Captaincy Kaboodle

I am no Mike Brearley, but I have some experience in captaining a Cricket team. The first time I ever captained a team, I was 11 or 12.  There were not many strategies involved back then, because all you are trying to do is just play and hope you win. The skill levels have barely developed and you don’t have  much of a clue. You have a general idea of the concepts of the game and you run with it.

By sheer luck, I became the captain of the Penn State Cricket Club (PSCC) during the course of the  2003 season.  I continued as captain for the rest of the season and the following season as well. I took the lead in the running of the practice sessions and people seemed to be comfortable playing under my captaincy. We won a couple more games that season but I started picking up on the little things that contribute to winning the games.

When you play in an amateur cricket league, the skill levels are pretty even amongst the teams. The team that wins a game, is usually the one that wins the important moments in the game. In 2003, my team lost about 4 games where we thought we had the upper hand three-fourths in to the game. This served as an important lesson for me. The ability to identify moments in the game that will have a big influence in the outcome of the game. The captain needs to identify these moments before they actually materialize on the field, put the fielders in right position, have the right set of bowlers or batsmen operating.

For example, let’s say, we are defending 155 in 40 overs. The other team is 58 for 4 and is facing an uphill battle. They are looking to build a decent partnership and consolidate. So, they will try to avoid taking risks as much as possible. So, here, as the fielding captain, I would want to pack the inner circle with fielders to save the ones and twos, and dare them to take risks, if they wanna score runs. I have seen other captains – not only in the league we play in, but on the international level – back off slightly, to get through the overs and bowl their 5th and 6th bowlers. Typically, I try to bring on my best bowler of the day. Of course, the fielders need to back up the bowlers and a captain is only as good as the team.

One of the most important things I learned during this captaincy experience was the need to empower your players. The need for your players to feel that they have their captain’s attention and the captain is listening and not treated like a child. I have tried to provide avenues and space for the players on the team to come forward with their opinions and suggestions.

Another thing I learned was that the team, if they have been playing together for a reasonable amount of time, takes the character of the captain. It’s extremely important for the captain to project an air of confidence, no matter the situation. There have been matches when we had no business winning. It goes without saying that you need some feisty characters in your team, that just refuse to lose. A particular match from 2005 comes to mind. The opposite team needed 30 odd runs, with 6 wickets in hand and a lot of overs to go. The team just plain refused to lose and fought tooth and nail. With only 6 runs needed, we got the final wicket and was one of the best wins I have been part of, with PSCC.

Typically, a team is made up of a handful of players who have played for a while, some really good players, some role players and a few who are new to the scene. It is the captain’s job to make sure everyone is treated the same way, with no special concessions for any particular player. I would like to think I did a decent job of it. In fact, I would do the opposite of special concessions. I would be hard on some the of really good players to show the rest of the team that, no matter how good you are, you would be treated like just any other player and not to expect any special treatment.

There is a particular strategy I follow when we are batting first. I always give a small target to the players, that I think is a winning total. So, even if we were to lose some quick wickets, the players know that the target we need to get  is not far away and hence, they could play with freedom.  Yeah, its nerve-wracking and your margin of error is pretty much, non-existent. But the adrenaline rush you get when you come through with the game on the line is well worth it!

Another thing I do as a captain is to take the pressure off of the team and put it squarely on me. During these games, there are situations when the people from other team could pick on someone “sledge” and I wanted to be the target of that, so that my players can focus on what they have to do, rather than have their attention distracted by inane comments. Apparently, Ian Chappell would also do this sort of thing.

“A couple of times in my career we had a fan abusing a bowler and he was starting to become distracted. The next time the fan yelled out, I called back something that got his attention and he started abusing me. As I was prepared for it, the abuse wasn’t a problem, and the bowler was better able to get on and do his job.

Growing up, I played backyard cricket with my 6 older brothers. Being the youngest, they would pick on me and constantly make fun of me etc. There were times when I would break down and walk off. But as they kept doing it, I made a pact to myself that I am not gonna let them get me out, no matter how hard they try. I would take blows to the body and never respond to their “sledging”. While I was playing in IT-BHU, the comments from people outside the field of play was so extreme, that the things people say during a match here in the U.S. feels like compliments. I take every opportunity to get under the skin of the other team. If they lose their cool and we get a wicket, great. If they make me the target of their sledging, better!

(Video Courtesy: PSU Summer Cricket League)
If you have a good team, captaincy is the easiest job in the world. Every one knows what to do, and have the skills to back it up. All you are doing then is, setting up a batting order and a bowling line up. However, the true test of captaincy is when you have a so-so team and/or facing adversity. The key things to remember (in my opinion anyway) are:

1. Project an air of confidence that you are not gonna let your team lose. Its infectious.
2. Manage the egos of the players.
3. Make sure everybody feels like they are a part. A part of something bigger than them.
4. Give the team small goals that they can achieve and let them play with freedom.
5. Identify the big moments of the game and make sure you win them.

**A version of this article appeared originally in my personal blog**

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11 responses to “Captaincy Kaboodle

  1. Nice one cap!! I have never ever been a captain but have had the opportunity to play under very different captains.. As a bowler, I would say, it really pisses you off when a captain decides to stop your spell because of one bad over. A captain, I feel , should not see winning as the only motive of the game which sadly is the case most of the times :(!

  2. @Bharath — I am sure as a bowler it pisses you off when the Captain cuts your spell, whether you are bowling well or not. But the Captain has a job to do and is responsible to the rest of the team. It also depends on the length of the game. If its a 10 or 20 over game, the match can swing on 1 or 2 overs and hence, the Captain does not have the luxury of giving the bowler who just gave up a lot of runs, another over.

    I have been in a situation where my captain took me off after I have bowled a wicket maiden. A captain has to do what he believes is right. That’s in essence, is the core of captaincy. The captain having the conviction to follow through with his thought process. For example, if he thinks he needs to move the second slip to a short cover, he needs to do it then and there – not next over, or 2 balls later. If you don’t follow through with conviction, the captain will essentially be “chasing the ball” and moving fielders to places where the ball was hit rather than being proactive and making it happen.

    Regarding your point where winning is seen as the only motive — That’s not true. What you are trying to do is, match your wits against the other team and trying to compete. Winning is a by-product of doing the basics correctly and being pro-active on the field. I would rather try everything on the field and lose, than die wondering “what if”.

  3. Subash, it feels good to have written off what one might think as a captain. I agree with you on most aspects. The most difficult part of the job for a captain is to bring all the players to the same page. I am not sure how to put it in words on a widely-read blog. But what I feel is that a captain has his method and players have their methods. Although the objective of both the captain and the players are the same, there is an evident conflict when the two methods merge. I have seen teams brought down because of this mismatch. What do you think of it? How do you think a captain must attend to this problem?

    Another thing that I had in my mind was the difference in the skill level of the players. Take for example, the Summer Cricket League. All teams are purported have an equal share of strengths and weaknesses. For a long time, I used to believe a strong player can change the game in favor of his team. But, there is a new school of thought I am beginning to discover with no offense to any one. I have realized a really weak player can bring his team down as well. The only thing that can be done as a captain is to expose the team’s weaknesses against the weakness of the opponent.

    But, I agree with your point about the moments that matter. A good captain can identify those key moments and make the players raise to the occasion. I have not seen or played under a perfect captain so far in my life. Mahesh had the instinctive nature to pick on cricketing moments, but he has never exhibited his captaincy skills. In fact, he has been shy to do it all these years. All the other captains, I have played with have either been conventional or opinionated in that they drive the game in accordance with what their thinking. I feel it is necessary to have a good combination of both worlds.

    At international level, obviously, Mark Taylor is the best I have seen. Ponting and Arjuna are examples of other instinctive captains. Ganguly is really a flamboyant captain and I have always been inspired by the trust he had on the younger players like Sehwag, Bhajji, Yuvraj and Zaheer. I have read he was the one who believed in quantifying the goals. It worked wonders for the team in the World Cup 2003. Wasim Akram is another shrewd cricketer who kills the opponent and believes in minimizing whatever edge you give away to your opponents. I should not miss out on Dhoni from this list.

    On the other hand, there are worst captains too. I am not sure if you would like me if I said Sachin (IMHO) is the worst captain I have ever seen. Attapattu was bad. Shaun Pollock, Atherton, Nasser Hussain etc. have never impressed me when they captained their respective sides.

  4. @Sridhar — I shall try to address all the points -very valid ones, I might add – as much as possible here. The Q&A could on its own become a new post.

    1. I agree Sachin was one of the worst captains we have had in recent times but, in his defense, he was saddled with a team that did not know its own characteristics. Its my opinion that great players don’t usually make great captains. One exception to this could have been Shane Warne. For players like Sachin, the game comes too easily. They cannot understand the mental and physical struggles of the players of different talent and skill levels.

    2. The Sachin situation brings up the point you have raised. The convergence of the captain and his players’ methods. Its hard to accomplish this without any sort of continuity between the captain, coach and the team. This is impossible to achieve in SCL or PSU tournaments as the people get together for a weekend, or once in a while. This is achieved by developing trust over a period of time, accomplished during practice sessions and the team meetings, and in-game decisions and performances. There is no other substitute to it.

    3. Captains, especially the good ones, are opinionated. They have to be. Opinions that are derived from strong convictions on how they want to approach the game, how well to extract the most from their team and attack the opposition. Great captains are not born that way. They learn. Its about willing to do something and not worry about being second guessed. For example: You had written in one of your match reports during the Lions v Kings game, about how stupid my captaincy was, as I did not attack. Here is how I saw it on the field. I gave the bowlers whatever field they wanted in the first 10 overs. It is a long tournament and I want the bowlers to understand what they are doing. If I just set up the field, they don’t understand what they need to be doing. Give them a chance to figure it out for themselves. As you may have noticed, I was a lot more pro-active in the 2nd half of that match, and we made a match out of it. Even though we lost, that gave the players and me, an opportunity to understand our respective outlooks.

    4. In terms of best captains, I’d say Waugh was better. “Tubby” Taylor although was a successful captain, let his performances suffer and that became a drag on the team (Read S. Waugh’s autobiography. I’ll lend it to you. Its only 750 pages long). Same with Ganguly. He was an inspirational leader but became a dead weight in the team. Nasser Hussain is not a bad captain at all. In fact, he had a team with average talent and he maximized their chances with his approach, which, sometimes was negative. Ponting is a terrible captain. He has usually been bailed out in spite of his lack of acumen, as he had a very solid team of veterans (Gilly, McGrath, Warne) behind him. From the current lot of captains, Dhoni (wait for it….) and Strauss are the best. I think India should have made Anil Kumble as captain and Dravid as VC in 2001. That would’ve been the perfect combo for us all the way to 2008.

    5. Regarding strong players and weaker players — The problem with SCL is not that. It takes a while to understand the psyche of the players. A combination of weak and stronger players is fine, as long as the captain has the time to understand how each player reacts to success, failure, criticism, pressure. If you have a group of players that can handle pressure and enjoy playing with each other, it does not matter if they are slightly weaker.

  5. Really interesting discussion :D!

  6. Thanks BTB. I want to add one more point to the earlier comment of mine. This goes to answer one of Sridhar’s questions: Captaincy by consensus has never worked in the history of sports, let alone Cricket. Different people have different personality and it will come through in the way they captain the side. However, there is one underlying theme. The captain needs to strong convictions and self belief to put in to action what he thinks is right. He needs to back it up with some mental toughness, when things don’t happen and he is second-guessed. You need to tell yourselves that, “You know what? I tried what I thought was right. It didn’t work out. So what? I could still leave the field knowing that I tried my best.”

  7. And that’s how Stephen Fleming was able to go to bed for over 10 years as NZ captain.

    • ROTFL. You have to hand it to the guy, however, that he did all that he could with that team of his. 1 genuine batsman, 1 spinner who was the savior of the middle order and one pace bowler.

  8. :), with regards to stephen fleming, i dont thing there could have been anyone else more deserving as well during the tenure that he becamse captain…as a captain you need to earn respect of the team members and not only them but also selectors and the cricket administrators in the country need to understand that this person is the best bet to do the job. NZ cricket still does a lot better with whatever small no. of cricketers they have. When sachin was offered captaincy after dravid’s and then later Kumble’s retirement, it showed the short sighted ness of the cricket administrators of the country….if it would not have been the strong mind that he is, sachin would have been doing the third stint as a captain.

    • @Parul — It always comes back to Sachin, huh? 🙂 Yeah, Fleming was a really good tactician. He maximized what his team could do. BCCI is not really known for having clear thoughts about anything. They went to Sachin as that was the safe play. “coz if they had offered the captaincy to someone else and had they failed, the BCCI would’ve been crucified. (But they would come up with excuses to throw that player under the bus as well).

      Even Cricket NZ bumbled around picking Lee Germon and others before they settled on Fleming and then eventually, Vettori. Cricket administrators everywhere are idiots.. only the degree varies.

  9. spelling mistake so many…:P think* i meant

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