Monday, 29 July 2013


Euclid: Captain of Geometry

They say a captain is only ever as good as his bowling attack. Well, maybe. But how good is a bowling attack? Is this ability a fixed property, like the hardness of diamonds, or can the captain get the most out of a bowling unit by deploying them wisely, setting good fields, responding quickly to circumstances, and generally helping the bowler find rhythm and confidence? Surely a bowling attack has a range, like tuning in a radio. The skipper has to try to eliminate the hiss and crackle of bad performance. 

Yet it seems to me also that a captain’s way of affecting things negatively (the game as a whole, I mean, not just the bowling attack) probably outweighs his ability to affect things for the better. That’s because his chances of influencing things positively are constrained more tightly by the abilities of the players (getting 5% more out of Joe Bloggs is futile if you need James Anderson to solve your problem), whereas things can become infinitely negative if a captain’s decisions are atrocious and his (or her) team become so demoralised that they lose any pride in their performance, all their resolve and drive. Glass ceiling, bottomless cavern.

Some of this occurred to me while watching the Ashes’ opening exchanges, although, in many ways, captaining a club team and a national team are as night is to day. The Test side will have a huge support staff around to enable the skipper to concentrate on on-field matters (in theory, anyway), exactly the way it should be, although there may still be some ego-massaging, some coaxing and cajoling to do for the likes of Alastair Cook and, especially, Michael Clarke.

Anyway, where the similarities between club captaincy and international captaincy are most alike – assuming you don’t have a fully-fledged media pack on your case night and day – is on the field. Yes, the weaponry you have at your disposal is vastly different, but the principles of engagement and the nature of the conflict, remain, in the abstract, the same, whatever the level. Bat versus Ball. 

So, after this Jonathan Trott-taking-guard of a pre-amble, I suppose I should re-velcro my pads one final time, scratch one last line in the dirt, and elaborate upon what I believe to be the crux of The Art of Captaincy (apologies, Mr Brearley) when it comes to tactics. Hopefully, it might help provide a way of tackling an at times very difficult job for young captains (the better you are, the more difficult it feels because the more you perceive)who may occasionally feel swamped by all the information that has to be processed and the personalities to be looked after. You need to think quick – with clarity and as little noise as possible  so I would suggest the following might be a fruitful place to concentrate your attention... 

First and foremost, then, I believe the captain has to properly and fully understand the precise balance of power between bat and ball at any given time – which of course is constantly and subtly changing (the good captain perceiving this like cattle sensing rain, ‘ahead of the game’, the mediocre one doing so reactively, when the scoreboard makes it unquestionable) – and then must act accordingly. Decisively. Projecting strength (or solutions) as much as possible. Which brings me on to the second point: once the balance of power is grasped and adjustments have been made (to the field, to the bowling, to the plans), he should not allow that to affect the manner, behaviour and alertness of the team. As Shane Warne once said, if you turn up at a game halfway through, you shouldn’t be able to tell what the state of the game is from the body language of the players.

Of course, all of this should not be a leadership responsibility that falls squarely and solely with the captain. Managing the mood of the group is largely a distraction for the captain and in a good, united team ought to be self-policed. You need strong characters – be they quietly determined or vocal and boisterous – dragging the team through, giving the captain the headspace to think about the front lines, and, yes, little gee-ups to individual bowlers while the group thermostat is set by others.

So, to fully understand the balance between bat and ball is to imply understanding several other things (par score for the conditions; the relative statistical or abstract strength of the two sides; if not a knockout, the league situation and the implications of different results, etc). But right at the coalface you must deal with the next ball going down, and to do that you must also understand its ‘geometry’. This is the information that the captain must process: What is the point of release (angle on the crease and the height)? What line is being bowled? What swing is there? Is there any seam movement? What is the response off the surface, bounce-wise? How is the batsman holding the bat: soft or hard hands; closed or open face, hitting straight or square? And beyond the ‘geometry’ is the intent: How hard is he hitting it? How aggressive is he generally? And how is he responding to the unfolding match situation?

Nevertheless, it is primarily the geometry (or is it the physics?) that will allow you to set a good field, get the angles right, with minor tinkering according to the balance of power. It is not about asking someone to bowl “good areas” – as Warne’s leg-spinning mentor Terry Jenner once said, “it’s not where it lands that matters, it’s how it gets there”. You need a mental picture of where the ideal standard delivery of your bowler (not his absolute snorter) will come out and what the batsman will likely do with it. Once you have that picture, then you will start to get a feel for the types of angles where the ball is likely to go, the ones that demand of this particular batsman a greater element of risk (trying to hit it those three yards straighter or squarer…). You pull them out of their comfort zone and create opportunity: cat and mouse. It is then down to you to decide how many resources you can commit to attack.

As any player who played under me will vouch, I was hugely – and unapologetically – fussy about the positioning of my fielders as a captain. There would be occasional outbursts with repeat-offending wandering fielders. Then again, it could be difficult in the midst of the hurly-burly of a game to communicate the reasoning behind the differences in positions for two batsmen, particularly when they were both right- or left-handed (swapping between the two helps the fielder ‘get it’), even more so if you were not inclined to divulge this reasoning to the batsmen – which wasn’t always the case, if buttons needed to be pushed and theatre created. Windy conditions would exacerbate this. The signalling and gesticulations occasionally got like Rafa Benítez working as an airport runway attendant.

But the primary point about the micro-adjustments made throughout the game is this: the captain might not exactly know at the start of a batsman’s innings where he wants his angles (in levels of cricket with video preparation, this is less the case, of course). He will experiment and tinker as the game goes on. It’s guesswork. 

All captains will tell you that the most satisfying moments are when a hunch, off the cuff, yields an instant wicket. It feels like free money, like winning the lottery. A hunch is even more satisfying than when a plan works out – and, admittedly, there isn’t much time for plans in club cricket, which rarely affords the opportunity for a skipper to get beyond generalities (however sound the principles on which they’re based) to specifics: “C’mon lads, keep going”; “Let’s just keep wickets in tact until 30 overs and reassess”; “Let’s bowl on one side of the wicket”; “Win or lose, always booze”…  

A couple of successful hunches have stuck in my mind – probably because, I think, of the speed with which I acted upon them (and, perhaps, the rarity with which they occurred). One was to dismiss the Meir Heath pro of the day, Carel Fourie, in a low-scoring match at Moddershall. We were defending somewhere in the region of 150 and Fourie and Stonier had taken our derby rivals to 30 without loss inside around eight overs. Iain Carr had bowled really well without reward, extracting bounce and seam movement from the surface, beating the bat several times. I noted that Fourie – once he got down that end after a period facing Shaun from the pavilion end – was playing with low hands and even perhaps trying to play slightly outside the line of the ball to cover the swing. There were three balls left in the over and I suddenly had a picture of him nicking on to his thigh pad from one that nipped back from Billy’s natural length. So, shouting vaguely in the direction of the pavilion, I asked for a helmet to be brought out. There was no acting twelfthers, of course; nor any manager or flunky to do it. The few spectators that were there were disinclined to move. Rather than let the hunch pass, I stopped the game while ‘Rick’ Astley – at fine leg but our regular short-leg fielder – went to fetch his lid, while I offered the umpires some diversionary flannel as they registered their unhappiness with the delay (their complaints weren’t quite as forthright as an out and out objection. Incidentally, the issue of over-rate penalties is an interesting one; it’s perfectly valid to want to finish a game before 8.45pm, of course, but then it seems pointless rushing through a game without tactical reflection; such over-rate strictures are, I believe, detrimental to developing the art of captaincy). Anyway, once Astley was in situ, and one of my fielders with psychiatric qualifications had dragged his unhappy mug down to fine leg for the remainder of the over, Iain came barrelling in, all grunts and chafing inner thighs, and, two balls later, did exactly what I’d envisaged (I envisage a lot of things happening; they almost never do!). After that, the door was ajar – what would have happened if they’d made twenty or so runs, or if, to not waste those two minutes, I’d waited till the following over? – and the team promptly burst through it. We won by 30 or so runs, I believe.

The second occasion was a JCB Knockout final at Checkley. I’m guessing this was in 1998, a season I skippered between Moddershall's first two titles when, as one of the younger players in the team, I struggled at times to impose my will on senior players used to winning or to get them to buy into my fussiness with the field (the pro and skipper, Addo, had given me, as vice-captain and wicket-keeper, a certain amount of responsibility with this). I grew tetchy. For various reasons – not least because two of our best bowlers were infrequently inclined to do so – we underperformed and it was a steep learning curve. But in this final, against Little Stoke, the team that would end up winning Division 1A (as the Prem was then known), we knew the Checkley wicket, generally, skidded on to the bat okay but didn’t bounce much. Sort of glassy. Glenn Haywood took the new ball for us, a short, bullishly strong bowler capable of very good pace when he clicked (enough, two years earlier, to put Richard Harvey in hospital with a broken jaw, as well as demolishing Addo’s castle and repeatedly sitting Hawk on his backside). I’d set a very conservative 5-4 offside field: three in a ring each side, one slip, third man and fine leg. In the third over, Heywood, now loose, suddenly got one to zip through and bounce. Was it a new-ball wicket? Did I need more ‘proof’ that there was life in the deck? Then again, it was Tony Dutton, a high-class player and fixture in the Staffordshire team that won three Championships and two MCCA Knockout trophies between 1991 and 1993. The key man. Immediately, I moved our pro Addo from mid-wicket to second slip. Immediately, Heywood got one in a similar spot, with similar bounce, only this time found an edge off the shoulder of the bat that flew straight into Addo’s mitts, which closed round the ball like the night closes round a campsite on the Moorlands. Buzzing, on at least two levels.

Now, while I appreciate you are probably at present standing in front of your computers and giving me a round of applause, please don’t. Conversely, if you’re thinking all of this is a bit of long-winded boasting, well, maybe (although I haven’t admitted that to myself, so am not going to do it to you). But the broader point is to illustrate that it was an educated guess based on the exact balance of power between bat and ball: the geometry of captaincy. Strip the game back to that, while keep an eye on the energy-levels and confidence of your bowlers, and you are focussed on the correct things.

I suppose all of this is another, fancier way of saying something pretty obvious: captains, you need to be able to read the game (better). But it is also more refined and exact than that. If you told ten people – gnarled old veterans or fresh-faced youngsters – that you need to read the game better, you’d get ten nods of agreement (or ten like, durrrrrs) but no-one would be any the wiser. OK, so I need to read the game better; errrm… You’re simply saying what you need, as an end point, rather than how it should be tackled, as a process. This is the process, the details that add up to the overall story of the game. 

Reading the game. Like any great book, a cricket match can be ‘read’ in many ways. That almost infinite complexity is part of cricket’s richness as a sport, and often the way a game is read says more about the temperament of the reader than the ‘reality’ of the match situation. Even so, whether your instincts are to gamble or to sit in holding patterns and ‘wait for something to happen’, you still need to be able to base your decision-making on a good reading of the balance between bat and ball, given the conditions and the situation and the current use of resources (whether you have bowlers up your sleeve to sustain pressure). And, as I say, the nitty-gritty of this is the ‘geometry’ (or ‘physics’) of how the ball is getting down the other end, the peculiarities of the batsman in trying to deal with that, and – the details that you can alter, or simply get exactly right and then leave unaltered – the exact angles you place your men to try and make the game as difficult as possible for the opponent and so, slowly, alter that balance of power. 

Previous columns for Moddershall CC's newsletter, 'Barnfields Buzz':

BB01: The Grass Isn’t Always Greener… | On club loyalty
BB02: The King and I | Early forays in the press box and meeting IVA Richards 
BB03: Chris Lewis: Still out in the Cold | The coldest cricket match I ever played 
BB04: Sam Kelsall: Role Model | How a 15-year-old's standards inspired a team to the title
BB05: Astle la vista, Baby | Surrealism and hypocrisy with a NZ star

1 comment:

  1. Scott,
    Many thanks for your postings.
    I always look forward to your updates.
    I enjoy your Cricinfo articles,too.