7 tactical blunders by great captains in the history of cricket

Australia captain Steve Waugh pictured during the 2nd Test against India in Kolkata, 2001

To err is human. And in spite of the fact that successful cricket captains are celebrated across the world as something more, they too, at the end of the day, are mortals, completely capable of committing mistakes.That their blunders are often forgotten in the face of their myriad achievements is a welcome thing, for it takes only one single lapse of judgment to create a window of opportunity for the opponent to turn the tables.Here we take a look at seven such instances that made the erring skipper pay a hefty price for his moment of imprudence.

#1 Steve Waugh - An unforeseen blunder

Australia captain Steve Waugh pictured during the 2nd Test against India in Kolkata, 2001

Cricket is a funny game. Steve Waugh, of all people, must know that. For what happened in that fateful Kolkata Test in 2001 is now a piece of history, a figment of lore.

Anyone in his right mind would send a team that is 0-1 down in the series and has conceded a first innings lead of 274, to follow-on. And Steve Waugh had done exactly that. Who would have known that two right-handers would defy the most potent bowling attack in the third innings of the match and go on to carve their names as legends of the game – all while scripting a dramatic comeback in the match as well as the series?

As VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid turned architects for a massive second innings total, they not only destroyed the Australians statistically but also psychologically. Their shock was amply evident when Harbhajan Singh ran through their attack soon after with figures of 6/73 in 30.3 overs. Having leveled the series here, India went on to seal it with a two-wicket victory at Chennai in the third Test.

#2 Mike Brearley - At a snail\'s pace

England captain Mike Brearley pictured during the slow chase in the 1979 World Cup final

Misjudgments of grandiosity require equally extravagant occasions and Mike Brearley had done well to remember that in the 1979 World Cup final at Lord’s. His opening partnership with Geoff Boycott, which was initially applauded by the crowd for managing to see off the first few overs, soon turned into a bane when it seemed to hinder England’s chances with its snail-like pace.

A very methodical approach found them milking even the gentle off spin of Viv Richards for mere singles, while chasing a target of 287 in 60 overs. Meanwhile, Clive Lloyd, an otherwise outstanding fielder, had dropped both the batsmen – an accident that was later suggested by many to be a purposeful tactic. Brearley and Boycott continued plodding as the game gradually drifted away from the home side.

By the time Michael Holding got the better of the English skipper, the damage was already beyond repair with England needing 158 runs from 21 overs. Graham Gooch attempted an anticlimax with some forceful strokes but once he was off the field, there was no saving England.

The next seven wickets fell for only 11 runs triggering the most devastating collapse in World Cup final history, and displaying a fine example of throwing away what could have been, at the very least, a contest.

#3 Nasser Hussain - Brisbane blues

England captain Nasser Hussain talks to Simon Jones during the Brisbane Test, 2002

The fact that Steve Waugh’s Australia have always haunted Nasser Hussain’s England is probably the sole reason why Hussain’s figures as a captain look bleak by his own standards. Yet it is not to be forgotten that Hussain had his own share of blunders that eventually cost him dear more often than once – the famous 2002 Brisbane shocker being a prominent one among them.

Astonishment gripped several pundits when Hussain decided to field first at the Gabba, probably hoping to get half the Australian side dismissed by the end of the day. Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting, however, had other plans in mind as they went on to own England, ending Day 1 at 364/2. The rest of the match went similarly one-sided as Australia thumped the visitors by 384 runs with one day to spare.

While Waugh was pretty clear at the post-match ceremony about the pitiable quality of the English bowling, his counterpart tried to assume responsibility for equally poor tactics. “I read the wicket wrong on the first day and the buck stops with me on that one," is what Hussain had to say. "I just thought if there was anything in the wicket we needed our young bowlers to get something, but there wasn't anything in it.”

#4 Rahul Dravid - Safe and sorry

The fourth ODI vs England in 2007 brought out the worst of Rahul Dravid’s defensive captaincy

Rahul Dravid’s lack of proactive decision-making was put on display when he appeared reluctant to enforce the follow-on in the Oval Test against England in the 2007 tour. Although it robbed India of a victory of noteworthy magnificence, not much was said of it since Dravid had already established himself as the first Indian skipper to win a Test series in England in 21 years.

The fourth ODI at Manchester, however, was a rude reminder of the defensive outlook of the visiting captain. With England tottering at 114/7 within the first half of their innings, Dravid was expected to bear down on their tail and subsequently choke the last-standing batsman, Ravi Bopara. Ajit Agarkar had done most of the damage till then and one figured it was up to him to finish it off in style.

Instead, Dravid opted for spinners from both ends in an attempt to play it safe. Stuart Broad and Bopara in turn milked the deliveries, waiting for the right one to thwack across the boundary as England slowly cruised towards the target.

Almost zero assistance from the pitch didn’t help the spinners’ cause, and a few overthrows and panicky fielding from Dravid’s men ensured yet another loss from the jaws of victory.

#5 MS Dhoni - Always the gambler

Several of MS Dhoni’s gambles have paid off, but this one was a spectacular failure

MS Dhoni had always had a thing for gambling in limited overs cricket, much to the chagrin of his supporters in the experts’ bench. Be it employing Joginder Sharma in the last over of the 2007 T20 World Cup or trusting Ishant Sharma with the ball against James Faulkner in the penultimate over against Australia, Dhoni has remained unapologetic about his decisions regardless of the result.

It is difficult to fathom that it is this aggressive skipper who turned so defensive in Test matches that he almost meandered on the brim of inflexibility rather than intuition. The nightmarish overseas tours to England and Australia only underlined his reluctance to attack even new batsmen, with Ian Chappell shredding his tactics through strong words and calling for a more proactive captain.

However, Dhoni slipped into his gambling boots once the IPL kicked off and the latest event of his blunder losing him a match occurred during the penultimate over against Mumbai Indians, which halted CSK’s winning run at home in 2015. With Mumbai requiring 30 off the last two overs, Dhoni’s inscrutable decision-making saw spinner Pawan Negi bowling the 19th over ahead of his more experienced fast-bowling teammates.

Hardik Pandya then smashed three sixes in that over in addition to Ambati Rayudu’s one and Mumbai easily chased down 159 with 4 balls to spare. Speaking to reporters later, Dhoni did admit his ‘tactical error’ in handing over the ball to a spinner.

#6 Graham Gooch - Picking the wrong-un

England captain Graham Gooch had four fast bowlers on a turning Kolkata pitch – a suicidal strategy

It’s not known how much the English captain had had an opinion on this – for Graham Gooch had mostly been unwell throughout his 100th Test – but the tactical blunder was committed even before he had gone out for the toss.

On a Calcutta dustbowl, England opted for four seamers – Malcolm, Jarvis, Lewis and Taylor – and a solitary spinner in Ian Salisbury who had begun the tour as primarily a net bowler. Opting to bat first, Mohammad Azharuddin made merry en route to his 182 off 197 balls. During his more than 5-hour long stay at the crease, he had thrilled the spectators with 12 boundaries and a six.

England failed to avoid the follow-on by 9 runs and were dismissed for 286 in their second innings, eight of those wickets being shared by the Indian spinners. A lost match later, the English management tried to justify their selection with farcical reasons that were hardly consumed by the disappointed fans.

#7 Ricky Ponting - A great batsman, but poor tactician

Australia captain Ricky Ponting’s reputation began to come apart from the 2011 World Cup onwards

Having captained Australia for a decently long time with much success, Ricky Ponting finally began to earn brickbats for his tactical moves come 2011. His poor form with the willow did not help either. With Australia’s prospects at the World Cup looking extremely bleak, critics chose him to blame for the team’s collection of failures.

In the last group match against Pakistan, Australia succumbed to a defeat that saw them finish third in group B. Ponting’s tactics obviously came under heavy scrutiny. Sydney Morning Herald wrote: “His captaincy, likewise, lacked conviction. That Lee, his best bowler, did not complete his allocation was a palpable error. His field placements were unduly defensive, except for Tait, who does not rely on close catchers.”

As a matter of fact, Ponting’s fumbling captaincy was first questioned during the second Ashes Test in 2005 when he put England in to bat despite Australia having lost its bowling spearhead, Glenn McGrath, only minutes earlier. The match was eventually lost, and so was the series, with the urn being handed over to the Englishmen for the first time since 1989.

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Edited by Staff Editor
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