Mike Brearley and his art of captaincy

“Psychoanalysis and cricket or captaincy are more closely related than one could imagine. Each can be a means of developing the self,” says the former England captain, Mike Brearley.

It’s not every day that you sit across the table from a man who achieved a first in Classics, had a 2:1 in Moral Sciences at Cambridge, is a practising psychoanalyst and, to top it all, led England to Ashes glory.

Mike Brearley belongs to a rare breed of international cricketers with a scholarly bent that bridges the disciplines of cricket and psychology.

Brearley’s ascent to captaincy coincided, or rather was a direct result of Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, which in 1977 pulled the rug out from under the custodians of the game, with a flavour and flourish hitherto unknown. However, it wasn’t until the fateful Ashes series of 1981 that his leadership skills came to the fore.

“We didn’t really play that well — it was a lot of luck,” Brearley reminisced.

England, trailing 0-1 after the first two Tests, turned the tide in spectacular fashion to take the urn 3-1. Ian Botham starred with both bat and ball — this after a lacklustre performance in the first two Tests saw the captaincy baton pass from him to team-mate Brearley.

“On the other hand, the team did come together and Botham was freed up from the anxieties of leading a side. These things are quite complicated,” Brearley said.

Years later, Brearley would go on to write in his column for the English daily, The Guardian, “He (Botham) was excellent for me and not only in the obvious ways — taking wickets, scoring hundreds, and catching brilliantly at second slip. He also made me feel younger, made me laugh, kept me on my toes.”

‘Humanising a captain (like that),’ according to the Middlesex batsman, ‘is important.’

“If I’m more lively, that is going to have an impact on the players as well, so good interaction gets (you) going rather than one that’s aloof and chilly. Plenty of people were helpful to me when I was the skipper, Botham was in that sort of way,” he said.

Brearley’s batting record for England — 1442 runs from 39 Tests at 22.88 — may have belied his reputation as a game-changer, and he didn’t mince words while summing up his career.

“I wasn’t a great player,” he admitted. “I felt less secure about my worth to the team and had to be reassured, twice or thrice by senior players and a manager whom I respected, that I was really worth my place.”

Enjoying a good rapport: England captain Mike Brearley and Ian Botham (left) leave the field as spectators rush in, during the sixth and final Ashes Test at the Oval in August 1981. This was Brearley’s last Test, and he remained undefeated as captain in 19 home Tests. He has high regards for Botham, who, he says, “made me feel younger, made me laugh, kept me on my toes.”   -  Getty Images


According to Brearley, “it helps (with captaincy) if you’re a great player” — as the likes of Sir Donald Bradman, Richie Benaud and Garry Sobers would attest. But he was quick to add: “Some of the best players were not always the best captains. That’s because sometimes, not always, they haven’t had to quite struggle like the ordinary players, so they haven’t got the empathy.”

Former England fast bowler Chris Old said of Brearley’s captaincy, “He had that skill of knowing what switched people on, what motivated them, and he did it all in such a wonderful, calm manner.”

‘Talent is a limited commodity’

Leading a team full of star cricketers — Graham Gooch, Geoffrey Boycott, David Gower, Ian Botham, to name a few — presents its own challenges. Botham, for instance, was sacked as captain after the Lord’s Test during the 1981 series, and was even on the verge of being dropped. How did Brearley deal with the situation?

“The first thing you have to recognise is that talent is a limited commodity,” he pointed out.

“The second,” he continued, “is to enable them (players) to perform somewhere near their best. The start of that is getting to know people — I don’t mean with serious conversations but just finding out what clicks for them, eliciting that and responding to it.

“Another thing to say is no one in the world is a good captain with every type of person. I was probably quite good with people who were younger than me, who were not quite so talented,” he said before quickly adding, “Though I think I was helpful to Botham.”

After taking over the mantle of captaincy, did he put his signature on the side?

Brearley’s response bore an intellectual musk. “A good captain will not impose himself,” he began. “There was a Berlin orchestra conductor by the name Otto Klemperer. People said that whichever orchestra he conducted, it had his sound. That is interesting, isn’t it?

“There are 100 sounds in an orchestra, professional musicians playing together, and yet when they played with this man something of his personality, his style came across in their playing. I think the leader can certainly influence the team.

“I think he’s (Ben Stokes) a better batsman than Botham; he is not a good bowler and he is an equally good fielder,” Brearley said. “He has also got some of Botham’s qualities; he is fierce but with a human side to it and has an attacking flair — both are wonderful qualities.”

“At the same time as you grow as a captain, players fine tune what their leader thinks and that affects you — not always but sometimes,” he explained.

And what does he make of Rodney Hogg’s comments? (The Australian fast bowler once famously remarked, ‘He (Brearley) has a degree in people.’)

“We’re all interpreters of each other, some people more than others,” Brearley said. “Some are more able to use it in a practical way than others, because it’s one thing to be academically shrewd and quite another for that to enter your behaviour with others and help them do better — those things need to be taken into account.”

While that might be true about reading people’s behaviour off the pitch, what about spotting the quirks and quiddities on it, where the pressure of the game is paramount?

“The pressure of publicity, the pressure of when things don’t go well, the pressure from within the team, all play a role.

“You get people who are difficult, players who are troublesome — there are always these things as in any marriage or relationship where there are two individuals involved,” Brearley said. These days, when an Englishman uses the word ‘troublesome’, it’s usually to refer to one of the two things — England’s Ashes troubles or the talismanic all-rounder Ben Stokes.

A fierce cricketer: Mike Brearley sees shades of Ian Botham in Ben Stokes. He, however, is of the view that Stokes is a better batsman than Botham.   -  Getty Images

  The Stokes controversy

According to Brearley, Stokes “let himself and the side down with that incident in Bristol and law had to take its course.”

“There’s no doubt he couldn’t have played in the series against Australia, but basically I can see he is a good man. We all got our flaws,” he averred.

“He had a few drinks and he went over the top. And the story is he attacked someone who was attacking a homosexual couple — that’s what I know.

“There’s something admirable about that, but he went beyond and started throwing punches, so he needed to be brought up short,” he added.

However, Brearley, considered one of the shrewdest England captains of all time, would “love to have him on my side.”

Brearley, who led England to 18 wins and four defeats in 31 Tests, lauded the 26-year-old all-rounder for his “cheerful aggression”.

“I think he’s a better batsman than Botham; he is not a good bowler and he is an equally good fielder,” Brearley said. “He has also got some of Botham’s qualities; he is fierce but with a human side to it and has an attacking flair — both are wonderful qualities.”

While Brearley agreed that Stokes’ actions called for a strict stance on the part of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), he empathised with the New Zealand-born cricketer. “To be a young man who’s hot-blooded and a fine sportsman, you need a bit of ‘go, get ‘em’ attitude,” he weighed in before adding a cautionary note, “I don’t mean losing control, but taking the attack to the opposition.”

The 75-year-old, who is one of only three England skippers to win the Ashes home and away, offered a different perspective on the subject. “It’s a bit like children with their parents; you’ve to be loving and affectionate but you also have to break away at some point, disagree with them even,” Brearley said. “So I think sport, by having to retain one’s own resilience and discover the self through these struggles, becomes analogous to psychoanalysis.”

Psychoanalysis and cricket

Brearley researched philosophy at his old college, St. John’s, and taught at the University of California and Newcastle University. Hence, drawing parallels between cricket and psychoanalysis — a field that has supplanted his bats — is like second nature.

“Leading a side is about two things — tactics and strategy and man- or woman-management. If you give a bowler a ball and give him options he didn’t think of before, then that may spur his performance.”

“Psychoanalysis and cricket or captaincy are more closely related than one could imagine,” he said. “Each (cricket and psychoanalysis) can be a means of developing the self. Sport also does that, partly because with very small children, doing things with your body helps you to integrate certain aspects that don’t just happen to you unless you do them.

“There’s an arc of intention there. And those are the forerunners of the sport, I would say.

“And secondly, aggression which is central to competitive sport is also closely related to psychoanalysis, in that you’ve to free your emotional life sufficiently so that you’re able to open up in front of another person, even if it’s your psychoanalyst,” Brearley said.

In 1976, the year he made his debut for England, Brearley applied to train at the Institute of Psychoanalysis under Anne-Marie Sandler, a prominent analyst from Switzerland. Though initially he was turned down, Brearley was enrolled a couple of weeks later (turned out that captaining a county club, Middlesex, fulfilled the parameters required for pursuing the course!).

As someone who is enthused by the interdisciplinary nature of a sport, it came as little surprise when Brearley compared captaincy to parenting.

“The answers to becoming a good parent are very broad or specific to a particular situation,” he said.

“It’s not like making a table according to a plan. Also like psychoanalysis, you’ve to not only be disciplined in cricket but you also have to allow yourself some spontaneity — go with the flow — otherwise you’ll be so anxious and stressed that you won’t be able to play well,” he added.

On form and being in the zone

In his latest book, On Form, Brearley ventures to tread the thin line that separates ‘being on form’ and ‘being in the zone’ — the two phrases that have now taken up residence in cricket’s lexicon.

“Form is a more long-term epithet, being in the zone, on the other hand, is usually shorter and is something to do with excitement and a passage of time in which everything seems right,” he explained.

“You feel yourself being lifted above the ordinary. It could be to do with grace and an intense pleasure.

“I think someone who has been in the zone for a while, playing a game or a musical instrument, if you say to him or her, ‘what did you do there?’ and he or she might well say, ‘it’s very hard to put into words but I felt in a different place than usual,’” he added.

So, when is a captain on form — is it when he has inspired the players to excel as a unit or excelled at individual vocation or both?

Pat came the response, “Maybe neither.”

“A captain could be getting the best out of the team even when they’re not winning — maybe, that’s the best they could do,” Brearley said.

“Leading a side is about two things — tactics and strategy and man- or woman-management. If you give a bowler a ball and give him options he didn’t think of before, then that may spur his performance,” he added.

Brearley cites an example of the time he was ‘in the zone’. It was in a game against Nottinghamshire. South African all-rounder Clive Rice was at the crease when Brearley had a vision of him playing the ball to a fly-slip position. Brearley promptly positioned a man there, and Rice vindicated his premonition!

“It happened twice in the same match,” Brearley recalled with a smile. “The other time was a flick on the leg side, and I got a fielder for that shot. It was a bit freakish, but it was also shrewd. I thought my way into his (batsman’s) body stance and what might happen, and it did! It was thought out, yes, but it was intuitive too.

“I remember when I first played a match for Middlesex, I fielded at deep square-leg and Fred Titmus was bowling off-breaks. Somebody swept the ball and not only did I drop the catch, it went through my hands for six! And I thought he’ll be quite mad at me. Actually, he (Titmus) took it quite philosophically. What he said was, ‘Wasn’t so much you missed the catch but palming it on for six (laughs)’. In other words, he was very nice about it,” he recollected.

The above anecdote paves the way into the psyche of a cricket thinker — one of his kind. It’s the sympathy juxtaposed with a dash of emotional intelligence that, according to many, made Brearley one of the greatest captains in the game.

The late journalist John Thicknesse once used the words intuitive, resourceful, sympathetic and clear-thinking to describe Brearley.

Needless to say, in Brearley, cricket had found its philosopher captain.