Nov 3, 2003

Notes on the skipper

In every discussion involving the topics of leadership, I have found myself discussing examples from the world of cricket. It always turns out to be quite a worthwhile exercise and I decided to delve deeper into why it should be so. It has a lot of layers to it.

Captaincy in cricket has always been much debated and discussed; captaincy in the game is viewed upon by observers as a great achievement and honour, and has been invested with greater awe than in other sports. For instance, in other team sports like football or hockey or even basketball, the coach-manager seems to hold prime position, which means the responsibility of tactics and strategy, of motivation and results lie ultimately on him, and it is his head that will be called to be placed on the block when things go wrong. In cricket, all of the above is more of the captain's job - the coach is just a senior guide. A reasonable analogy would be that the skipper is the King, the coach the chief counsellor. Other semi-team events like the Davis Cup primarily have non-playing captains, while the top players concentrate only on their matches and not the overall picture. Captains in all these games apart from cricket (by "captain" here I mean the leader on the field) is usually the most inspirational or senior and responsible player in the side (take for e.g. Keane of Manchester United or Dhanraj in Indian Hockey). These are more influential by what they do in the course of their performance, or being creative in their sport - they don't have the same degree of responsibility towards their other teammates as that of a cricket captain.

A cricket captain, on the other hand, has to think of hundred and one items to do - this in addition to watching out for his own performance. That's the reason why many times, captains in cricket do not have to be the best players in their team, nor do they have to be very senior. The whole range of skills are different than from captains in other sports. For instance, a captain in the field must worry about bowling options and changes, about covering the large field of play with the 11 resources at hand, of over-rates and quota of bowlers, of whom to bowl at the death, of specialised tactics for some batsmen. The batting captain doesn't have it all that easy as well - batting orders, timing the declaration, sending out messages to speed up the rate are some of the duties is he ultimately responsible for. It helps if he has a line saying "am usually lucky with the toss" on his CV. Motivation falls in his kitty too - at least the best captains do it. It isn't that difficult to understand why not all captains can maintain their previous performances in this situation.

So in essence, a cricket captain is like a manager of his resources, but this does not mean a reduction in his original duties as a player, for that is his primary purpose. He can't be an MBA in Cricketing Management without being a graduate in one of the disciplines of Cricket, if you know what I mean :-). That must make life really tough for a cricket captain. How does a leader motivate or even rebuke another player if his own output isn't upto the mark? Add the fact that great individual talent or brilliant cricketing acumen is no guarantee of success - some of the best captains have just been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time with the right team.

Coming back to the original motivation, I found that examples of leadership (for purposes of study and comparison) in other fields are difficult to obtain in detail. For instance, corporate, political or military leadership isn't readily apparent - the leaders carry out their ideas in relative privacy and in the presence of only a few people. In any field, results often decide whether a decision was good or not, but some tough ideas that may seem bad to others but are actually far-sighted can best be implemented without having to explain the purposes to all and sundry all the time. In cricket, the decisions are taken in full public glare, especially in front of many self-proclaimed pundits. Things can go haywire very easily - the difference between a poor call and a stroke of genius is almost invisible (there are so many instances of this). The leader can only take a chance - the player designated to carry it out has to deliver. He may have done it in the past, but may not be able to repeat it again. Again, these are routine dilemmas that leaders in all fields have to contend with, but it's so much more difficult to do it in the presence of instant feedback.

Cricket captaincy can turn players into sobbing wrecks (Kim Hughes of Australia), make ordinary players look like geniuses (Mike Brearley of England), raise questions of criticism against the most loved of all players (Sachin Tendulkar of India), raise a player to almost a feudal lord (Imran Khan of Pakistan), in addition to making them ambassadors for their nation expected to set an example to all. Success in captaincy can hide many flaws and can shower tremendous respect on whom the mantle has rested with ease. It can also singe great players, whom the remark "but he failed at captaincy" drags down from his pedestal. Every player with any aspirations to long-lasting fame in cricket hopes to do it through the route of captaincy, very few can truly recognise that there might be a possibility that they may not be suited for the job.

Harsha Bhogle and his wife conduct corporate seminars where they use episodes from cricket as a means to let participants discuss the business world and obtain lessons to use in any way they wish (not entirely sure of what happens there). I wonder if captaincy is something which is highlighted. I find it a fascinating way of learning about types of leadership, challenges faced, decisions taken, results obtained - it can be related to more easily. Perhaps management students are perusing case-studies or someone's doing a doctoral dissertation on it for years! I think the pace of cricket is suited to developing and testing leadership skills like these - whether it be the quick, difficult, extreme pressure and pace of one-day cricket or the more involved strategies, looking for opportunities, responding to changing conditions of the longer version resulting in lessons that mirror situations in other fields. And these can be easily learnt - for free.

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