Ed Smith

How much can a captain influence short-term performance?

Modern captains have less power than ever, yet they are still held overwhelmingly accountable for decisions and tactics arrived at by backroom consensus

Ed Smith
Ed Smith
Eoin Morgan waits for a hit in the nets, Colombo, December 5, 2014

Without the support of his bowlers, Morgan's best tactics will just look too clever by half  •  Getty Images

People who don't believe that the media indulges honeymoon periods should consider the relative treatment of Alastair Cook and Eoin Morgan. Having survived a media storm as Test captain in the summer of 2014, Cook was eventually sacked as ODI captain at the 11th hour before the World Cup. Most pundits felt this was a good idea, even though it left Cook bereft of his dream of captaining in a World Cup, and left Morgan very little time to put his stamp on the team.
Now Morgan has scored three noughts in his last four innings and four noughts in his last seven. Many of those who called for Cook's sacking seem very relaxed about this, citing's Morgan superb natural talent and better track record as an ODI match-winner. Yet Cook's resilience and capacity for enduring pressure was equally well-established. In short, I'm less convinced that Morgan's bad form exists in a different category from Cook's.
The reasons given for Cook's sacking were: 1) his poor form with the bat, and 2) the need to protect his long-term prospects as an England player. The selectors felt that continuing with Cook for the World Cup might radically deplete his resources. Effectively it would burn through too many miles on the clock, racing Cook towards a hastier exit from the English game. Though no one seemed to notice at the time, exactly the same arguments could have been presented as reasons for not making Morgan captain either. If Cook was in danger of ending the World Cup exhausted and short of confidence, Morgan might end it disillusioned and disengaged, one step closer to a career oriented to the roving life of a T20 specialist. It is far too early to be certain - England could still win the competition with Morgan as its hero - but it is a very real possibility that in sacking one captain England will end up undermining two careers.
There is a much deeper question. How much does the captaincy, over the short term, affect performance? Morgan or Cook? Bailey or Clarke? Everyone has a view and can marshal the evidence to support their prejudices. It makes a nice "talking point", as the saying goes. That does not, however, mean the decision under review is important in explaining events.
Put differently, what if England would have lost anyway on Saturday, whoever was captaining? And suppose that Australia would have won, whichever of their strong captaincy candidates was in charge? In obsessing about the psychodrama at the top, we ignore the underlying fundamentals.
There are two central trends in the evolution of professional sport and its coverage. The odd thing, however, is that the two movements are contradictory, indeed irreconcilable.
It is a very real possibility that in sacking one captain England will end up undermining two careers
The first is the cult of personality the hero, the champion, the winner, the master of mind games, the tactical wizard, the leader of men, blessed with the Midas touch. This is the way elite sport is frequently presented and analysed. Why? First, because it fits the modern obsession with celebrity; secondly, because it is endlessly useful as a media "talking point" - big personalities are always easier to discuss than systems or ideas.
Then there is the underlying reality of how professional sport is actually evolving. Every top team now employs a massive backroom staff of coaches, physios and analysts, all of whom are trying to find a tiny incremental advantage, a fraction of 1% here or there, to help their team. The idea that one single mind controls the whole team is laughably out of date. Even in football, where the manager is like the cricket captain, coach and selection panel rolled into one, he actually sits atop a vast coaching machine. Yes, he steers the wheel, but there are many more cogs in the machine than ever before.
In cricket, the captain's power and control are increasingly shared with other influences on the team. He can still make a difference, of course. But he exists in a highly professional context in which control is shared widely.
I was recently asked to write a new introduction to the reissue of Mike Brearley's iconic book The Art of Captaincy. One thing that struck me was how much more control Brearley had over his teams than any captain would have today. On being recalled as England captain in 1981, one of his first acts was to restore the pre-match warm-up and stretching routine. It is unimaginable today - given the number of physios and trainers - that this area of team life would be the preserve of the captain.
Critics of captains today lightly ignore a contradiction: modern captains certainly have less power than ever, yet they are still held overwhelmingly accountable for decisions and tactics that usually originated in discussions with the team's whole top table.
We have not yet mentioned by far the biggest constraint of all on any captain: the form and quality of the players.
In his post-match interview, Morgan was asked by Andrew Strauss why the England death bowlers favoured the bouncer over the yorker. Morgan's answer was that the boundaries at the MCG are shorter straight (65 yards) than square of the wicket (85 yards). Yorkers tend to be hit down the ground, whereas short balls are often hit square of the wicket. So as the fielding captain, Morgan was trying to force batsmen to play the harder, riskier shot. Had England bowled well, this would have sounded shrewd and canny. Because England bowled badly, it sounded too clever by half. In other words, it is the bowlers who make and unmake the success of tactics, not captains.
I will always believe in the power of great leadership, especially by gradually improving team culture over the long term. Right now, however, the correct answer to the question "Bailey or Clarke?" and "Morgan or Cook?" is: "Nice talking point, but it doesn't explain very much about the result."

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. @edsmithwriter