Captains’ blog

I prefer to sail in a bad ship with a good captain rather than sail in good ship with a bad captain. (Mehmet Murat ildan)

Mike Brearley demonstrated that you don’t have to be a great cricketer to be a great captain and I am regularly surprised and impressed by the tactical acumen maturity of captains in the League. Unlike most other sports where captaincy is more or less a simple ceremonial call of head or tail, a cricket captain is required to juggle a number of plates (over rates, discipline, morale boosting and creative thinking) as well as perform with bat and/or ball. Cricket captaincy is an art, not dissimilar to umpiring where managing people is as important as knowing the Laws or having a feel and understanding of the way the game is going.

Example 1: Sometimes a captain takes a punt and brings on a bit-part bowler who is only playing because one the regulars is apparently down with what I call SWIPS (Stag-Weekend-in-Prague-Syndrome). The makeshift bowler’s two wickets for few runs does not win the game, but it does check the spike in the runs conceded column. Example 2: Placing a fielder in a position yet to be covered in the coaching text books might bring a surprise catch. Example 3: Calling back the star pace bowler to clean up the tail becomes a nightmare as the blacksmith and a university undergraduate throw caution and their concrete bats to the wind hitting thirty-plus in a slapstick ninth-wicket stand. There are many more such examples in the Secret Umps vault.

Captains come in all shapes and sizes – lawyers, plumbers, teachers, estate agents, PR consultants to name but a few of the day jobs. From Hooray Henrys to firefighters, the skippers represent all rungs of the social and professional class ladder. Yes, the old Gentlemen versus Players fixture is a thing of the not so distant past, and I am pleased to report that in our League meritocracy defines captaincy appointment and long may that continue.

Over the years, I’ve had full and frank discussions over key decisions (including an unfortunate snub by a skipper at the post-match handshake following a protracted on-off-for-rain dispute). But I’m going to say this loud and clear. Every captain I have umpired knows the game of cricket inside out. Unfortunately, that quality alone does not make a good captain.

Rather than getting tetchy about losing the toss or a bowler serving up the occasional long hop, a good captain focuses on what he can control. Keeping up with the over rate, organising field placing, and keeping an ear on unacceptable banter.

A cricket captain is a player, tactician and mentor before, during and after a match. The best cricket captains think before they act and are not emotionally affected by decisions that go against their team. Bad captaincy includes straying into the role of victim (aka interpreting umpires’ decisions as a personal slant) and collecting incidents throughout an innings as a bartering tool for retributive justice. I’ve had the pleasure of being at the bowler’s end when a captain who is bowling screams howzat after he makes a right mess of the batter’s wicket. In the bar after the game he acknowledged that this kind of thing was unnecessary, but sporting an Emoji-style expression he reminded me that that a few decisions had gone against his team.

I like it when a captain uses us as a reference point for decisions to be made: How many overs has Blondie got left? Can the kid have one more in this spell? Are we behind on the over rate? And I like it even more when a skipper acknowledges the bleedin’ obvious. The lip (get at him Blondie; nice one Blondie) between balls is becoming tiresome so I have a quiet word in the skipper’s ear and it ceases for the rest of the innings. I note a player late for a game parks his car over the boundary rope and we have a quiet word with the captain – the car is moved back.

I know it’s hard to believe but occasionally Secret Umps has been known to make a mistake on the League Regulations, (but never on the Laws). The fielding captain pointed this out with the diplomacy of a Harvard-educated official presenting his credentials to the Court of St James. With the greatest respect umps, (I already like the cut of his jib) I thought we agreed on two drinks breaks.

The post-match bar is the perfect setting for improving. Back on Civvy Street after a decent shower and with a pint of soda water and lime cordial I regularly seek out the captains for an informal debriefing. It is the time and place where I listen and learn. I’ve seen captains become feverish about one delivery (out of six hundred) not being signalled as a wide while not being seemingly perturbed by an opposition refusing to walk when given not-out.

And here lies an important issue for umpires. Each captain brings his temperament to a game of cricket and reacts accordingly. Provided his and his team’s behaviour are congruous to the Laws of Cricket, I don’t care if his persona is chirpy or miserable. Umpires need to understand that we are dealing with human beings in stressful situations and not impose ourselves on them. In the post-match bar chats, captains who see a bigger picture on how we performed are umpiring gold. So when a skipper tells us we should have taken charge of the opposition’s continuous banter or us not giving enough feedback on over rates we can take that on board the next Saturday and beyond.

On the other hand, a captain who internalises a decision to the extent he reminds me of it the next time I saw him (a year later), are less helpful. But I still took the reminder in the best spirit.