The Art of Captaincy
I had been meaning to read Mike Brearley’s book about his experiences captaining the England cricket team in the 1970s and 1980s for some time, because I had heard great things about the insight he showed into man management and getting out of tricky situations, which strikes me as pretty much de rigeur for such a position – just ask Joe Root!
What was once my favourite quotation also allegedly came from Brearley, when he is supposed to have said that the secret of running a team is to keep the five guys who hate you away from the five who haven’t yet made up their minds, though I am almost certain this comes from baseball rather than cricket because the numbers I first heard were four and four rather than five and five, and of course baseball has nine players in a team not eleven.
There are plenty of websites where you can check the accuracy and attribution of quotations, but I have always been reluctant to run too many of the ones I have collected over the years through such systems, in case it turns out that everything I thought was said by Winston Churchill, Mark Twain or the Dalai Lama was actually just a spoof in an episode of The Simpsons. 'Never let the truth get in the way of a good story' used to be a tabloid journalism maxim, but it can probably apply to a much broader sweep of our current lives, where truth seems an increasingly nebulous concept, so I tend to rely on the deliverer of the message, and trust for the most part that I am being told the truth.
I thought it would be a good time to read Brearley’s book The Art of Captaincy in the days leading up to the Cricket World Cup Final in July. Even those who do not like sport will probably be aware of the drama of the final, as England and New Zealand tied the match and then tied what few of us knew would be used to settle the outcome, a so-called ‘Super Over’, before being even more surprised to learn that the number of boundaries in each innings would be the next way to break the deadlock. I was of course delighted with the outcome, based on a somewhat-hard-to justify rationale that England teams of various types have suffered so much loss and heartache over the many years I have been watching sport that we deserved a break for once. As the French polymath Jean Cocteau said, ‘We must believe in luck. How else can we explain the success of those we dislike?’
So we can conveniently ignore the umpires’ error in granting us six runs in total for the overthrows instead of the five it should have been and rejoice in the heroism – not for the first time, and arguably not even his most heroic effort of the summer, but ultimately the moment that did not end in later failure – when Ben Stokes guided us to victory to place himself firmly in the Pantheon of English cricketing legends, with all previous errors of judgement on the streets of Bristol left in that doubtful ambiguity that we somehow allow such people to enjoy.
The cricket was uplifting, exhilarating and ultimately hugely satisfying: the book was pretty much the polar opposite, to the point where I nearly gave up on it about three quarters of the way through. I usually make notes of the highlights of anything I read, but I wrote down precisely nothing this time around. Still, as we’ve found out this week, learning to ride an emotional roller coaster is simply par for the course when you get involved with English sport, whichever team and whichever era it happens to be.