Swann, KP and the art of captaincy
He was reduced to shouting, “Bowl f****** straight.”
Graeme Swann’s memoirs include this recollection of Kevin Pieterson’s captaincy in India in 2008. KP was never a natural leader, in Swann’s eyes. Indeed, that simple description leads quickly to a picture in the mind of KP struggling to get his team to perform, lacking the subtlety to motivate, unable to stifle his own frustration and failing to create the calm centre around which his team can thrive.
Swann may well be right about KP. Not having read his book, I don’t know whether he goes on to say how he thinks a captain should deal with a wayward bowler. And that’s the question that interests me – in the throes of a match, when a bowler is misfiring, how should he be handled?
International bowlers have their plans for each match and each batsman. Most are unlikely to forget their plan between dressing room and top of their run-up. If they’re not bowling well, the problem lies in the ‘execution’. What can a captain or other teammate do to get the bowler back on plan? Can it be useful to tell the bowler they should be hitting the top of off-stump (reiterate the plan)? Can a yogic call to ‘relax and let it happen’ bring a top class bowler under your spell? Should you rely on encouragement and optimism: ‘it’s coming, you nearly got him’? Or is it best to leave well alone: the crowd noise, replay screens and the salivating batsmen are a more persuasive comment on the bowler’s performance than anything the skipper can offer.
I have seen the ‘say nothing’ option used and professionally endorsed. It happened far from international cricket, in the instructive environs of a cricket coaching course. We were learning about net coaching, with half-a-dozen of the class playing in a net, while 20 more stood around with clipboards and pens taking notes on what we saw and heard. That created a pressure.
Alex, one of the four bowlers, hit the side-netting with his first six deliveries. He became embarrassed and the audience tensed with him as he bowled and cringed at the outcome. The course leader kept a constant dialogue with the players, providing specific praise and posing questions. But he left Alex alone. By the middle of his second over, Alex had found his direction. At the end of the exercise, the course leader explained that he said nothing to Alex because he could see that Alex was a talented enough bowler to work it out for himself and there was little the coach could do while Alex was in that struggle.
If finding the right word to help a troubled bowler is so difficult, perhaps even futile, specific words of praise when things go well are very powerful. I can clearly remember and cherish the moment when playing an intra-club match, the first XI captain, fielding at mid-on, responded to my crisp cover drive for four with a spontaneous, “that is the shot of the day.” He quickly entered KP territory by turning to the bowler at the top of his run up and instructing, “For f*** sake, don’t bowl it there again.”
The most memorable ticking off I have received from a captain came on the 5-a-side football court. Our works team was in a long-run of double-digit defeats to younger, more cohesive sides. Our players quarrelled, moaned and sniped at each other. I remained untargeted, not at all because of my competence, but because of my senior status in the company. That lasted for weeks until a game where I under-cooked two back passes in quick succession, causing us to concede a brace of goals. Eric, the captain, walked across to me and with escalating volume and honesty said. “You’re a great footballer. It’s good to have you around. But that was f****** pussy football.”
So, if a skipper has a bowler firing the ball down leg-side, dropping it short and wide outside off, no amount of prompting to the bowler to make the batsman play forward, or hit the top of off; no degree of hypnotic suggestions to relax and let the ball do the talking; no level of optimistic encouragement that a wicket’s only a ball away; and not enough runs on the board to afford to let the bowler work it out himself – what is he to do?
“Take a blow. Fine leg both ends.”
And if it’s his whole bowling attack misfiring? He might just as well swear at a couple of them. It can’t be as damaging to his reputation as a captain as it would be to publish a book where he calls into question the character of his current teammates.