O Captain! My Captain - Sean McPartlin

15 May

Seeing the advance notice for Gordon Drummond’s presentation on ‘leadership and captaincy’ reminded me of Mike Brearley’s  book: “The Art of Captaincy” - perhaps one of the most widely praised cricket books ever. The book, like the game itself, it is about far more than just cricket. The psychological aspects of the summer game – admirably covered more recently by such as Ed Smith – probably impact more on captaincy than on any other element of the sport, and that makes choosing a captain not only crucial but also a complex and difficult task. 

In addition, the skills and duties of captaincy vary greatly according to the context in which they are practised. 

Across the game, a range of skills are required – the tactical, the man management, the personal strengths – but at the lower levels of the sport, the requirements can be quite daunting and even mystifying. 

I’ve played in more than one team where an estate car for the kit and 24 hour access to phone and email was more highly prized than onfield ability. A supportive partner and family can be the most important element, as games have been cancelled when   player shortage was caused by a household refusal to pass on messages, or an unfortunate telephone manner. A seven or eight hour absence every weekend puts strain enough on family life without the almost daily demands made on the skipper in relation to selection, kit, teas, directions, bar rotas, and pavilion refurbishment. 

To be fair, most clubs have a range of unsung heroes on the committees who do a power of  unseen work to ensure the club runs as smoothly as possible – but, somehow, it always seems to be the captain who is at the sharp end.  

And, at this level, on match day, alongside the responsibility for tactics, strategy, batting order, the scorers,  and team and personal performance, he has to balance the notorious moods of an average cricket team – the drama queen who opens the batting and is only ever out through somebody else’s fault; the nervous number 3 who needs constant reassurance that it IS possible to get into double figures, the wicket keeper who stands up when he should be back, and vice versa, the veteran still convinced he can turn, run, and throw from the covers just as well as he did thirty years ago – and then there’s  the bowlers. 

There’s the one who sulks if he doesn’t  open the bowling – and from his favourite end at that; the one with  a very short fuse who hurls the ball in faster than he ever bowls it, if by some mischance he’s been taken off before he was ready; the spinner who dances  constantly before the skipper’s eyes in a not too subtle hint that it’s time for  a change, and the occasional and very intense  leg break bowler who keeps muttering: “I think I could get him before he reaches his 150 – if I just got the chance.” 

At least two guys will be sending the evil eye because of where they were asked to bat or field, one will be nursing a hangover, and another will have a date at 6.30 and is praying for a result – any result, so he’s not late. 

We had one player who liked to light up a cigarette during every pause in play – the matches in his pocket caused him to rattle whenever he moved – till the day a square cut hit him on the thigh and smoke and flames issued forth. 

To all of this, the poor skipper has to bring some semblance of order, and the possibility of victory. Small wonder many are elevated to this august position by dint of being foolishly absent when the votes were cast on the night of the AGM. “Hi Sandy – just to let you know you’re captain of the threes – well done. Click.” 

So if it’s like that at grade cricket level, spare a thought for those playing the game at a far more intense level. In top league cricket or county cricket, there is at least more help available, and, theoretically, fewer ‘characters’ to be corralled – but at international level the job seems more or less impossible. 

Once upon a time, when cricketers were often young men of a comfortable background delaying their entrance to the world of finance, or miners escaping the pit, there were maybe seven or eight Test matches in a calendar year and the blissful anonymity of the county circuit for the rest of the time. Presenting an interested face to diplomats at receptions in far flung corners of the Empire was probably as challenging as facing up to fast bowling or stylish batting – but the job had a certain calmness to it, a steady pace – unless, perhaps, you were Douglas Jardine. 

Nowadays international cricket – certainly for the “Big Three” -  seems a  non-stop merry-go-round – with Tests, One Dayers, T20s and various money making enterprises arriving an almost overwhelming pace. 

Should there be a captain for each different ‘discipline of the game’ and if so, does he only play in that format, or do you end up with a Test team with three ‘captains in it? 

Then there are the problems caused by what is now known as “Communications”. Pity the poor skipper hunched in his room wondering at the mischief being uncovered by red top reporters in every nook and cranny, not to mention hundreds of, ahem, bloggers, willing to put in their oar. The days of a civilized chat over dinner with a broadsheet “Cricket Correspondent” must seem long gone. Even the growling of a disgruntled quickie, as he paws the ground at deep square leg, must seem preferable to the headlines served up on a regular basis in a cricket world that seems to owe more to ‘Eastenders’ than Broadhalfpenny Down.

Who would be a skipper, eh? 

If I were a man  given to puns, which, luckily I’m not, I might be tempted to suggest that a captain’s lot lies somewhere between “Too many Cooks spoil the broth” and “The Moores the merrier”, in the Strauss Waltz that the role  has become.…….

 

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