Captaincy - how much does it matter?
As KKR entered the Finals of IPL 2021, the role of Eoin Morgan in that Kolkata setup has been a the topic of contention
England’s World Cup-winning captain Eoin Morgan is leading Kolkata Knight Riders for the 1st full season in the IPL this year. Before IPL was postponed back in April, his team had lost 5 games and won 2 games. Since resumption, they have gone on to win 7 and lost just 2 as they managed to beat the league stage’s best team to book a place in the Finals.
Just based on those facts, most casual cricket followers would largely agree with the following tweet by Harsha Bhogle.
But a look at the details paints a very different picture. In 15 innings this year, Eoin Morgan has averaged a shade over 11 and has a high score of just 47. The pitches in UAE have been slow (and some even low) and conducive to spin. KKR’s 3 quality spinners in Varun Chakaravarthy, Shakib, and Sunil Narine have made the most of the conditions bowling 85 overs since the resumption at a meager 5.7 runs an over while picking up 24 wickets. An already solid batting unit has also seen Venkatesh Iyer’s addition.
Was it really Morgan’s captaincy that got them to the Finals? Or just players performing in conditions that suit them?
I think it’s the latter but fans, broadcasters, and even ex-players continue to talk about captaincy as if it breaks or makes a game. The argument that Bhogle is making here isn’t an uncommon one - The captain’s brilliance with tactics, bowling changes, team selection, and ability to read the pitches can outweigh his/her performance.
Let’s first talk about bowling changes and tactics. When India won the T20 World Cup in 2007, MS Dhoni was lauded as a smart tactician for Joginder Sharma to bowl the last over. His other options were Harbhajan Singh, who had been hit for 3 sixes by Misbah, and Yusuf Pathan, another spinner with just 1 over in the entire tournament. It’s not like he could throw the ball to Robin Uthappa or Gautam Gambhir, his choice was fairly limited and he picked one of those.
Most captains in nearly every situation have such limited choices, and usually there is no ‘right’ or ‘obvious’ one. Unlike winning in Poker, where theoretically one could play an infinite number of hands and simply play the odds, winning in Cricket also requires another key component - execution. And Rohit Sharma can make an ‘obvious’ call to bowl Jasprit Bumrah in the penultimate over defending 20, but if he is having an off-day there is no tactic that can save the Mumbai Indians. In fact, most times the quality of the choice made is simply judged on the outcome of the match (just like that Joginder Sharma over).
In case of reading pitches - haven’t we seen even top captains make mistakes all the time? Sourav Ganguly saw the Johannesburg ‘road’ in the 2003 Final and chose to field first. Ricky Ponting in Ashes 2005 is another example. Besides, even top analysts like Jarrod Kimber agree that there are no experts when it comes to reading pitches. Similarly, MS Dhoni called back an out-of-practice RP Singh during India’s tour of England in 2011. Virat Kohli picked two spinners for the Lord’s test of 2018. Team selection, just like the ability to read the pitches, is a case of educated guesswork and most captains make mistakes.
And yet, the significance of captaincy is drilled into cricket fans from a young age. I grew up hearing/reading that one of the Cricket books every fan must read is The Art Of Captaincy by Mike Brearley. The former English skipper built his reputation on an Ashes win in Australia in the late 70s and winning a test series in Pakistan. The truth was those Pakistan and Australian teams were depleted of their main stars thanks to Kerry Packer. Besides, Brearley who captained in 31 of the 39 tests he played, averaged under 25 with the bat. Even Bob Woolmer in his short career of 19 tests did better.
It’s also important to note, today’s captains differ from the captains of generations before (like Mark Taylor, Clive Lyold, and Mike Brearley) in two key ways:
They have little to no experience captaining a side before taking over the reigns of the national team. Joe Root, Ricky Ponting, and Steve Smith are certainly such examples. Cricketers back in the day played fewer tests but often captained their domestic sides in between. Today, even the likes of Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson didn’t lead too often other than in a couple of U-19 tournaments and maybe a handful of ‘A’ tour games.
They have an extensive staff supporting each aspect of the game - from mental conditioning coach to an analytics team. No longer do captains have play strategists or manage training sessions all by themselves. T20 franchises even have scouts working for them all around the year, similar to soccer teams.
And while the 2nd point takes some of the responsibilities off, both of these make it even harder to judge captains (or even head coaches) and the impact they create on teams or players. Anil Kumble, as an example, gets constant abuse during the IPL since Punjab Kings haven’t been a consistent side. And yet, he was the chief mentor for Mumbai Indians during their 1st victorious campaign. As an outsider, his role in any of these campaigns is just hard to pinpoint.
None of this is to say that team environment does not matter. The captain doesn’t need to be best friend or advisor to all key players (Hardik Pandya once admitted he doesn’t talk to Rohit Sharma about cricket) but creating a good environment to allow young players to prosper, presence of healthy competitions and bonding is important to get the best out of the players.
But that’s the responsibility of all coaches, the captain as well as experienced players in the team. And that’s where the entire KKR management deserves credit. They realized having good spinners on generally slow pitches and the ability to hit lots of boundaries (two seasons where they have a boundary less than every 5 balls) are their strengths and they have backed those, in spite of a poor 2020 and the first half of 2021.
Not just at KKR, most major decisions in all professional teams are driven by the leadership group of the team instead of just the captain. Yet writers will keep romanticizing the role of the captain when a team pulls off an incredible win or bash them when the team crashes out. Cricket fans love to ponder about the indefinables and they will continue to obsess.