“A lot of it depends on chance. Much of captaincy is nothing but rolls of a slightly loaded dice. It is a mistake to attribute much more to it”
So much of cricket depends on chance. On luck. On intangible, unpredictable happenings in a complex behaviour of 22 distinct, reasonably independent but interrelated variables. It used to be 24, before technology came in to restrict human and partisan errors by the men in white coats to run away with the result. Thank God for that.
Besides, there are the other elements … weather, clouds, wind direction and surface.
One can control very little of this sort of a complicated soup of parameters. That is why I have always maintained that captaincy in cricket is a complex game of roulette. And luck.
Mike Brearley would have gone down as quite a mediocre leader had the first part of his reign not coincided with the Packer era and the absence of the cream of the Australian side, and the last bit with the superhuman deeds of Ian Botham. No, he did not inspire Botham to those deeds. The Headingley 1981 result was miraculous, and if it was a strategy that led to winning from near defeat, it was a pathetic strategy. Botham just kept hooking, and even miscued strokes kept going to the fence. That was all there was to it. In between these two great stretches of success, Brearley took his team to play full strength Australia in a three-Test series. He lost it 3-0, although all we remember of that series is Dennis Lillee brandishing an aluminium bat.
Say for example whatever took place during the first session at Edgbaston today.
Virat Kohli would have bowled had he won the toss. He bowled in any case, but that was because Joe Root opted to bat first.
No one could justifiably criticise Kohli if he had bowled, given the past record of Tests finishing within three days at the venue, the advantage generally enjoyed by the seamers, and the cloud cover which had appeared in the morning. However, in cricket, criticism is seldom bound by justification.
If he had indeed won the toss and bowled first, the decision could have looked quixotic by the second session when England cruised at 98 for 1. But then again, it could have seemed a calculated gamble that paid off had Ajinkya Rahane held on to the edge by Keaton Jennings. If he had batted and India had lost quick wickets to Jimmy Anderson, he would have been similarly crucified.
And then, you have the decision to bowl Ravichandran Ashwin as early as the seventh over of the morning. It could have been rejected as a baffling decision on a traditionally seam-friendly wicket, especially if the ace spinner had been collared. But, in his very second over, the off-spinner produced a peach of a delivery, the perfect ball for the left-handed batsman. It pitched perfectly, curled past the formidable forward defence of Alastair Cook and hit the off-stump.
It was an aberration really, because many of the balls in Ashwin’s first spell did not quite turn. This one gripped, turned and bounced to perfection.
In cricketing terms, it was an astute enough move, trying to gauge early on in the day whether there was some turn available in the wicket. And it had a lot to do with luck, because Ashwin produced a dream ball. However, if Kohli had been branded as an extraordinary captain, the headlines would be splashed with the extraordinary genius of the move.
Fortunately, Kohli has other superpowers under his cloak. He is too great a batsman to have been promoted as the pathbreaking captain. So, Alastair Cook b Ahswin remained, thankfully, just another wicket in the scorebooks.
At the other end, if Jennings had been caught early and the Indian bowlers had run through the rather vulnerable English middle order, Root’s decision could have come under a lot of brickbats. But, it will probably now register as a brave one.
Again, I daresay, if Root had been an underperforming batsman and successful captain like Brearley had been, the decision could have been hailed as an inspired one. But, not unlike Kohli, Root is also one of the top batsmen of the world, who completed his 6000 Test runs during this innings at a 52-plus average. Hence, we will thankfully be spared such superlatives.
With so many keyboards being typed endlessly to conjure up unique articles on every game, it does give rise to a lot of meaningless strains. Especially when topics as intangible as captaincy and strategy are touched upon.
Ultimately, the English think tank, with more experience of England’s climate and wickets, took a calculated punt that the dry spells in the summer would have stymied the normal spice of the Edgbaston wicket. Their Indian counterparts, not so well-versed with the effect of the weather on the local turfs, perhaps took the past record at Edgbaston into consideration and leaned towards fielding first.
Quite straightforward explanations, not touched by either genius or ineptitude. A lot of cricketing decisions are like that. They come off or they don’t, and calls are taken based on a lot of parameters that no one can possibly have control over.
A lot of it depends on chance. Much of captaincy is nothing but rolls of a slightly loaded dice. It is a mistake to attribute much more to it.