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Cricket’s Commanders-in-chief: Mike Brearley

He was a fine captain, one of the best that I have played under – Bob Willis

The best captain in this country… A man who I’ve always admired – Ian Botham

I have no hesitation in saying he was the best captain I played under – Sir Geoffrey Boycott

Hype and the English press have been synonymous in the world of cricket. Whether comparing a now forgotten, Greame Hick to Sir Don or labeling a certain Ian Salisbury better than Shane Warne, the English press has never taken a step backward. But when stalwarts like Ian Botham, Bob Willis and Geoffrey Boycott bow down to someone, one is bound to sit up and take notice.

The man in question, however, doesn’t boast of any dazzling test records and has never threatened any all time list of players. But when one talks about captaincy, the name Mike Brearley can’t go unnoticed.

Not all great players make great captains. The world of cricket has seen many big names crumble when burdened with the added responsibility. Then again, leadership doesn’t have much to do with either batting or bowling skills. Leadership is about understanding, managing and inspiring a bunch of individuals to come together and perform as a team. So what was it that led a man with a batting average of only 22.88 in tests to become one of the most successful captains in the history of test cricket?

According to Wisden,

Brearley’s enthusiastic leadership, and his ability to persuade the best out of each member of his team, proved the significant factor…”

Empathy and patience are virtues of a great leader, and Mike Brearley had them in abundance. Brearley’s strong powers of persuasion and amicable nature made him popular among his team mates. He successfully infused in the side the ‘willingness to win’, where every player wanted to stand up and deliver for the country as well as for him. He understood the psyche of his players and created an atmosphere of trust. The players believed in his genuine concern for them as individuals, which led to the building of a strong cohesive unit. It was for this reason that Rodney Hogg once famously said that Brearley had a “degree in people”!

Though he captained England in 31 Tests, his career, as a player, never took off.  His entry to First Class cricket was as a 19 year-old Cambridge University undergrad who won his Blue in each of his four seasons. In 1964, he was a surprise selection in the England side that toured South Africa. He failed to make a mark and didn’t even make it to the Test eleven. He averaged in the higher 20s, with a highest score of 68 in the side games.

However, after he impressed with his leadership skills at Middlesex, he was named as Tony Greig‘s deputy for the 1976/77 tour of India. Soon, the “Packer Circus” arrived and Greig was stripped of the captaincy. Brearley was handed over the baton and he brought the Ashes back with a resounding 3-0 victory.

According to Wisden, his approach to the game changed the way England played.

“Brearley, a totally different animal from the volatile Greig, led his men with quiet efficiency. He is clearly a master in the art of cricket. He handled his bowlers skilfully and was clearly ahead of Greig in field placing….”

However, it was in 1981 that the legend of Mike Brearley came to the fore. During the four Tests of 1981, he etched a permanent place in the heart of every English fan. He not only turned around the series for England, but also gave them their true superhero in Ian Botham.

As Brearley himself said –

“Botham was also a bit of a lad; he would say the odd things out of place; he would drink a few beers too many on occasions, but he never let the England team down.”

And he got the best out of his “lad”. The Aussies won the first Test and drew the second. Ian Botham and Bob Willis misfired and put in forgettable performances. Then came the famous turnaround. Botham sprang into life and bludgeoned Australia while Willis broke the back of the batting order, hurling snorters at serious pace. England went on to win the series from a most improbable situation and Mike Brearly became a part of a myth. He would win 18 of the 31 tests he captained, giving him a success rate of 58.06%.

But then again, for the detractors, Brearley was simply “lucky”. Ray Illingworth, one of the best English captains himself, said,

“The statistics suggest that he is one of the great England captains; the luckiest would be nearer the truth.”

Dennis Lillee, too, wasn’t impressed,

“I don’t overrate him as a captain. Certainly he’s smart, and a good man-manager, but my belief is that a great team makes a great captain, and if you are a great captain with a team of ordinary players, you are not going to win too many matches.”

True, Brearly inherited an excellent team and with the return of the “Packer players”, his hand became even stronger.  He enjoyed the wholehearted support of Tony Greig and had players like Boycott, Amiss, Botham and Willis at his disposal. But no one can ever doubt the tactical prowess and the man-management skills of the man. He handled his resources tactfully and earned immense personal respect without being the best player in the side.

He scripted his theories of man management in his book of “The Art of Captaincy” which has been a reference not only for sportsmen, but also a part of curriculum in business schools and leadership summits. Of course, being a psychoanalyst with a Cambridge degree helped, but there is no qualm in accepting that….

“Things happened when he was in charge, because he always wanted to do something to ensure that they did…”

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