If ever confirmation was needed that captaincy can make a difference — both positively and negatively — the first Test between South Africa and England provided all the evidence required. With both teams vying for No 1 ranking, South Africa recovered spectacularly from a lethargic first day to take 17 for 358 over the remaining four days. Meanwhile England managed to capture just two scalps at the exorbitant cost of 637 runs. Two attacks of similar standing and skill, how could the results be so different on the same pitch? There were a number of reasons including the calibre of batting and the changing conditions but the mind-set of the respective captains also played a part.
Andrew Strauss is most comfortable when he’s strangling the opposition’s run scoring with accurate bowling and strategically spread fields. He could never be accused of over attacking. Ironically, South Africa has used the same ploy for much of their existence and it regularly works against lesser teams.
Problems arise when the opposition is as strong or stronger than the team employing those tactics. Against top-class teams, captains have to provoke a mistake rather than expect they’ll occur purely as a result of patience. Captains who employ conservative tactics generally prefer to get into a position where they can’t lose before they aggressively seek victory. Judging by Strauss’ approach this was the plan against South Africa. The ploy backfired worse than a Ford model T.
Bowlers react accordingly
Bowlers react according to the fields that are placed; if they’re designed to take wickets, most good bowlers will generally perform better when they’re attacking rather than concentrating mainly on containment. Batsmen also heed the field placings; the better players — if they’re offered easy runs, particularly early in their innings — will mutter a quiet thank you and accept them gratefully.
Players like Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis have the skill, the patience and the batting acumen to take what they’re offered and give nothing in return. The irony is that Smith was a similar style of skipper but following the selection of leg-spinner Imran Tahir, he’s been forced to use his imagination. Since then his captaincy has been more pro-active.
This leads to the question; is Steven Finn missing from the England attack purely because Tim Bresnan better suits Strauss’ captaincy style?
Finn is an attacking bowler and his presence could be just the boost England needs to revive a battered morale. However, his inclusion would be a stern test of Strauss’ flexibility as a captain.
Richie Benaud has a saying; “Captaincy is 90 percent luck and 10 percent skill but don’t try doing it without that little ten percent.” I’m not convinced about those percentages but a certain amount of luck is required in captaincy. For instance, Michael Clarke enjoyed a slice when he took over a burgeoning pace attack but his imaginative tactics have skillfully utilised those bowler’s talents to the fullest.
Clarke creates an air of anticipation by going for victory from the first ball and he also carries his gambling instincts with him onto the field. There’s an air of anticipation about his leadership as there was whenever Shane Warne led a team. However, the ultimate gambling captain on a cricket field had to be former Australian all-rounder Keith Miller.
Described by Benaud as the best captain never to lead Australia, Miller was once skippering NSW in a shield game against a hapless South Australian (SA) side. SA were in dire straits following a withering burst from the NSW pace attack when Miller tossed the ball to debutant batsman Norm O’Neill. “Have a bowl, Normie,” said Miller. Taken by surprise O’Neill could only manage, “But I’m making my debut.” Pointing to the SA batsman on strike, Miller responded, “So is he. It should be a good contest.”
...Captain is best served
When there’s a decision to be made a captain is usually best served, especially if he has a decent attack at his disposal, if he takes the aggressive option. No one expects Strauss to suddenly emulate Miller but he should at least borrow from Clarke’s playbook and desperately seek victory from ball No 1.