How to win at cricket – what the skipper really needs to know

This summer (every summer, it seems), questions were raised about Alistair Cook’s performance as captain of England.

And around the country, I suspect that (almost) every Club captain has been criticised, at some time in the season, for changing the bowling at the wrong time, for not changing the bowling, for setting the wrong field, for getting the batting order wrong, for picking the wrong team, for the wicket, for the teas…

Get it right, and everyone will say – “what a good team”; get it wrong, and it will be “find a new captain”.

So is it any wonder that we sometimes struggle to find volunteers to fill these essential Club roles?

The challenge, as with most cricket skills, is that talent alone (assuming you have any…) will only take you so far as a skipper – to become truly competent you need to practice.  And that means putting up your hand at the next AGM, taking the reins, and taking on the captaincy.  And hoping that the criticism you receive won’t be so depressing that you give up after one season, vowing never to stand as skipper ever again.

Seeking advice

It can be very difficult to see good captaincy – not because it is secretive or furtive, but because it mostly happens on the field of play, or in the dressing room.  And very often, “good” captaincy is not obvious – a subtle change of field, or a word of encouragement at just the right moment.

If you have the chance to play under a good captain, watch him like a hawk, listen to his team talks, ask questions.

But there aren’t so many good captains around, so you might have to rely on other sources of inspiration.

There are books on captaincy – the best, by some distance (IMO) is “How to Win at Cricket – The Skipper’s Guide”, by E.M. Rose.  Some will champion Mike Brearley’s “The Art of Captaincy”.  Both  excellent, in their own way, but both assume a level of playing competence from their players that most captains can only dream of.

What is needed is a simple set of guidelines for the young (and not-so-young) first-time captain – the things that really matter.

Practical advice

What follows is a distillation of readings from Rose, Brearley and others, invaluable input from colleagues on the Cricket Coaching Worldwide discussion group on LinkedIn, and personal experience (mostly negative – don’t do what I did, do what I wish I had done…).

  • Have a plan, whether you are batting or bowling.

But make sure it is realistic, and consistent with the team’s strengths – no point planning to blast out the opposition with a Mitchell Johnson-style bouncer onslaught if your quickest bowler is a 50 mph trundler!

  • Keep it simple, stupid (always).
  • Most importantly, communicate your plan to the team.

That might mean setting clear objectives for the session, for example:

we are going to try to attack the batsmen for the first 10 overs, while the new ball is still swinging, but if we don’t manage to knock over a couple of wickets we will switch to a more defensive approach after that;

when we get two new batsmen at the crease, we are going on the attack;

when we bat, I want us to try for 80 runs in the first hour, then look to accelerate.

  • Remember the old military adage, however: “no plan survives contact with the enemy” – don’t be too proud to change our mind.
  • Have a plan B (and C)

Some events will be unforeseeable, and you will have to think on your feet.  But, inevitably, you will come up against a batsman who plays out of his skin, or who consistently gets away with cross-batted hoicks…what are you going to do when this happens?

  • Corollary to this – don’t be too ready to change, just because the plan doesn’t work perfectly in the first over…
  • Do not reinforce failure – try not to change the field after one bad delivery has been hit to the boundary.

But if a batsman takes a ball from outside off to the mid-wicket boundary, think hard – chances are that he will try it again, regardless of the bowling.

  • Never be afraid to attack – if you have a positive idea in the field, put it into place ASAP; delay any negative changes if you can.
  • Try to understand where your team is in the game – at any time in the game, who do you think is winning? Are the opposition batsmen getting away from you?  Are your openers scoring so quickly that your initial estimate for a declaration total looks way too low?
  • Here, it can be helpful to apply Geoff Boycott’s rule – add two wickets to the score, then decide how good it looks.

In conclusion

Captaincy is NOT easy…but it can be easier if the skipper at least starts with a realistic plan (taking into account the strengths and weaknesses of his own team and of the opposition, and local conditions) and shares it with the team.

Finally, some thoughts from my coaching colleagues via the LinkedIn discussion group, “Cricket Coaches Worldwide”.

Things to avoid when you captain a team, if you possibly can:

The worst captains…won’t know what they’re doing at the end of each over, and they’ll shout out generic comments like “walking in…” or “come on boys”.

I…get frustrated when a captain seems to let the game drift along. A dignified silence has power, but sometimes I’m gagging for the captain to say ANYTHING rather than fuming at long off after we have not taken a wicket for a few overs.

And some positive advice:

Seek advice but don’t feel obliged to follow it.

If you have a choice between an attacking option and a defensive option, always choose attack.

Have total conviction – you can always change it again.

Keep an open mind. Good luck!

Published by Andrew Beaven

Cricket coach, fascinated by the possibilities offered by the game. More formally - ECB level 2 cricket coach; ECB National Programmes (All Stars & Dynamos Cricket) Activator Tutor; Chance to Shine & Team Up (cricket) deliverer; ECB ACO umpire.

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