David Owen

This week I have been brooding about captaincy.

Why? It's personal: last Sunday I was given the honour of captaining the Authors cricket team, an institution founded, like the modern Olympics, in the last years of the 19th century and once graced by the likes of Sherlock Holmes' creator, Arthur Conan Doyle.

I had captained teams in various sports when younger, but skippering was not something I had done for several years.

The experience reminded me how crucial the role is: not even a cricket captain can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but at any moment new opportunities can and do emerge to engineer a better outcome for your side.

To comprehend why this should be, think of all the decisions in the cricket captain’s gift.

It starts with the toss - if you call correctly (sheer chance obviously) your decision determines whether you bat first or bowl first, in conditions that can change significantly during the course of the day.

When batting, the captain decides the order in which team-mates go to the wicket, a balancing-act weighing the need for quick scoring against solid defence, left- and right-handers and, at recreational level, an attempt to make sure that everyone gets something out of their afternoon.

In some formats - though not the limited-overs game that is increasingly prevalent - it is down to the skipper to decide how long the batting team’s innings lasts.

To win a timed game, it is not just a question of amassing as many runs as possible: if you have batted first, your team will only win if you dismiss ten opposition batters; so you need to leave enough time for that to happen.

Usually, moreover, your chances of achieving this are enhanced if you set the opponent a target that they believe attainable.

A red kite circles overhead as Authors CC take on Warborough and Shillingford ©David Owen
A red kite circles overhead as Authors CC take on Warborough and Shillingford ©David Owen

This is because it is generally easier for batters to avoid dismissal if survival is their only objective.

That is already plenty for the cricket captain to juggle with.

But the real opportunities to influence the course of the match may well occur when your side is fielding.

It is ultimately the skipper who decides, after all, who bowls each successive over (a sequence of six balls).

Not only that; for every single ball, the captain may determine, in consultation with bowlers and often more experienced team-members, where exactly each fielder should be stationed.

In any game at any level, that amounts to a kaleidoscope of probabilities that must continually be assessed, bearing in mind that any decision, however trivial it might appear at the time, could be the one that swings the game decisively, for good or ill.

Effective management/motivational skills and tactical nous are, of course, desirable.

But the most important knack of all for a captain is also the most difficult to master: because the key match-winning decision can be made - or not made - at any time, you need to stay constantly alert, keeping your mind free from the many distractions that tend to assail it over an afternoon in a setting as scenic as Warborough Green in leafy Oxfordshire, where we were playing on Sunday.

Not only that, the skipper must try to suppress whatever emotions may have welled up as a consequence of details, good and bad, of his own performance.

The Authors XI originated, like the modern Olympics, in the late 19th century ©Authors CC
The Authors XI originated, like the modern Olympics, in the late 19th century ©Authors CC

This was where this novice captain fell short on Sunday.

To cut to the chase, we lost a tightish game with a maximum of just three balls remaining to be bowled.

For most of our stint in the field, however, we had in all honesty appeared destined for probable defeat.

Then, as can happen, the worm turned: a couple of good overs for Authors CC left the opposition requiring 15 runs to win from a maximum of two overs.

This was eminently achievable, to be sure; but the remaining deficit was sufficient to allow us a decent chance of snatching a draw from a spirited match, especially with six Warborough wickets down.

The smart thing to have done at this point, as I realised on the way home, would have been to reintroduce our off-spinner, who had bowled well earlier, into the attack.

The comparatively slow speed of his deliveries would have obliged the batters to try to hit the ball hard; if we stationed our fielders shrewdly, this ought to have given us a good chance of restricting the number of runs conceded, and perhaps of picking up a catch or two.

Unfortunately, I had made an elementary mistake - a dropped catch - earlier in proceedings, and was still replaying the incident frustratedly in my head.

This distracted me enough for the "smart" play not to occur to me until later while barrelling down the motorway.

The infinite complexity of the captain’s role seems an important ingredient in setting cricket apart ©David Owen
The infinite complexity of the captain’s role seems an important ingredient in setting cricket apart ©David Owen 

It might not have made any difference: the Warborough batters did what they needed to do to carry their side over the line nervelessly and well. But it would have been worth a try.

The day, in sum, reminded me of what I once knew: that there is nothing in sport quite like the art of cricket captaincy.

What comes closest? Perhaps captaining a Ryder Cup golf team, or similar - but in that case, the captains do not usually have the additional burden of playing.

How about skippering an America’s Cup yacht? Maybe - though I wonder to what degree even inspired captaincy could make up for having a slower boat over a series of races.

I do not really know enough about the sport to make a definitive judgement, but perhaps skipping a curling team comes somewhere close.

The infinite complexity of the captain’s role seems to me an important ingredient in setting cricket apart and strengthening its case for a return to the Olympics, albeit presumably in a short-form format in which some of its subtleties can get lost.

The sport is on a shortlist along with motorsport, karate, baseball-softball, lacrosse, breaking, kickboxing, squash and flag football invited by Los Angeles 2028 to present their case for a place on the Games' sports programme.

A decision on which sports to add to the programme is expected this year.