In the fallout of England’s loss to India, one major talking point was that of Joe Root’s captaincy. Namely, the field settings and bowling plans used towards India’s lower order. Indeed, in what appeared to be a revenge plan, England’s bowlers barraged Jasprit Bumrah with the short ball. When England went on to crumble, many pointed towards the captaincy in the morning as being the first factor. This got me to thinking, what actually is good captaincy?
The conclusion I reached is that captaincy may not actually be the grand task that it is often presented as. It might lead to minor inconveniences, and occasionally losses, but that generally the quality of the playing XI will define the perception of one’s captaincy.
Quality of team = Quality of captain
The reality of being a good captain in cricket is mainly being somebody who gets to captain a good team. When people talk about great captains, they are usually talking about the captains with the greatest win percentage or even the number of wins. I do not believe that this is something that one person can have a material level of control over.
In its simplest form, my argument is that if you have the best players, you will win more games than your competitors. If you look at the names floated about as the ‘greats’ of captaincy, you will probably find that they captained one of the most talented teams of all time.
Maybe an example of this point, is to compare Eoin Morgan for England and for London Spirit. Morgan is often touted as one of the best captains. With Morgan as captain, England won the 50 over World Cup and look to have a strong chance of competing for the T20 WC. London Spirit are dead last in The Hundred.
The vision of a captain who makes an average team into world beaters is one that I am not totally convinced by. With England, Morgan can utilise Jos Buttler, Jofra Archer, and Jonny Bairstow. With London Spirit, there are no comparable options. Eoin Morgan’s sheer presence cannot make these players perform equally.
The talent of the players available plays a greater role in success than anything that captaincy may influence.
Field Placements and Bowler Usage
Yet, cricket commentary has something of an obsession with attempting to highlight ‘good captaincy’. Slap a helmet on a player and move them to short leg, what a move. Bring on your best bowler, such genius.
People like being able to see things visually. As good captaincy feels invisible, you get this effort to try and pin it on visual cues.
In terms of bowler deployments, I can think of one area which can be partially attributed to captaincy and that is of properly using match ups. Fundamentally, it would be bad captaincy to be facing Phil Salt and not immediately test him with leg spin. I say partially, because this is just as much down to team preparation as it is captaincy. If a team of analysts spot an area to target a batter, then it seems absurd to credit the captain for implementing it.
Indeed, I do see good captaincy on the field as just being able to do the very simple stuff. This links to their role in field placements. Virat Kohli setting a midwicket trap to Dom Sibley makes a lot of sense when you see his scoring areas. This is not complex, but it can be effective. Similarly, Root opting for short stuff to bowlers as opposed to just hitting a good length was poor captaincy.
On field captaincy can be quite simple. Don’t set unnecessarily funky fields. Bowl your best bowlers.
This is not all ‘rah rah rah captaincy isn’t real’, there are a few areas that I think actually form one’s aptitude for captaincy. An obvious one is being able to use DRS well. The funny part of this, is quite how much people accept woeful use of reviews.
This India series so far has been an exhibition in blowing reviews like overzealous children. Both captains make the same mistakes, they just do it in different ways.
Virat Kohli reviews like a man overwhelmed by passion, Joe Root reviews like a child being made say hello to a stranger. Two different manners, both almost equally poor so far.
To me, this is maybe the most important role of a captain because we know that it can lose you matches. The big one in recent memory is Headingley 2019, where Tim Paine wasted his final review on the cardinal sin of a ball pitching down the leg side. If they had not reviewed like idiots, then Nathan Lyon may have an extra Test wicket to his name right now.
A less tangible role is also that of being the person that sets the tone. I’m treading carefully here because it can be a tricky level of influence to quantify, but the aforementioned Kohli and Morgan represent a fun contrast here.
Virat Kohli wants his team to play with a fire raging, Morgan wants his to stay ice cold. To many people, the captain defines the identity of the team. This has been true for a very long time, the late 90s/early 2000s Australia team and its ability to break teams started at the top with Steve Waugh.
What’s difficult here is how much you can say without actually knowing anyone involved. We all see Kohli telling his team to make it hell for the opposition, but we have no idea of knowing whether or not this actually sticks or if the players simply nod then go about playing their cricket.
Again, this may actually be an area where talent can be confused for the influence of a captain. As calm a figure as Eoin Morgan cuts, it would feel strange to credit him directly for Jofra Archer doing the business in the Super Over.
All in all, I find talking about captaincy to be a slightly abstract and often frustrating exercise. A good captain cannot make their bad bowlers take wickets, much like how another captain is not a genius because they bring on Pat Cummins to bowl.