JULY 11 — There can’t be any jobs in sport more mentally demanding than captaining a test match cricket team.
In most sports, captaincy is a largely symbolic role.
In football, for example, the official duties for a captain are largely limited to calling heads or tails in the pre-match coin toss, and serving as a figurehead in ceremonial duties.
Tactical matters, however, are decided by the team’s coach. Although the captain may occasionally be called upon to relay specific instructions to players, he is in reality only a message bearer rather than a decision maker, and he certainly doesn’t have the liberty to change the strategy during the course of a contest.
In cricket, however, it’s an entirely different matter, especially when the team is in the field. Although the game plan is discussed and agreed in advance with the coach, the captain has to do an awful lot of thinking on his feet once the action starts.
As the game unfolds, it is the cricket captain’s job to decide which of his teammates is bowling, from which end and for how long they should continue, the type of deliveries they should attempt to produce and, most crucially, the positioning of the fielders.
In making these decisions, the captain has to react to a myriad of variables including the changing state of the pitch, weather conditions, the form and tactical intentions of opposition players and the mood or body language of his teammates.
Unlike in football and many other sports, there is no opportunity for a cricket captain to exchange ideas with or receive instructions from his coach, except during the breaks for lunch and tea — during the two-hour passages of play between those interludes, the captain is left alone to live or die by his decisions.
The captain can be as proactive or passive as he likes. He can follow conventions or create daring new strategies. He can be assertive or timid; aggressive or defensive; follow his instincts or seek advice from his teammates. And what’s more, the cricket captain is a game manager with the added responsibility of also being a player.
Perhaps the closest parallel from other sports is the quarterback in American Football, who receives the ball at the start of every phase of action and proceeds to conduct the play to a significant extent.
But quarterbacks carry out pre-ordained movements, receiving regular detailed instructions from coaches and only given a limited range of possibilities in the execution of those plans, and the mental demands are therefore nowhere near comparable with a cricket captain, who is almost solely responsible for devising his team’s evolving strategy for a game while simultaneously playing in it.
Perhaps uniquely in sport, the very specific demands of the job mean that it’s perfectly possible to be a very good cricket captain without being a particularly good player.
The most famous example was Mike Brearley, an average player but a cerebral and insightful leader who guided England to a famous series victory over Australia in 1981, and whose highly perceptive people skills later allowed him to become a renowned psychoanalyst.
Brearley wasn’t good enough as a player to be anywhere near the England team if he hadn’t been captain, but his leadership skills were more than sufficient to compensate for his relative lack of ability and he played a key role in one of the most memorable summers in English cricket history.
That, however, certainly isn’t the case for the new incumbent in the position as England captain, Joe Root, who led out his country for the very first time on Thursday for the opening match of a four-match test series against South Africa.
Over the last few years, 26 year-old Root has firmly established himself as one of the greatest batsmen in the world, regularly producing match-winning heroics and becoming the inevitable choice to succeed long-serving Alastair Cook as captain.
The mental demands of captaincy are such that players who have been elevated to the role can often see their own form suffer as a result — with so much time and emotional energy directed towards managing the game, there’s little mental space remaining for a captain to focus upon his own game.
Fortunately for England, this does not appear to be a problem for Root, who marked his first match as captain by coming into the game with his team struggling and proceeding to score 190 runs — the third-highest total of his career.
England have never lost a test match when Root has scored a century, and that record stayed intact this weekend as his huge score set up a comfortable victory, with South Africa’s feeble capitulation on Sunday caused partly by Root’s intelligent use of his bowlers and fielders.
It has been clear for a while that Root has the ability to become one of England’s best-ever batsmen. And now, the early signs are that his sharp cricket brain, along with an easy-going and confident personality, might also make him one of their best-ever captains.
It could well be a long and painful summer for South Africa, and a bright future for England.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.