Transcript: Couch Talk with Mike Brearley

Couch Talk Episode 68 (play)

Guest: Mike Brearley

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman– Hello and Welcome to Couch Talk. The guest today is former England Captain Mike Brearley. He talks about captaincy in modern day cricket, role of coaches, captaincy methods, the KP situation and the impact of social media.

Welcome to the show, Mr. Brearley!

Mike Brearley– Thank you.

SJ– With your tight schedule, how much cricket do you get to watch these days?

MB– Not a great deal. Ever since I stopped playing cricket, I’ve worked as a psychotherapist, psychoanalyst full time. I still am working. I don’t get much time to watch cricket. I like watching Test cricket best. And sometimes One Day cricket, but not so often.

SJ– You are the foremost authority in the world in terms of captaincy in cricket. What are your views on modern day captaincy? Is it much different from your playing days? These days, you have 3 formats, more days of cricket being played, more media scrutiny, perhaps.

MB– We had two formats. Basically, the job is the same. The job is a fascinating mixture of tactical and technical knowledge and understanding and getting the best out of other people. So, Andrew Strauss or the current England captain, Alastair Cook, or (M. S.) Dhoni or Michael Clarke or Graeme Smith all have that same basic job.

I agree with you that the things have shifted, especially with coaches and back-room staff. I think that must be an advantage for the modern captains. It would be good to have someone you could get on with and talk with, who took care of a lot of things. On the other hand, it can be a disadvantage if you don’t get along with together. And there is another team that has to be managed in the back-room. We hardly had anyone in the back-room in our age.

SJ– So, the primary job and how you carried out in the ‘70s and the ‘80s in terms of the things that you had to do, and when you look from the outside now, the things that these captains, the ones you mentioned at least, have to do- the job description itself has changed, hasn’t it?

MB– The job hasn’t changed. Basically, these guys have to decide whether to have two slips and a gully, or whether to bowl this bowler from this end, or whether someone is tired and needs to be changed, or what is a good score on a certain pitch etc. That is the tactical side, and you still have a great responsibility of influencing the team, for grooming people together into a team that really supports each other, or building up the confidence of someone who is less confident, or challenging someone who is over confident. All of that, and trying to play yourself. All these things are absolutely the same.

SJ– The way you describe it, captaincy becomes another skill that you expect this person to have, as much as the abilities with the bat or the ball. But if you look around, at least for a while, captaincy was given to whoever was in form, whether with the bat or the ball.

MB– I think that is to undervalue captaincy.

SJ– So you’d think that the teams should be grooming people into this position?

MB– Yes. Grooming, trying out, testing, questioning, seeing who is suitable, who might do the job well. It is a very important part of any team- the succession. The next captain. Who is likely to develop into a good captain. It is a very important part of the development of the team. And the continuity of their excellence.

SJ– Let’s take the case of India, where M. S. Dhoni is the captain across all three formats. Right now, they are trying to figure out succession plans. They are calling for his head, at least in Tests. What is the thing that you would look in a youngster that might be asked to take up the role?

MB– First of all, what sort of person is he? Is he a person people will listen to? Is he someone that people will respect? Is he someone who has some desire, I don’t mean an overweening ambition, but some desire to stand his authority on a group of people? He must have some ideas about how a team should be run, who tactically thinks about the game, who has interesting suggestions to make, who can stick up for things when things go badly. A whole range of qualities are called for in a group leader or captain.

You are looking for that in captains all the time. As soon as I became the captain of Middlesex in 1971, one of the most important decisions each 2 or 3 years would be, “who would be the best person to be the vice-captain?” That was partly to find who would be the best to give me the best advice and would be good when I was away, but also who would be developed into a good captain. You try things at that level to see if somebody was going to come through in that way. You should be thinking about that all the time, or rather, it should be on your mind as an issue.

SJ– There is this school of thought, and Wasim Akram has said it a lot of times- bowling captains make better captains…

MB– It is a very interesting idea. The trouble with having a bowling captain, especially a fast bowling captain is, I think, asking a great deal of someone on the field -most of the tactical decisions have to be made on the field, throw himself into the job of bowling fast- which involves a lot of emotion and physical energy, both- and at the same time have the detachment and calm required for a captain.

On the other hand, I think the batting captains don’t understand the bowlers’ problems properly. I don’t think I understood the mentality and the feelings of the bowlers. One bowler said to me, “You expect me to be an automaton”. It was a good comment. Another bowler, a slow bowler, said to me, “You expect me to have an attacking field when I first come on, but I need a few balls or a few overs to get my own rhythm and bowl alright. I need a bit of defence.” I, on the other hand, said that the batsman is likely to make mistakes when a bowler first comes on. That was an interesting debate. The question of whether or not a batsman understands a bowler’s mentality is a good question.

Debating the other argument that I gave before- the effort involved, and how difficult it is to put in peak performances as a fast bowler, it is a strong argument. There have been great captains who have been slow bowlers. I think of (Ray) Illingworth and (Richie) Benaud, from a long time ago.

SJ– You bring up a fascinating point. One of the listeners, Kartikeya, has a question for you. – How much of a difference can a captain make if the bowler lacks the control? You mentioned one of the slow bowler said that he needs protection. What can a captain do with a bowler who cannot maintain the basic line and length?

MB– Obviously, you are going to be more successful as a team if you have bowlers who can bowl line and length. It is a very important element. Captains are lucky when they have a good bowling attack. Like I did- I had [Bob] Willis, [Ian] Botham, [Mike] Hendrick, [John] Lever, [Chris] Old and [Derek] Underwood, [Phil] Edmonds and [John] Emburey. These were people who knew what they were doing. Or, imagine a team with [Glenn] McGrath and [Shane] Warne.

Obviously, the job is not easier. A good captain turns a bad team into a moderate team, a moderate team into a good team, and a good team into an excellent team. A bad captain turns an excellent team into a good team, a good team into a moderate team and a moderate team into a poor team and a poor team into a hopeless team. Of course, you cannot create miracles, but you can do something. And what you do is important, for the good or bad.

SJ– The reason why I had gone into that is, for example- M. S. Dhoni was celebrated and praised for how calm and cool he is, he doesn’t show any emotions, and even though he had gotten his team from Anil Kumble filled with huge stars in it and they became the no.1 in the team [in Tests] and won the World Cup. Now, he is being blamed for the exact same captaincy style because India is not getting the results. How does a captain approach that?

MB– I have two thoughts about it. One is that everyone’s strength also includes their weaknesses. calmness is a very good quality in a captain. So is passion. So is being really concerned. It is sometimes very difficult to keep that balance right. Your calmness can turn into or become a sort of detachment, which is not helpful. It can be too fatalistic, non interventional, it can be not being engaged sufficiently. I’m not saying that about Dhoni, I am saying that in general. On the other hand, passion can become destructive. It can become scapegoating, you can become too angry, you can become too exercised about things when you don’t have enough detachment or calm. There is a balance between these things. No one is going to have everything. It is like having an attacking batsman, he may not have the perfect defence. He may have the defence but he needs a few attacking shots. There is no recipe for these things.

The second thing is- different qualities are called for at different times. If you have a very good team, then the most important thing is to give them a head to facilitate that. They don’t need to do very much, then. But you have to make sure that they don’t get complacent. You have to keep encouraging people who need encouragement, but maybe a less interventionist job. At other times, there may be a crisis. They may have to get hold of the people by the scruff of the neck and really intervene actively. You may have to change the team, or confront various players, or have a radical shape-up. [Winston] Churchill may have been a very good war leader, but probably he wasn’t a very good peace leader.

SJ– Certainly. What do you make of the current lot of the international leaders – from Clarke to Dhoni to Graeme Smith to Alastair Cook? Is there someone who jumps at you with their style of captaincy? Perhaps, reminds you of yourself?

MB– I don’t know about that. I don’t see people that close, to be able to answer solidly. Let me just say though, that Graeme Smith – I have a lot of time for. He became the captain of South Africa at the age of 24 or 23. He has been there for 10 years now. That is a fantastic achievement, now. And he has scored a lot of runs in that time. He has been very good at first slip. He is tough, solid, thoughtful, likeable, respected by his team, and he has managed to keep it like that for a long time at the high power position. I must tip my hat off to him.

I thought Andrew Strauss was a good captain – not a genius captain. I don’t think he did various unusual, inventive or creative things, but as a personality, he won the respect and admiration of his team. With Andy Flower, there was a good combination of manager and captain in which each helped the other.

Dhoni, I don’t know enough about. I thought he was a bit laid back in Test cricket. He hasn’t quite, to my mind, tactically, followed through the possibilities- it is a superficial view. His willingness to come in the critical situation, his ability as a batsman and on the whole as a keeper and his calmness are fantastic qualities. The pressure that must be on the captain of India in all three formats of the game is extraordinary. I’ve heard about that from many people. One of the people who I have heard that from is from the Greg Chappell, the ex-coach of the Indian cricket team. He told what it is like for someone like Sachin Tendulkar, or now Dhoni- the expectation, the admiration, intrusion, pressure, the number of opportunities that could distract you. It is a very tough job. I take my hats off to the senior Indian players like Tendulkar, Dravid, Dhoni, Kumble for keeping and maintaining that level of performances for so long under great pressure.

SJ– That is a perfect segue to the next section- Chappell. Ian Chappell, any time he is on the broadcast, talks about how a captain must be selected. There is this Aussie way, where they select the best team and then pick the best player as the captain. There is then the English way, which is adopted by a lot of other teams as well, where you pick the captain and then the team. Your thoughts on that?

MB– In an ideal world, your captain would be a member of the team and would be picked as one of the best 11 players. It is not always the ideal world. It is the sort of balance of the two. It is very hard to be a good captain if you are not worth your place in the team. On the other hand, a good captain can significantly improve the team. As I said, it is almost like an all-rounder position. I would be inclined to the English way. But, you have to be careful to not go too far in that direction. But, I see Chappell’s point. He was a very good captain. He was tough, down to earth, shrewd,  aggressive mostly in a good way, and respected by the team. And tactically, he was sound. He obviously had some very good players, but he got the best out of them. That was a captain going together with his team. He was a very good captain, one of the people I admire.

SJ– Next question comes from another listener, Shoaib– he wonders about this concept of split captaincy. You have three formats, and sometimes three captains. How does it affect the dynamics within the team between the players and the captains?

MB– I don’t know it fully, but it is hard to generalise. I think that if there is a good manager, or like in England’s case, two managers, if it is a good relationship between the manager and the captain and the team, it can work. If there is insecurity, or jealousy, or too much rivalry within the team then it is going to be a great problem. As what happened to Nasser Hussain towards the end of his career, possibly the end of his career for Michael Vaughan- they came into the team for Test matches and didn’t feel like it was their team anymore. Someone else was captaining for other matches that they had been injured for, or in other format of the game. In my view, it can work, but it is like adding a big back-room staff. That is another problem to deal with- that can be a great source of help, but can lead to insecurity and jealousy and rivalry that can be disruptive.

SJ–  This question is from another listener, Michael Wagener– The way the teams are handled now, what are your thoughts on the way the coaches seem to be more powerful than the captains?

MB– Again, in an ideal world, you have a division of responsibilities and a mutual respect. The coach would be largely responsible for off-field activities- the practice, the nets, the training or preparation. As soon as you enter the field, or the dressing room before you go into the field, or in the lunch interval, the captain is the man in charge. If they both respect each other, have input to the others’ job, the coach can tell the captain that he missed a chance in the afternoon session or the captain can tell the coach that a particular program arranged is becoming boring and oppressive and needs to be changed or made more fun or in some other cases, made more rigorous. There is mutual input. That can be a very good thing.

In the end, the captain is on the field. He is the one who has the sense how the bowlers are bowling, how the ball is coming through, who is ready for the change. He has to have an overall strategy and flexibility for what goes on moment by moment. Spotting weaknesses in the opposition- the coach can help a great deal with that. All the DVDs and the internet, the access to computers can be of great help. On the other hand, it can turn people too narrow or too technical. They may have some spontaneity and confidence in doing things their own way. All these things are a matter of balance, very hard to prescribe.

SJ– All the things that you have talked about so far in terms of captaincy, personnel, on and off the field, mutual respect- all of that was in the forefront during the recent Kevin Pietersen saga in English cricket. The way things unfolded, leaks flying in from all directions. Your take on how Kevin Pietersen handled it and how the English team management and the board handled it?

MB– My sympathies were largely with the team management, and I thought they handled it very well. I also have got a lot of time for Kevin Pietersen, by the way. He is a remarkable player, he turns games around and is capable of doing things hardly anyone else in the world is capable of doing, if any. He is someone you want on your side and playing for you. He is invaluable to the team. He works very hard at his game. He is ambitious and keen to do very well. He has good ideas, and probably some bad ideas as well.

But, thet got to a point where he was doing more damage to the rest of the team than he was doing good. I think that is the point at which they (the team management) said enough is enough. And we are not going to have any more of these, I don’t know what was in those texts, unpleasnt veering towards being disloyal. There is a certain point for a captain and the management and the team as a whole would be better off without him for a time being. “Let him kick his heels for a while. Let him reflect and see how much he wants to be a part of this team and what is he willing to put himself out a bit  for the team and not just play where he fits in.” That is what I think happened. And, after a few months, they had some talks and exchanges. He climbed down to some extent and they now have integrated him back into the team. Possibly, Andrew Strauss has been putting a lot on himself for quite some time and possibly it is easier to have a new captain ,to have a fresh air to it. Alastair Cook. That maybe makes things easier for him to come back in. It is a new start.

SJ– If you look at the Pakistani team from the ‘80s and the ‘90s, there were a lot of headstrong personalities who didn’t really get along. Sometimes, they were counter-productive. How far do you put up with it?

MB– As far as you can, is my answer. Because, you want to have good players, you want players to have their opinions. These are the top players in the country, in the world. Whether the Pakistanis of the ‘80s and ‘90s, or the English team with people like [Geoff] Boycott, Botham, Lever, Edmonds, Underwood, [Alan] Knott, Willis- they were strong characters. You want strong characters. And strong characters are not going to be easy. It is the job of the manager and the captain to get the best out of them and get them on your own side, get them contributing and confront them if necessary. In other words, manage or lead. As far as you can, you want to be able to take your most talented players to your best players.

But not always, you can’t always do it. There might be times where you have to say “Sorry, you can’t play in the next match. You are not going to be in the squad for the next game or foreseeable future until you change your ways in some way or the other.” That has to be done as rarely as possible because talent is a very rare commodity, a very valuable commodity.

SJ– The next one is about the modern world we live in. This is a question from James Marsh. He wonders whether you have any views on the challenges posed to the teams, how the business of cricket is conducted, the team chemistry etc. by social media and technology?

MB– I think there is more than one aspect to the question. I imagine the most destructive use of mobile phone is in terms of corruption. That is the biggest threat to cricket because if corruption is around or if it gets a tour banned, it destroys the confidence of public in the game because they can’t be sure what to trust. It seems to me that’s the most important issue facing cricket now. Social media in terms of mobile phones or small computers in one kind or another can be used to give information or two, connect with gamblers, or whatever it might be, or bookmakers. It is a very difficult area. On the one hand people have their own private lives- they are human beings, they have their friends and wives and girlfriends and arrangements, managements and agents and people who they have business with. They want a life. On the other hand, you have to have some caution in what is allowed. That is the most obvious danger in the social media.

The other thing is about the foolish things they say, or uncharitable things they say, that gets around the world. Before, they might be saying to one or two people that gets around a pub, but now it goes around the world. It is a sort of difficulty in the modern world and confronts anyone in a public life- politicians, actors, not just sportsmen confront this from this point of view. You have to live in this world, try and create the atmosphere with people, respect the rest of the team and are alert to how a casual comment can be taken up and put in the headlines across the world within seconds.

I think it a difficulty for the media themselves because if you are writing an article, atleast you have some time to second thought. If you are talking on the radio or TV, you don’t have time for second thought. You are speaking all the time and it not like saying something to your best friend, but you are talking to the whole world at large. It is difficult that way, and that is the world we live in.

SJ– Finally, this one is on your book, “The Art of Captaincy”. It is a question, a comment too, from Nishant– Looking at how captaincy is handled by various people across the world and how man-management is generally getting screwed up with the England situation and basically, any team around the world in the last 10 or 15 years- he wonders if your book was so far ahead of your time. And, how it still might be.

MB– It is very kind of him. There has always been, in every team, every class, in every business board, in every group, every family, a conflict. And, conflict is not a bad thing. It is necessary. Tension is necessary. Argument is necessary. Opinions are necessary. But, hopefully, the overall balance is for the good of the team or family. Sometimes it isn’t. Now, I don’t think it has changed in that way.  I think that has always been so, just that it gets a little bit more out now. It is more public. I don’t think it is particularly different now if I was writing about the tension, the liveliness. A good team is often the team with lots of strong personalities, like a family with lot of strong personalities. But, overall, there is a lot of respect for the whole family, and for each other. And, within that, you can accommodate an argument, a debate, different opinions, elements of conflicts, degrees of jealousy, these things are inevitable. Insecurity, over-confidence, a bit of brashness. All these things come in to human lives and into cricket teams. And, you live with it, and you are not really going to get rid of it because you don’t really want to. That is what life is. That is what humans are. The thing is to get the best out of it.

SJ– Fantastic. Thank you so much for your time, Mr. Brearley. I really appreciate it.

MB– It was a real pleasure. Thank you for your questions and for the people who sent the questions in.

SJ-Thank you.

MB– Thank you. Bye bye.

Download the full episode here.

Episode transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman