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Oh captain, my captain - what makes a great captain on the cricket field

A brief write up about why captaincy in cricket is unique and what makes a great captain.

Steve Waugh Sourav Ganguly
Two great captains of their era – Steve Waugh (L) and Sourav Ganguly

The captain, the skipper, the appointed leader of the wolf pack. The sword and the shield, the magician who always has few tricks up his sleeves. Captaining in cricket is not for the faint hearted. When two great captains go face to face on the field, it’s a duel to death. Two great gladiators raring to have a go at each other and eager to have the last laugh.

Captaining a cricket team is very different compared to other sports. Not only does a cricket captain have to be top on top of his own personal skill set, but he also has to be thorough with all other departments of the game. Being a team game, a captain has to build a healthy atmosphere for the remainder of the ten guys. The captain is like the lead character of a Shakespearean play, he can pause, he can improvise and captivate.

Like most sports, coaches do have a part to play in the game, but in cricket, it is the skipper who is the ultimate authority.The skipper can have a round table conference when you need 19 of the last over or he can promote himself up the order to make a statement. He can bowl a match changing spell or take a brilliant catch to turn the tide of things. A cricket captain is like a field marshall who has to know the individual capacity of each of his soldier.

With that being said, there are a few aspects which are common for all great captains. Though it’s not like a chemical formula but every great Cricket captain has always shown the below-mentioned skills. Let us look at the desired qualities with a few examples to further substantiate the point being made:

Captain calm

One has to agree that sometimes, things do get out of hand in the middle. If it is in the heat of the moment and words that are being exchanged are instantaneous rather than choreographed in the locker rooms, then it does give that extra adrenaline rush even to the loyal fans. But it is at these moments that sanity has to prevail and the skippers have to indulge to restore order. It’s not as if the captain doesn't have anything to say, but he has to tone down his players to foresee the larger interest of the game.

“Get ready for a broken f***ing arm,” said Australian skipper, Michael Clarke, to James Anderson during a Test match. It was said in the heat of the moment and also bearing in mind the special Johnson-Anderson love affair.

It never looks good when a captain does this and especially with so many microphones around, these verbal duels do get caught. Michael Clarke did apologize for this incident later on and it was good to see him acknowledging the fact that he should lead by example and that he is a mascot of the game – a role model to the kids and such behaviour was very immature of him.

MS Dhoni fits into this category to the T. He is the calmest captain on the cricket field currently and possibly, ever. The lack of emotion by the Indian isn’t a sign of weakness, but a show of immense confidence in his own and his team’s abilities.

Leader of the Wolf Pack

Cricket is not just a physical game. It’s a game of wits and outwitting the opposition. Half of the battle is in the brain.

The greatest captains in Cricket have always been the ones who have never given in. Their mental resolve and ability to motivate the guys around is the litmus test of their character.

1992 - Imran Khan's last chance at glory. Pakistan has always had sparks of brilliance but were never efficient as a unit. Imran brought the belief in these guys that they could be World Champions. The phrase “Cornered Tiger” is so etched in memory in connection with 1992 World Cup. Pakistan has ever since struggled to produce such a charismatic leader and hence have been very erratic at the international level.

Steve Waugh was a master at putting a prize on his wicket. Be it the dusty spinning tracks of the sub-continent or the fast and bouncy pitches of the Caribbean, he would drop his anchor and sweat it out. He knew what it meant to stick around and invariably come up with a ‘Captain's Knock’.

Sourav Ganguly sent a message to the mighty Australians and the meticulous Steve Waugh when he made the Aussie Captain wait for a toss during the 2001 Border-Gavaskar trophy in India. It was a small, but a tactical move. It’s equivalent to saying – You are on my turf and you better play according to my rules.

The sight of a Graeme Smith walking out to bat with a broken arm and looking out to bat 8.4 overs does send a very strong to the opposition. I am willing to die defending the honour of my country rather that sitting in the corner with an ice pack on. No wonder he was called the ‘bravest man in cricket’ at the moment.

Clive Llyod incited that ruthless aggression and the resilience into ‘Calypso Cricket’. There is popular saying in Windies Cricket –  Ten youngsters thrown together is not a team it is a gang. Llyod defied this with remarkable calm and composure. In his own words,

“I wanted to have a different team with different thinking. Shed all the stuff that we had before. We are now a team, a West Indian Team working together so that the young people can understand that we can work for a better life and a better future. One People, One Nation, One Destiny”

Which cricket nerd will ever be able to forget the “I intend to make them grovel” remark that Tony Greig made during West Indies’ tour of England in 1976. Clive Llyod never said much in response to his remark. He let his team's performance do the talking. The phenomenal pace battery let the world know what it felt like when you put your hand in a snake pit. And, of course, there were young Vivian Richards and Gordon Greenidge being nurtured under the mature head of Llyod and carving a niche for themselves.

A student of the game

MS Dhoni
MS Dhoni

Harsha Bhogle once said that Cricket is the only game where you can be an absolute genius at one aspect and an absolute zero at the other end.

A cricket captain has to be an avid reader of the game. If the captain is a batsman, even then he has to make key decisions about what line and length to be bowled and which bowling change to be brought when. He can't get away by ignoring the other departments of the game. Similarly, if the captain is a bowler then also he has to figure out the batting order and make key changes in order to align with the situation.

The fielding position and fielders to be placed at certain specific positions all has to be done very judiciously. The choice of the power plays, the decision to take a new ball – these may sound like small choices, but they can be determining factor in the outcome of the game.

A key decision in this regard was letting Ishant Sharma have that extended spell against Ricky Ponting which eventually got him out. The skipper, Dhoni, could have easily given Ishant a rest, but he saw that the young fast bowler was able to loosen the batsman's grip on the game.

Sportsmanship

With so much of social networking and media being allowed to meddle with Cricket, a simple contest is sometimes simulated as being warfare. The Indo-Pak matches or the Ashes rivalry can sometimes be blown out of proportion by the over-excited fans. It is at this moment that it feels so soothing to see opposite teams’ captains coming out and shaking hands and commend each other's effort. All that is said on the cricket field should end there.

It is so good to see true sportsmanship from the captain as it sets out an example for the entire team. An example which springs to mind is Dhoni's decision to call Ian Bell back after he was adjudged out by the officials.

We have to realize that at the end of the day it is a sport. Of course winning is paramount but even the greatest have tasted defeated sometimes in their life. There is a lot to learn from defeat too. It tells us to rise stronger each time we fall. Great captains will always find a lot to learn from the most embarrassing of the defeats. It is only when the chips are down and out that a true leader emerges and changes the face of the team's character.

Here's to all the superb Cricket Captains that we have loved watching and learnt a lot from.

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