Leading from the front

Two World Cup-winning captains often given the short shrift are Clive Lloyd and Steve Waugh. Neither is, in public lore, a particularly innovative tactician. A feature on great captains by S. Ram Mahesh.

Wonder why Australia is so bloody good? There's a clue in the commentary box. Richie Benaud, Ian Chappell, and Mark Taylor in stint after incisive stint demonstrate why they made such excellent captains. In an age homogenised over-statement masquerades as analysis, these three stand out for the clarity they bring to their thinking and their rare ability to call a game a couple of overs in advance. They direct the viewer's attention to the unnoticed, successfully giving off the impression, so crucial for captains, that they haven't revealed all. And each has about him — distinctive even across airwaves — a certain something that compels following.

Benaud regrets not playing a World Cup — he preceded one-day international cricket — but both Chappell and Taylor had excellent, if unsuccessful, captaincy runs. Chappell was in charge of the 1975 Australian side. One-day cricket was in its infancy, England had already theorised that defensive bowling was the way to go, but Chappell decided he'd attack with slips. His rationale was shaped by early influences in his cricket. As he once told Jonathan Agnew, "I always remember something he (grandfather Victor Richardson) said — and Vic didn't talk very much about cricket to me — `Never think you are coming up with new tactics, Ian. It's a cyclical game and rather like an old suit. If you hang on to it long enough it'll come back into fashion one day. Likewise, if you've got the firepower, hand it out, because you can bet that when you haven't — you'll get it from those that have.'"

Typical of his ability to draw from external sources — curators, his 'keeper Rod Marsh, debutants, beery opponents were all passed through his redoubtable mind's sieve — Chappell decided to replace Ashley Mallet with Gary Gilmour in the semifinal after a chat with West Indies off-spin great Lance Gibbs.

The decision — based on cricketing logic that reasoned the conditions at Leeds would benefit lefty swing more than off-spin — paid off. He destroyed England. But, as Chappell contemplated the sweet pleasure of telling journalists who questioned his attacking instincts to stuff it, Australia crumbled. That Gilmour then bailed the side out with his batting reinforces the best words on captaincy yet, unsurprisingly Benaud's, that it's 90 per cent luck and 10 percent skill; but for heaven's sake don't try it without the 10 per cent.

Benaud also tells an excellent Ricky Ponting story. When he was appointed, mandarins deemed Ponting wasn't quite the tactical whiz. Of his ability, there is no question, but can he hack it as captain they asked. Benaud's anecdote illustrates why Ponting's got at least one base covered, why Andrew Symonds and Brett Lee think little of putting a fist through the wall for their skipper. Ponting, Benaud told `The Independent', "wouldn't get up from the selection table until Symonds was in Australia's 2003 World Cup squad. Having got him in the side, Ponting then flagged him down when Symonds came out at 90 for four in Jo'burg, with Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis really getting stuck in. Ponting said, `I want you to listen to me, because I'm going to ask you to do something for me.' Symonds said, `Yeah mate'. Ponting said `No, I really want you to listen. I want you to be here at the end.' And he was. He scored 143 not out, and that changed Symonds' game. He's now a fixture in the one-day side. He's played in some Tests and he could play in more."

Taylor, in 1996, had an interesting time of it. By some accounts, he was set in his ways — Steve Waugh in his autobiography says it may have cost Australia — but he did depart enough to promote Shane Warne to pinch-hit against New Zealand in the quarterfinal. Waugh says interestingly that of all the sides in the 1996 edition, Australia was least likely to spring a move like Martin Crowe did in 1992 opening with Dipak Patel's off-spin. But, Taylor was the master of bluff. His ability to convey to the opposition that all was part of an ineffable plan, and that he had a trick or three to pull out of his yellow sleeve was second to none. In the semifinal at Mohali he sold the West Indies the dummy of Stuart Law's leg-breaks. Simultaneously he adhered to his core captaincy principle of throwing the ball to a striker, Warne in this case, when in trouble.

The captain of the 1996 World Cup though was Arjuna Ranatunga, a man Chappell rates high as both perceptive tactician and inspiring leader. Remarking in his forthright manner that the cliche of a captain being as good as his side was a load of rubbish, Chappell pointed to Ranatunga as one who forced his side to play better than it could. Man for man Sri Lanka didn't compare when it toured Australia before the World Cup, said Chappell, but Ranatunga had the side competing on level terms for long. Roshan Mahanama once told this writer that Ranatunga had several plans for a batsman. More importantly, the side bought into these plans. Ranatunga was also a master at manipulating the media to play his mind games: he famously called Warne a media myth before the 1996 final, and proceeded to take him apart.

Imran Khan, victorious in 1992, captained on two doctrines. He believed a captain couldn't lead from behind, and promoted himself to three while batting; he also believed that the business part of captaincy happened while bowling, and as a bowler himself, was best equipped to deal with it. His facet as authoritarian paterfamilias is far too complex for a pithy two-liner — besides, it's been dealt with at length in a previous issue of Sportstar by Nirmal Shekar. Of the other great all-rounder and successful World Cup captain, Kapil Dev, it's posited — dubiously no doubt — that as a natural cricketer that he didn't have to think about his game as much as a less-endowed player would. He was thus robbed of the benefits of crystallised analysis. But, Kapil showed in 1983 he could lift his team by stirring example. And in a side of clever men such as Sunil Gavaskar, Mohinder Amarnath, and Ravi Shastri, that was often all that was needed. Crowe surprised the world in 1992 with revolutionary tactics — Patel opening the bowling and Greatbatch the batting — but these were results of painstaking planning. These moves were incubated beforehand with coach Warren Lees. Crowe and Lees took to referring to the teams as strips prefixed by the colours of their uniforms (Australia, for instance, was the yellow strip) to dehumanise them. Crowe also stuck to what he worked out was an optimum number of bowling changes through an innings. So patterned was New Zealand's strategy that John Wright, who took over from an injured Crowe in the semifinal, was like a pilot without the route plan.

Two Cup-winning captains often given the short shrift are Clive Lloyd and Steve Waugh. Neither is, in public lore, a particularly innovative tactician. Both are referred to — a touch disparagingly — as either motivators or disciplinarians, the implicit suggestion being their sides could have skippered themselves. But, Lloyd made an important strategic decision (the turn to high pace) that had tactical benefits, and Waugh moved Adam Gilchrist to the top of the order to redefine the modern 'keeper's role.