (the greatest of WI captains, bar none, IMO) the captain that single-handedly united a West Indian side & inspired a cricketing generation, with Richie Benaud as his willing co-conspirator, in 1960-1. Remarkable times throw up remarkable captains, or should that be the other way round? That may also be true. It will be fascinating to see what Cook makes of it.

  • sacricketlegend on September 12, 2012, 6:02 GMT

    Ed Smith is the most thought-provoking cricket writer I have come across in a long time. His ideas are almost always original, interesting and tend to come from a different angle. I love reading his work, despite its heavy English bias.

  • Sudhirhk on September 12, 2012, 5:32 GMT

    Well, "natural captain" may not be a myth as you have mentioned. However, we don't get to see as many "natural captains" as well. One name I can think of as a natural captain was Imran Khan. He instilled self belief in his team mates and turned them into world beaters, also, he commanded respect and led from the front.

  • landl47 on September 12, 2012, 4:38 GMT

    It's certainly true to say that different types of personality can be successful as captain. The four best captains I have seen- Richie Benaud, Frank Worrell, Mike Brearley and Imran Khan- were all quite different from one another. However, all had the ability to get their players giving of their best. In a sport which needs strong individual as well as team performances, that's an essential part of captaincy. We'll see whether Cook has that ability, but I can't help wishing that Swann had been given a chance. I think he would have made a great captain.

  • Cpt.Meanster on September 12, 2012, 4:09 GMT

    I wish Alastair best of luck in India, he will be needing heaps of it. Also, I personally like his 'soft nature' and gentle outlook on things. He's well spoken, has a good body language in general which should bode well for tough overseas assignments in the future. I am sure most of the England players will welcome him with open arms. Can't help it but only feel affection for Cook. I think of him as my own brother and hope he can succeed in the future. England will need him to fire, the team will need him to fire. Success with the bat would automatically make his captaincy easier to manage. What's better than to return to the land of his international cricket baptism - India, where he made a memorable debut in 2006 by hitting a maiden century !

  • vinjoy on September 12, 2012, 3:51 GMT

    Very well put! I assume that luck means (a) your best players injured for crucial match (b) toss on a speccific pitch (c) rains and D/L. But that is true for any team, any captain and in any sport. So, Luck should not mean having McGrath and Warne in ranks which Clarke or even Pontint dint have in later years. Vaughan dint have them, nor did Smith.

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  • vinjoy on September 12, 2012, 3:51 GMT

    Very well put! I assume that luck means (a) your best players injured for crucial match (b) toss on a speccific pitch (c) rains and D/L. But that is true for any team, any captain and in any sport. So, Luck should not mean having McGrath and Warne in ranks which Clarke or even Pontint dint have in later years. Vaughan dint have them, nor did Smith.

  • Cpt.Meanster on September 12, 2012, 4:09 GMT

    I wish Alastair best of luck in India, he will be needing heaps of it. Also, I personally like his 'soft nature' and gentle outlook on things. He's well spoken, has a good body language in general which should bode well for tough overseas assignments in the future. I am sure most of the England players will welcome him with open arms. Can't help it but only feel affection for Cook. I think of him as my own brother and hope he can succeed in the future. England will need him to fire, the team will need him to fire. Success with the bat would automatically make his captaincy easier to manage. What's better than to return to the land of his international cricket baptism - India, where he made a memorable debut in 2006 by hitting a maiden century !

  • landl47 on September 12, 2012, 4:38 GMT

    It's certainly true to say that different types of personality can be successful as captain. The four best captains I have seen- Richie Benaud, Frank Worrell, Mike Brearley and Imran Khan- were all quite different from one another. However, all had the ability to get their players giving of their best. In a sport which needs strong individual as well as team performances, that's an essential part of captaincy. We'll see whether Cook has that ability, but I can't help wishing that Swann had been given a chance. I think he would have made a great captain.

  • Sudhirhk on September 12, 2012, 5:32 GMT

    Well, "natural captain" may not be a myth as you have mentioned. However, we don't get to see as many "natural captains" as well. One name I can think of as a natural captain was Imran Khan. He instilled self belief in his team mates and turned them into world beaters, also, he commanded respect and led from the front.

  • sacricketlegend on September 12, 2012, 6:02 GMT

    Ed Smith is the most thought-provoking cricket writer I have come across in a long time. His ideas are almost always original, interesting and tend to come from a different angle. I love reading his work, despite its heavy English bias.

  • Nutcutlet on September 12, 2012, 6:52 GMT

    Your articles are always worth the wait & worth their weight too, Ed. This is another nugget. Your subjective comparison of England's recent captains & the useful analogy of political leaders over a longer timespan has encouraged me to consider other ages and their captains (whether on the field or in the House). The maverik Winston Churchill was undoubtedly the right captain in 1940 & the same could be said of Nelson Mandela in SA, & Mahatma Gandi in India in their times. 'Cometh the hour, cometh the man' indeed. Back to cricket. The dour, battling Len Hutton was the right man to bring back the Ashes in '53; Frank Worrell (the greatest of WI captains, bar none, IMO) the captain that single-handedly united a West Indian side & inspired a cricketing generation, with Richie Benaud as his willing co-conspirator, in 1960-1. Remarkable times throw up remarkable captains, or should that be the other way round? That may also be true. It will be fascinating to see what Cook makes of it.

  • pchalla on September 12, 2012, 7:45 GMT

    Cook's test will be in sub-continent this winter on tour to India. Cook is not popular in India owing to his derogotory comment about mumbai taxi ride and comments about IPL. New captain coming with a team who haven't done well in sub continent conditions with a hostile crowd and decent opposition will test his leadership. Cook did well in his debut in India scoring a century. Interesting to see how well he will do as a captain

  • kk777 on September 12, 2012, 8:15 GMT

    A bit too English for me...but definitely worth more than a read. An advice that any new captain in the office should heed.

  • Noman_Yousuf_Dandore on September 12, 2012, 9:59 GMT

    Very well-written Ed; exactly my sentiments!!

  • LakshmiNarasimhan_S on September 12, 2012, 10:40 GMT

    Saurav Ganguly was the captain which India needed post the match fixing debacle, he was strong willed, had a good eye for talent and backed those talented players(yuvraj,sehwag,harbhajan,zaheer etc) during highs and lows and most importantly enabled us to compete outside the sub-contient after a long time(Azhar's era and Sachin's brief era). He cud be termed as natural captain and a natural leader of men.