One of the early dictums that I learnt in club cricket about the role of a team captain centered on the need to possess the ability to get the right people in the right place at the right time. This is much easier to say than put into practice and covers a multitude of circumstances and conditions.
The dictum came to mind at the start of the first Test match of the Ashes series in Brisbane last week.
At the toss of the coin to determine which captain would have the choice of whether to bat or bowl first, England captain Joe Root won the flip and decided to bat first. Another dictum of the game which I was advised to follow in my early days was, “if you win the toss, bat: If you are in doubt, think about it, then bat: If you have serious doubts, consult a colleague, then bat.”
In the history of Test match cricket, England’s captains have chosen to bat on 80 percent of the occasions on which they have won the toss. Australia and India are only slightly below this percentage. What might explain the other 20 percent?
The most usual, but not only, reason is that the pitch appeared to offer an advantage to those who choose to bowl first. This was the case at Brisbane, where the pitch had a green tinge, the skies were overcast, and the forecast unsettled. These are conditions reminiscent of England, in which the ball is more prone to move around off the pitch and in the air.
In 2002 at Brisbane, England’s captain thought he saw some moisture on the pitch and, on winning the toss, asked Australia to bat. They went onto score 492 in the first innings, winning the game and the series convincingly. The decision is part of cricket legend. In 1954, the England captain chose to bowl at Brisbane and Australia scored 601, going on to win the match. The series outcome was very different, as England changed the composition of its bowling attack and went onto a 3-1 series victory.
These were the precedents which hung over the England captain last week. He chose the conventional route. England were bowled out for 147 and, despite clawing back some ground, were ultimately heavily defeated. Root has received much criticism for failing to get the right people in the right place at the right time.
There is another aspect to this dictum, which relates to the selection of the team. Over the years in Test cricket, a variety of methods have been used, including a selection panel without the captain, one with the captain, one with only the coach and the captain, and permutations of these methods.
In Brisbane, the decision of captain and coach was to omit both of England’s senior, most successful but ageing quick bowlers, either of whom would have been fancied to take advantage of the first day’s conditions.
This decision was also criticized on the basis that the right people had not been put into the right place at the right time. The captain defended the decision on the basis that it was prudent to consider how the pitch was likely to play over the whole five days of the match and that the workload of the two players in question needed to be managed. In the event, England’s batting, for the most part, was not good enough.
The order in which team members were asked to bat is another aspect of the dictum. This is mainly self-evident, in that some are better equipped to open the batting than others, having the ability to deal with the new ball when it is at its hardest, delivered, usually, by the opposition’s fastest bowlers. Great powers of concentration, essential for any batter, are required especially for this role.
Positions three to six in the order are normally occupied by the other specialist batters in the team, whilst bowlers and, sometimes, the wicketkeeper, fill the lower order, in a sequence that normally reflects their batting abilities. These do get argued about and it is the captain’s task to settle the order and keep peace.
The captain may also need to make decisions during the match about changing the batting order. This may be required in an attempt to improve the speed at which runs are scored or to cope with an injury.
At any standard of cricket, a crucial role for the captain is in deciding who bowls when and at which end of the pitch. Some grounds have slopes, others have shorter boundaries on one side compared with the other, whilst local weather conditions may need to be taken into consideration.
In Perth, Western Australia, for example, the afternoon sea breeze, known locally as the “Fremantle doctor,” was known to have a noticeable effect on the flight of the ball, causing both captain and bowlers to have definite preferences from which end of the ground to bowl.
It is the task of the captain to decide when to change one bowler for another. This will be determined by any one of a number of factors. A common reason is that the bowler is tired or tiring. Weather conditions may have suddenly changed favoring one type of bowler. Those batting may have scored too heavily off one bowler. A new batter may be known to be weak against a particular bowler, who may be brought on immediately.
Captaincy in cricket is a complex task and captains must be prepared for criticism, sometimes meted out unjustly. A captain must understand not only the technical abilities of team members but also their psychological traits and how these affect their relations with team members and ability to perform under pressure. These need to be melded into a coherent whole, operating within a set of tactics appropriate for each match. This does beg the question as to why anyone would want to be captain?