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**