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Captaincy playbook: Brearley: ‘You need to be both inventive and cautious…’

I had been reading Mike Brearley’s 1985 classic, ‘The Art of Captaincy’, and re-reading ‘Frank Worrell’, by Ernest Eytle. It struck me in both that in a sense, like Richie Benaud, they did not become captains of teams, but rather, they moulded teams out of collections of individuals.

In their separate geographical spaces—Brearley in England, Worrell in the West Indies and Benaud in Australia—while each team bore its distinctive cultural traits, at the core, they shared many characteristics.

Photo: Former England cricket team captain Mike Brearley.
(Copyright ESPN)

Brearley came after the other two; born in 1942, he was captain of England from 1977 to 1981 leading the team in 31 of the 39 Tests he played, winning 17 and losing four. After cricket, he began practising as a psychoanalyst, and has written several books that combine both—the two most recent I think are ‘On Form’ and ‘On Cricket’.

The earliest book on captaincy covered his time as captain of Middlesex and England, and his responsibilities and challenges. Throughout, he describes situations and how he dealt with them; but he devotes an entire chapter to ‘Strategy, tactics and unusual ploys’, where he constantly stressed the need for a captain to use all, and that it was equally important to be flexible.

‘Broader policy-lines may be formulated for a whole tour, or series’ but overall, it was about reading the game as it unfolded. I had intended to summarise the chapter until I came across some of his more recent reflections, which I wanted to share, because they convey the depth of his thinking.

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Reviewing ‘On Form’, (2017), Paul Edwards noted that Brearley made a distinction between being on form, and in the zone, quoting him thus:

“There is a slender margin between being in the zone in a creative and constructive way, and on the other side slipping into arrogance, omnipotence and obliviousness to risk. Losing the capacity to stand aside and watch with a professional’s eye may be suicidal.”

Photo: New Zealand’s Ross Taylor consoles West Indies’ Carlos Brathwaite at the end of their thrilling Cricket World Cup contest at Old Trafford, Manchester on 22 June 2019.
(Copyright AP Photo/Jon Super)

We’ve seen how being in the zone can erase thinking. Carlos Brathwaite against New Zealand in last year’s World Cup was a classic example in that penultimate, heart-breaking over.

In a 2007 interview with Siddhartha Vaidyanathan, Brearley acknowledged that captaincy is a role of many parts, involving many different qualities, but could be divided ‘for convenience’s sake into two—technical aspects and man-management’.

“Technically, you need to know the game completely,” said Brearley. “You need to have a great pleasure and interest in tactics. You need to be both inventive and cautious, and move between attack and defence without too much of a radical shift.

“With respect to man-management, you need to get the whole group playing as a team, you need to get the best out of individuals. You can’t do it with everyone but you can expect some to perform better than they would otherwise.”

Brearley was described as ‘intuitive, resourceful, sympathetic and clear-thinking’ and Vaidyanathan asked him about those qualities. He had this to say on resourcefulness: “It means having a range of options in your mind which you can turn to in times of need… That’s when you’ve got to eke out the most out of your resources, have an alternate plan, propose something different.

Photo: Former England captain Michael Brearley (right) with illustrious teammate Ian Botham.
(Copyright PA Images)

“You’ve got to keep trying and you’ve got to keep it going. Sometimes all you’ve got is keeping it going. Bowlers are tired, batsmen are on top; all you can do is think, ‘It could be even worse, it could be slightly better’.”

About being sympathetic, he said:

“Some of the great players haven’t been great captains because they haven’t been able to understand the struggle. You have to have an empathy for other players, and at the same time you have to say, ‘If this is the way you’re going to go, you won’t succeed.’

“You’ve got to be tough, sometimes hard.”

Vaidyanathan asked him what he thought about the statement that a captain is only as good as his team.

It’s a partial truth. Obviously if you’ve got second-grade players you wouldn’t get the same result as with first-grade players. With a good captain, a company, orchestra, any group, can be made to work—a good leader who makes them the best they can be under the circumstances they find themselves in.

“Some captains are good when they’re up against it, some are good when they’re on top of things. Winston Churchill was a great war leader, but I don’t think he was a good prime minister during peace. So you’ve got different situations.

Photo: England captain Michael Brearley in action during a Test match.
(Copyright UK Times)

“You can’t transform mediocre players into great players but you can transform them into good ones. Which makes a difference.”

It made me reflect on the eras of Clive Lloyd and Vivian Richards, whose teams dominated global cricket for a good 15 years. They have been hailed as brilliant captains because of their records, but I have often wondered if anyone has ever taken into account that they were leaders of a band of extraordinary talent, and that these players were individually phenomenal by any measurement.

They were also players with strong personalities who did not take too kindly to ‘man-management’ and members of this team could hardly have been said to have been ‘led’ by anyone.

It does lend credence to the statement that a captain is as good as his team, doesn’t it?

Editor’s Note: This column is the second in a five part series on cricket captaincy that was first published in the Trinidad Express newspaper. Wired868 will publish part three on Wednesday 8 July.

Click HERE to read part one on late Australia legend Richie Benaud.

About Vaneisa Baksh

Vaneisa Baksh
Vaneisa Baksh is a columnist with the Trinidad Express, an editor and a cricket historian. She is currently working on a biography of Sir Frank Worrell.

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  1. Well, I see nothing in here that substantiates your claim that Brearley, like Worrell and Benaud, was an allrounder. Maybe he was bold as a captain but I don’t think that quite makes your case.

    It’s good stuff but was Brearley really in the Benaud/Worrell class? Hmmmmmmm…I remember a claim that it was not an open-and-shut case that he would make England’s best XI at the time; he made the team, some contend, as CAPTAIN rather than as opening batsman so he had to, I suppose, have something special.

    Still, surely balance requires that you mention the 1979 World Cup final when he and Geoffrey Boycott batted so slowly at the top of the innings that Clive Lloyd is alleged to have deliberately dropped the Yorkshire opener at mid-on. In pursuit of 287 off 60 overs, England reached 129 before Brearley departed—but almost 40 overs had gone!

    Where was his much ballyhooed cricketing nous on that occasion?

    One swallow in the four summers between 1977 and1981, I suppose…