A leader has to earn the respect of the led, 1982

Some thoughts about modern captaincy

Michael Brearley

I would not have been tempted back to cricket more than ten years ago without the allure of the captaincy of Middlesex; nor, I think, would I have continued to play without the stimulation of that job. At times, the thought of letting someone else deal with the hassles is attractive, but however good it would be for my soul to give up the reins, I doubt if I could do so willingly and still play. I think, therefore, that it is worth trying to describe the nature of captaincy, as its scope is remarkably wide.

The captain of a county cricket team is, all at once, managing director, union leader, and pit-face worker. He has almost total charge of the daily running of the concern; he is the main, if not the only, representative of the work-force in the boardroom (i.e., on the committee); and he has to field, bat and maybe bowl. He conducts the orchestra and he performs: perhaps on the front deck of the violins or as second tambourine. (It varies; I've been both.) Consequently it is hard to play God, to read the Riot Act about carelessness or incompetence, when one throws one's own wicket away or plays ineptly - if not today, tomorrow or yesterday. Any conscience on this score can inhibit one's own play: the captain oscillates between pawkiness - being over-anxious about carelessness and, aware of the tendency to criticise others for slow-scoring, an inappropriate desperation for quick runs.

Social changes, together with the related changes in cricket's arrangements, have over the past fifteen or twenty years made the captain's job more, rather than less, difficult. Social hierarchies have become flatter: authority-figures are taken for granted less and criticised more. A leader has to earn the respect of the led. Doctors are sued more frequently for alleged incompetence: I await the day when a captain is sued for negligence by an injured close-fielder. The aristocratic tyrant has given way to the collaborative foreman, although some older players still yearn for the old-style discipline and for the voice accustomed to command. There are, moreover, county sides in which over half the players believe that they themselves should, or could, be captain. Twenty years ago, such ambitions would have been much more circumscribed. Envy, today, is less limited, and criticism from within the team less inhibited.

Similarly, criticism from outside is more vociferous. At Old Trafford in 1981, F. S. Trueman, broadcasting on the radio, was writing Bob Willis off in extreme terms; he did not know by what right Willis was drawing his money, he had never seen such inept bowling. (I wonder even whether Trueman had the decency to be abashed when Willis took three wickets in his next over.) And because current Test players are under far more scrutiny than ever before, the captain has to bear the brunt of it on behalf of his team. D. R. Jardine was able to toss up before the start of a Test, walk back into the dressing-room - where all seventeen members of the party would be dressed in whites, opening batsmen padded up - and pin the team-sheet on the wall. He felt no need to tell the players in advance, let alone the two British pressmen, one an expert on lawn tennis, who accompanied the team on its sensational journey around Australia. Harold Larwood told me that if any journalist had dared to ask Jardine if he was considering standing down from the side, Jardine would have punched him on the jaw.

Today's press are more demanding and inquisitive. They expect answers, quotes, and cooperation. Kim Hughes, speaking at a dinner shortly before last summer's final Test, agreed that his team had not batted well and deserved criticism. But, he went on, some of the things said about them were such that, if you were walking along the street and a fellow said that to you, if you had any go about you at all, you'd deck him!

Last summer, I found an England team more embittered by the press than I'd ever known. Ian Botham refused to speak to them after his century at Leeds, and Willis was outspoken on television immediately after that match. I myself felt that tows were planted, cultivated and encouraged out of the most arid, unpromising soil by certain sections of the media. Of course there always has been some meanness in the relations between performer and critic, but the type of writing fostered by the modern craving for excitement and sensation puts today's public figures under a type of pressure unknown to their pre-war predecessors.

This same demand for excitement has, in addition, led to the revival, and proliferation, of one-day cricket, and this too has made a difference to captaincy. In all types of cricket there have been captains, perhaps a majority, who more or less work to rule, following whatever happens to be fashionable at the time. And it is especially tempting to think of the job along these lines in limited-overs matches. One county captain used to have decided, before every Sunday League game, exactly who would bowl each over. As usual, if he has a good side, the captain who follows a rigid pattern will achieve adequate results, but this approach is a pale shadow of proper captaincy.

It is, of course, essential to have some plan or outline of policy. But situations vary enormously throughout a game, and no simple formula can fit all contingencies. The ideal captain will have a feeling for the moment when a batsman has taken the measure of one of his bowlers. He will know which bowler is least likely to be heaved to the short boundary on the leg-side. He will keep some of his resources up his sleeve, but will know when to go all out for a wicket. He will gauge accurately when to stop worrying too much about saving singles and to concentrate on saving fours. In the midst of impending chaos he remains calm, juggles his bowlers sensibly, and managed to keep weak fielders out of the way. This applies in all forms of cricket: the captain remains responsible for assessing the proper balance between attack and defence. I felt that Tony Greig would switch too suddenly and dramatically from one to the other.

Cricket today is less courtly than it once was. Before limited-overs cricket, slips were, in a sense, compulsory. It would have been unsporting to put all one's fielders back; just as in the air battles of the First World War it was ungentlemanly to aim at the pilot. As Bradman has admitted, it would have taken him much longer to score his runs in the modern game, and not merely because of the decline in the over-rate. We live in an era of cost-effectiveness, though occasionally a giant like Botham transcends all calculation.

Although some subtleties of the game do disappear with limited-overs cricket, there are nevertheless many occasions for the exercise of tactical judgement. However, the crucial difference is not so much tactical as psychological. There are nowadays far more close games, crucial moments, hectic situations. Many more instant and pressured decisions have to be made. County cricket used to be incredibly sedate. There was the slow rhythm of the three-day matches, with close finishes rare. Play would be held up while aeroplanes passed overhead, or until barracking died down. Bowlers rarely posed a physical threat. Aggression was low-key.

Complaints that the standards of sportsmanship have declined since those balmy days are sometimes coupled with the suggestion that the causes of the decline are financial. Players are so interested in the money available that they will stoop to get it. I would argue that the changes are mainly mis-described and certainly wrongly explained.

Off the field, too, many county captains still have much power. We have been remarkably untouched by the tide of specialisation. We have the major say in selection; and the almost total say in how much, and how, the players are to practise. The only other official closely involved with the playing staff is the coach; but his domain is mainly the Second Eleven. Moreover he is often - in our case at least - the only scout. The captain is responsible for players getting from one match to the next, and deciding who takes his car and which players. He looks after day-to-day discipline, unless a case is bad enough to go before the committee, and is involved in questions of contract and salary.

Not surprisingly, the breadth of the traditional rôle is under attack, and now the cricket manager has arrived in county cricket. He can be a help to the captain, especially in taking away many irritating little jobs, and can contribute to the whole approach of the team. But whether his contribution is worth its cost, especially when so many clubs are short of money, I rather doubt. There are, moreover, ticklish questions of priority between captain and manager. Cricket is too complex and personal to be controlled at a distance: only the captain, in the middle with his bowlers and fielders, can sensitively react to the needs of the moment. The precise rôle of the manager needs, I suspect, revaluation in some quarters.

One peculiarity of cricket amongst games and sports is that, while each individual duel is between two protagonists, bowler and batsman, these individual contests take their meaning from the overall contest between two teams. It is the captain who is primarily responsible for the fusion of the individual and the group. He is, or should be, the leader. He must try to inculcate team-spirit - the identification of the individual with the interests of the whole group - without loss of personal flair or individual opportunity.

Sometimes the need is to rediscover the expectation of winning. Last summer, England had gone twelve Tests without a win. They were dropping as many catches as they were holding; the bowlers were looking, at times, slightly half-hearted. Spirit sagged if a fielding session yielded no tangible successes. Not long after, virtually the same team was catching everything, and bowling and fielding with a new vitality. This transformation, I hasten to add, was achieved almost entirely by inspiring individual performances. The fact remains that the main shortcoming in a team may well be that it has lost the taste - even the sniff - of success.

As in other areas of mutual activity, communication is vital. Both county staff and touring party are so small that most exchanges are face to face. The problems are immediate, practical, and personal. There is no separation between management (the captain) and work-force. In industry, managers are concerned more with long-term plans and with outside organisations. They can easily be cut off from their fellow-employees, both physically and by the nature of their job. Socially and culturally, too, there is often a chasm between managers and managed. On the cricket field a captain can and should be constantly in touch with the rest of the side. It was pointed out to me that I do some of this keeping in touch literally, especially with bowlers, with a hand on a player's arm or round his shoulders. I also have constant eye-contact with the fielders. This lets them know that I am aware of their efforts and feelings, that I'm satisfied or dissatisfied; and the habit of it enables me to move a fielder with a minimum of fuss.

The group is small enough to enable everyone to have a say on tactics and on the general running of the tour or of the team. A captain cannot always have six or seven players homing in on him on the field with advice at critical moments; autocracy is at times essential. But it is even more important to enable everyone to express opinions off the field, both informally and at team meetings.

At one such meeting in 1980, when Middlesex were playing below potential and there was a sense of insecurity in the side as a result of some team changes, one player said he had in the past felt a change in attitude towards him from the other players when he was dropped - as if he was no longer in quite the same sense one of them. This valid and perceptive point would have been much harder to get across had it come from an authority figure.

The spreading of the authority rôle is very important. In Australia, Bob Willis helped me, as vice-captain, by being prepared to take a tough line with players on occasion, to share the responsibility for an unpopular decision or a critical attitude. As in families, it is much better if those in charge are capable of saying both yes and no.

More broadly, the secret of motivation - easier to talk about than to achieve - is getting everyone to motivate each other and himself. In intense heat, say, and half-way through a second day in the field, bowlers need to be made to feel that the rest of the team fully value their efforts. As Rousseau said, individuals can identify not only with their personal good but with the common good.

One important asset in mutual motivation is humour, which can bring an outsider into the group, even as a butt. Through jokes, conflicts can sometimes be tactfully aired and defused. Pomposity is deflated. Humour softens the edge of authority. The enemy is rendered less dangerous by nicknames - Rodney Hogg quickly became known as Quentin, Road and Hedge after other noted hogs - and team-mates are helped to feel part of the group by names that are private to it or originated within it.

The success of a team depends to some extent on compatibility and happiness, but even more on respect. Without respect, humour becomes nasty and criticism carping. On tour, one common schism is between the party-goers and the stayers-in. To the former, the latter are no fun; and what is more they don't do their share of going to the functions that are not compulsory, but at which some representatives of the team should appear. Stayers-in see the others as frivolous and excluding. One of Greig's strengths as captain was being able to stand up for either side - having been very much a party-goer himself. If players respect each other, then different social tastes do not damage.

Any group of people tends to throw up the same types. I have already mentioned fun-lover and kill-joy. In addition, there are complainers and pacifiers, the punctual and the latecomers. There are humorists and fools. The rôles that these individuals fall into may effect their performance adversely, and then the captain must try to modify the rôle if he can. For example, some people find that their only route to a sort of acceptance is to play the fool. No doubt a cricket field is not the only locus for their rôle; a poor self-image may have led them to take this way out since childhood. However, it may become prominent in their cricket, for professional cricketers are often very quick to spot a weakness and are quite ruthless at probing it. The group itself may well push such a man further into the court-jester's part.

We had such a player at Middlesex some time ago. At his previous county he had the reputation of being difficult to deal with and temperamental. His captain there was alleged to have said, when asked how overseas players fitted into the dressing-room, that he'd had no trouble with them, but that bloody Smith! Smith was a thorn in his flesh, and a figure of fun to the rest. On one occasion, Smith felt that he should have been bowling and not the captain, so he allowed the ball to pass by his foot and hit the boundary board before lobbing it back in. We took him on because of his undoubted talent. Besides, I rather liked him. In our pre-season practice matches, I noticed that when he bowled he tended to fall over, which provoked slightly stifled laughter, and that he presented himself as an appalling fielder, spindly and uncoordinated. This, too, provoked laughter, though I knew that we would all be irritated if it happened in competitive matches. He also made rather provocative and often odd remarks. I decided that we should not allow him to present himself as a fool, and that we should take him seriously from the start. Gradually, Smith spent more time on his feet than on his knees; and his fielding improved remarkably. For a while all went well, until various difficulties intervened.

There are three separate domains of captaincy: the technical (or tactical), the psychological and the administrative. These areas overlap. There is no point in having brilliant tactical ideas if your bowlers think that, coming from you, they are bound to be hogwash, or if the members of the team are pulling in different directions. Similarly, players are unlikely to remain highly motivated if they find your tactics are stupid.

How well the captain carries out his administrative rôle also affects his other rôles. He is likely to be the only representative of the players on the committee, so he has a responsibility to represent their views and, to an extent, to explain the response from the committee. A side is not likely to be well motivated if it feels that the committee has taken on or got rid of the wrong players; has grossly undervalued their services; or does not listen to their ideas. And though the captain is not the committee, he is partly responsible for good working relations between it and the playing staff.

One of the main pitfalls for a captain is an exaggeration of his own importance. He feels utterly elated when things go well, and devastated when they go badly. These swings in feeling occur along with the swings in the side's fortune, regardless of excellence or luck. Moreover, they ignore the fact that the captain's impact, though real, is limited. There are teams which would need an exceptionally bad captain to prevent them from winning, while others could be led by Napoleon and still be doomed.

The media do not encourage sanity in this area. One's own tendencies to both self-glorification and self-denigration are fanned by being hailed as a hero one day and chastised as a villain the next. This happens to any performer, but in cricket, whereas individual results are glaring, the captain's contribution is much harder to assess.

However modest the captain may appear to be, this exaggeration of one's own significance may reveal itself. He may feel more than reasonably depressed if the team has a bad day, and even if he himself has played well he may find it hard to be energetic and active. He may feel personally let down and correspondingly angry; even full of hate towards his players. Conversely, when all goes well, he loves the players and glows with pride.

© John Wisden & Co