Captaincy in Cricket – A diversified phenomenon with set basics

MS Dhoni (Image source: Twitter)
MS Dhoni (Image source: Twitter)

“A team is as good as its captain.” This is a saying that people often use, not only in cricket or sports but also in business and the corporate world. Today, we will look at the different aspects of captaincy in cricket, the evolving role of a captain in cricket and then come to a conclusion on to what extent does this quote hold true for cricket.

A captain has a much more advanced role in cricket than some of the other team sports, like football or basketball. In cricket, a captain has to make many decisions on his instincts seeing the context and situation of the match, as opposed to the generally set plays run by a coach in football or basketball. In this regard cricket can be compared to American football, where the Quarterback has to direct the flow of play on every possession.

A captain in cricket has to set up the field, decide the bowling and batting order and decide whether to take the help of DRS or not after an umpire’s decision, when his side is fielding. These are just some of the tangible responsibilities of a captain on a cricket field. There are many more responsibilities of a captain, both on and off the field that can not be measured or many times not even seen like motivating a player after a bad game, or a poor run of form, talking to him and letting him know what the team expects from him, standing up for his teammate on the field, and many more. A captain creates a persona around the team, which reflects on the entire group. These are the kind of intangible duties that make a generational cricketer a bad leader, and an average cricketer a great leader.

With time, as the game of cricket has evolved, so has the role and workload of a captain. With the increased number of formats, leading to more matches, and more travel has increased the workload of a captain to a great degree. And to add to it, unlike the past, a captain is under mass scrutiny because of social media even after one bad performance by the team, or the captain himself. We have seen more captains being replaced, or losing their jobs in the last 10 years than probably in the preceding century. And with most of the players nowadays being millionaires and superstars in their own rights, a captain has an even more difficult job managing the egos in the dressing room, and keeping the players commited.

Many of the captains of the national team today are also among the most popular faces in the nation. So their responsibility is not only towards the team, but also towards the society. He cannot make any mistakes, both on and off the field because there are millions of little children out there looking up to him. These are the factors that make it even more hard for a captain to lead a side, in today’s day and age.

With that being said, there are certain factors which aid the captain in today’s game that were not present a few years ago. The importance of coaches and managers has increased drastically, with all teams making sure to hire the best in the business.​​​​ Coaching was not always taken seriously in cricket with many teams altering coaches on a series to series basis, even as late as the 90’s. India did not hire a forigen coach till 2000, and as soon as they did, it reaped rewards for them with John Wright changing the culture of fitness in the Indian setup.

Nowadays you see specialist coaches for each department, as well as a mentor in some cases, along with the head coach. The presence of statistician and video analysts has also made it much easier for the captain, and the team as a whole to analyse their deficiencies and work on them.

There are different types of captain and different leadership techniques in cricket. There are some captains who like to be expressive and are high on emotions throughout the game. They like to inject their teams with enthusiasm and aggression, and ensure the entire team injects energy on the field. Then there are others who are a bit laid back, who like to be calm and composed and let the game run itself.

Even tactically, there are different kinds of captain. There are some who try to follow a set tactic as much as possible, while others experiment more often than not. An example of different captains following different tactics is in Test cricket. MS Dhoni usually went with 4 front line bowlers and 6 main batsmen, while Virat Kohli prefers to go with 5 front line bowlers and 5 main batsmen. This is one of the many examples of tactics differing from captain to captain. Whatever it might be, over time each captain craves an unique identity for both himself and the team. No tactics are right or wrong, until it is helping the team to perform.

That brings us to the most important topic on which the captains are judged – the performance of their teams. If the team loses, the captain’s decisions come under scrutiny, and if the team wins, those same decisions are termed as genius. And that according to me is the most hypocritical and foolish thing that trolls and people on social media say.

Let’s take Eoin Morgan as an example. He is considered by many as one of the greatest white ball captains of all time. He picked up England’s captaincy when the team was in shambles and led them to glory in the 2019 World Cup. But before lifting the World Cup trophy at Lords, he was also the captain of the England team that had lost in the 2016 World T20 final to West Indies. He was heavily criticised at that time and there were calls to remove him from captaincy, majorly due to his decision to give the last over to Ben Stokes. And ironically, the man who played the match winning innings in the 2019 World Cup final, giving Morgan the major trophy he definitely deserved.

2 different tournaments, 3 years apart, the same captain, and the same player driving the narrative and fate of the match. The difference – he failed once, and was successful once. What if  Ben Stokes had got his yorkers right in the 20th over, and Carlos Braithwate had not hit him for 4 Sixes. What if Ben Stokes had defended the 19 runs in the final over, and England had won the game ? Would Morgan still be criticised for giving the final over to Stokes – Definitely not! But was it in Morgan’s hands whether Stokes would get his yorkers right or not – Once Again no! And what if Ben Stokes had failed in the 2019 World Cup final? What if he had played a mediocre innings and then got out without finishing the game? What if England lost the 2019 World cup final because of that labouring knock by Ben Stokes? Would Eoin Morgan have been criticised for sending Ben Stokes over Jos Buttler in the final, instead of the genius he was called? Most Definitely Yes.

Similarly Ms Dhoni’s decision to give an inexperienced Joginder Sharma the last over in the 2007 World t20 Final was highly questionable, especially with Harbhajan Singh’s one over still left. And that decision was looking ‘foolish’ as Cricket Twitter would put it, when an in-form Misbah-ul-Haq scored 8 runs off the first two balls. But then the tables turned and Misbah got out trying to scoop the ball, and an iconic moment was born which we all have painted in our minds.

But what if instead of getting out, Misbah had won the game for Pakistan? What if the gamble had not paid off and India lost the final due to the inexperience of Joginder Sharma? Knowing the mindset of Indian Fans, Dhoni probably would still have been criticised for giving the final over to Sharma. But again here, was it in Dhoni’s hand whether Joginder Sharma will defend the title or not? You know the answer by now. But what was in Dhoni’s hands is to do what he thought was the best for the team – and he did that. Sometimes that decision helps the team win games, and sometimes it does not, but does that determine whether a captain is good or bad – No.

This does not mean that all captains are equally good, and anyone can lead a cricket team. But to judge whether a captain is good or bad by his team’s performances, without any context is not always the best way. So let’s change the saying “A team is as good as its captain” to “A captain is only as good as his team.”

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