CRICKET'S `SHIRALEE'

COLUMN BY FRANK TYSON

Len Hutton, England's first professional captain, was an introvert. A talented player, he had the essential attributes required of a skipper.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

IN the Australian vernacular, "shiralee" means a bundle or swag — and by common usage has come to denote a burden or encumbrance. Translated into cricket parlance, it could be used to describe the responsibilities of a team captain. How often do we hear the question put to Test skippers as to whether the added duties of command have reduced his effectiveness as a batsman, bowler, fieldsman or 'keeper. But why should captaincy influence skills which are not in play when leadership decisions are needed? Most tactical initiatives are usually instigated by skippers who are batsmen, fielding in non-pressure positions and able to focus exclusively on implementing pre-conceived game plans usually decided in pre-game team meetings. Good leaders should not find it too difficult to focus at apposite phases of a game on their respective playing or decision-making skills with little or no disruption to their attentional concentration. Note, I said GOOD leaders!

Leadership styles vary from individual to individual and their different methods reflect the degree to which a skipper commits himself to the responsibility of directing a team. In my early days in first-class cricket with Northamptonshire, I came under the command of Freddie Brown — a former junior member of Douglas Jardine's MCC and `Bodyline' side which toured Australia in 1932-33. With such a provenance it was not surprising that, when he was elevated to command, he was an autocratic captain — Bluff King Freddie, dedicated to complete and sole command of the men he led: the sort of man who would walk into a selection committee meeting, place his written team on the table and declare it to be the only side he was willing to lead in the next game — no discussion! He got away with such bullying by virtue of the high esteem in which he was held by the English cricketing world. When he led the MCC team to Australia in 1950-51, his courage in the face of fast bowlers like Keith Miller and Ray Lindwall was legendary — which prompted the Sydney costermongers to spruik around the Harbour City streets that their cabbages had `hearts as big as Freddie Brown!' In batting crises he could tear off an occasional defiant half-century and he was a `sans pareil' role model; he never asked his players to do something which he could not do himself. In his later days, in Post WW2 county cricket, called out of retirement to lead Northamptonshire out of terminal decline, he could, at the ripe-old cricketing age of 40, still send down his daily ration of 30 overs of penetrative leg-spin or economical swing, his face becoming more and more ruddy above the `kerchief which he habitually tied around his neck — a legacy of his `Bodyline' days in the Aussie heat.

The principal danger of authoritarian leadership arises from handing command to a man who may enjoy a social prominence within the side, but cannot deliver the performances which others in his team can — and in consequence is not worth his place in the eleven. Australia has always avoided this error by first choosing sides on playing merit — and then nominating the skipper out of the personnel selected. Until the mid-sixties in England, however, county sides were usually led by amateur players, who changed in their own dressing-rooms, ate lunch in their own dining room and even went on to the ground through their own gate.

The England side was never led by a talented professional player until Yorkshireman, Len Hutton, took charge in 1953. What a slap in the face for the late Lord Hawke, the former eminence gris of Yorkshire cricket, who once uttered the prayer: "Please God that a professional will never captain Yorkshire!" The result of this cricketing apartheid was some rather ludicrous selections in the ranks of county captains. One county side appointed a skipper, who replied to the club's advert in the national press, claiming to be a captain of long experience. He turned out to be the long-time leader of a Radio BBC social team! Yet another captain betrayed his lack of ability by chasing a ball towards the boundary and when, in the process, his cap fell off — he went back to pick it up before resuming his pursuit of the ball!

Ricky Ponting's Ashes-seeking Aussies of 2005 have recently popularised a fresh dimension in cricket captaincy: leadership by collaboration between the senior members of the touring team. Australia's elite experienced nucleus of Warne, McGrath, Gilchrist, Buchanan and Ponting himself, plus any of the side who wished to contribute suggestions, encapsulated a vast pool of knowledge and it would have bordered on lunacy not to have taken advantage of it. Ponting tapped their collective nous to formulate a pre-conceived cohesive game plan, virtually demoting himself to the on-field role of the interpreter and applicator of the senior players' collective tactics. The fact that Australia lost the series for the first time since 1987 suggests that the move was a failure. Not so! England's margins of victory were so slender, and Australia's luck with injuries and some decisions was so bad that I believe that it would have taken just a little wiser use of specialist coaches and better cricketing skills to tip the scales in the tourists' favour.

Captaincy by consensus — without meticulous pre-planning and the prompt execution of pre-determined tactics is cumbersome — but, carried out punctiliously, it has the advantage of clear-cut, agreed team goals, which brook no dissent, since the team itself helped formulate them. Thus I found it hard to follow media herd who laid the blame for Australia's 2005 loss at Ponting's door. He merely applied collectively-agreed tactics to the game situation. The credit for their success — or blame for their failure should have been equally shared. This policy of leading by cricket collectivism is immensely valuable when there is no obvious senior pro to replace a retiring incumbent and one of the present players has to step up to the leadership dais after being just `one of the boys' in the preceding season. He may find it difficult to command players who only a short time before were his peers. Sharing leadership responsibilities makes the heavy hand of command more bearable.

But whilst the captain does, in many instances, merely translate the opinions of team's experience, he is always at the sharp end of the action, representing his team and his country. Captaincy is not a popularity contest. In addition to his normal batting, bowling or 'keeping chores, he has to inform a player that he has been dropped, discipline misbehaviour, delegate unpleasant tasks, communicate with the media, speak at public functions, and is expected to excel in the area of man-management. Not that this is always the case. The great Aussie skipper of the 1930s, Bradman, for instance, is said to have preferred listening to records in his room rather than socialising with his team in the bar. England's first professional captain of the fifties, Hutton, was something of an introvert. Both, however, possessed that essential attribute of a Test captain: the fundamental knowledge and intuitive grasp of tactics which inspires a leader to make the correct move at the exact psychological moment.

On the final day of Adelaide's fourth Test in 1955, the pundits fully expected Hutton to bowl spinner Bob Appleyard to exploit the wearing pitch and win the game. Ironically Appleyard did not bowl a ball! Hutton, recognising the mental ascendancy which his pace bowlers had established over the Aussie batsmen in the preceding three matches bowled me and Statham to the verge of exhaustion to set up victory in the Test and the series — a magical touch. The Yorkshireman never missed a trick in his field placements and was a master of slowing up a game to enable his fast bowlers to bowl longer spells. Who but a skipper such as Bradman would have had the imagination to reverse his batting order to win Melbourne's rain-affected Third Test of 1936-37, when the Australians were caught on a sticky wicket and looked like losing the game? At county level, Northamptonshire's senior pro Denis Brookes led the Wantage Road side with a deft touch learned by more than 25 years experience on the English first-class scene. He was the master of the `now you see it — now you don't' tactic: the art of winning declaration games by dangling the carrot of victory before the noses of opponents chasing a set total in a limited time. He kept aspiring victors in the match by allowing them the required run-rate, provided they lost wickets regularly. At the death he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by reintroducing his wicket-taking bowlers with an unparalleled sense of timing!

It is now twenty years since Mike Brearley, that magnificent man-manager-England-skipper, left the Test scene. He was probably the last man to win a place in an international team not as the mediocre batsman which he undoubtedly was, but purely on the basis of his ability to extract the best out of his match-winning all-rounder, Ian Botham. There have been very few old-fashioned leaders like Brearley. Ah the art of captaincy and man-management! Where have you gone?