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The secrets of successful skippering

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Tom Fordyce | 19:54 UK time, Friday, 27 May 2011

Cardiff, Wales

Midway through Friday afternoon, an unheralded Sri Lankan batsman moving serenely towards a fine Test century, England's most aggressive bowler wicketless for 100 runs and chances going down faster than the lagers in the crowd, Andrew Strauss had to earn his captaincy corn.

The new ball had been and gone, yielding a solitary wicket. James Anderson was off the field, struggling with back and side problems so painful he would later be sent for a scan. The atmosphere inside the ground was as flat as a Welsh cake.

In such unpromising conditions, what is the canny Test skipper to do? How to reignite his spluttering side, to somehow conjure some menace from the most placid of pitches, to wangle out a well-set batsman and manage the frustrations of his struggling strike bowler?

"First things first: engage your Test brain, and not your World Cup brain or your Twenty20 brain," says Alec Stewart, former England and Surrey captain and his country's most capped Test player.

"There are 450 overs in the match, not 40. To get to where you want to be, you have to put the right building blocks in place: accurate bowling, tight fielding, making the opposition work for their runs, being patient.

"England had a really good first half hour on Friday. They pitched the ball up and got it to swing, so Sri Lanka had to sit in for a while. When they then saw off the new ball, it was England who had to sit in. That's Test cricket.

"We all watch a lot of 50 over cricket, and Twenty20 cricket, so everyone thinks the game always has to move along at a rate of knots. Test cricket doesn't always do that; it's more like a game of chess. You have to know when to attack, and when to defend."

When Anderson had removed Mahela Jayawardene (28 Test centuries, average of 53, top score of 374) for just four, pouched by Strauss at slip in the third over of the day, wickets had looked likely to tumble.

Instead his less illustrious namesake Prasanna (two Test tons, average of 30) made happy hay as 183 runs were scored in the first two sessions of the day.

In a scenario where wickets are badly needed yet runs are flowing, how does a skipper reflect that delicate balance between attack and defence in his field placings?

"When Jayawardene was well set after tea, Strauss had to keep a positive edge in the field - hence two slips and a gully - but also block up the easy runs, hence the extra cover, mid off and mid on," says Stewart, in Cardiff as an expert summarise for BBC Radio 5 live.

"Sometimes you simply have to sit in and be patient. Very, very rarely do you go out there in the field and go bang bang bang and knock them all down.

"It's a horrible cliché to use, but he would say to his bowlers, you keep the ball in those areas, I'll protect that off side, and your luck will change."

Stuart Broad's dismissal of Brad Haddin in Adelaide on 4th December last year took him to 99 Test wickets. He clearly didn't expect it to take him almost six more months to become the 44th England bowler to bag the ton.

Andrew Strauss

Strauss' astute leadership helped peg back Sri Lanka when a score approaching 500 had seemed likely

On Friday the frustration showed, not only as the runs piled up in his figures but as chances were spilt and umpire referrals went against him. Maharoof survived tight lbw shouts with the Sri Lankan total on 247-5 and 253-5; after Broad was left without a shout when he thought Billy Doctrove should have given Jayawardene out at 257-5, his cheeks were puce and his arms tea-potting.

How and when does the clever captain intervene?

"That's where your man management skills comes in, and also your tactical nous," says Stewart. "If as skipper you saw Broad go wicketless to 100, and start getting frustrated with the decisions that didn't go his way, you wouldn't try to stop him, but you would do enough to make sure he didn't blow a gasket.

"You want your players to express themselves, and you want them to be fired up, but you also want them to be under control when they are."

Broad has barely bowled since returning injured from the World Cup, taking only five wickets in his two first-class matches for Nottinghamshire this season. When handling a player who is clearly underprepared, how long does his captain give him to rediscover his best? Where should the line be drawn between giving him a chance to bowl himself into form, and giving away too many easy runs to the opposition?

"Once you're picked, you're picked as if you're in tip top shape," says Stewart. "Broad might be coming back from injury, and he might be a little undercooked, but how many batsmen come into the side off three single figure scores?

"That's reality, and as a player you have to deal with it. Jonathan Trott has hardly set the world alight for Warwickshire this season, but he averages almost 60 in Test cricket and will expect to maintain that here in Cardiff.

"That's where the mind games come in, even if you're having to kid yourself sometimes. It's a Test match, you've been picked for a reason, perform to those standards."

At times England looked flat in the field on Friday. While they got lucky when Trott deflected Jayawardene's drive onto the non-striker's stumps to run out Maharoof, Alastair Cook, Eoin Morgan and Strauss all dropped makeable if tough chances, while Kevin Pietersen missed an easy run out chance at Perera by a Cardiff mile.

How to keep chins up when standards are down?

"Firstly, these guys are all Test cricketers. It's their responsibility to make sure they're
always in the right frame of mind.

"Secondly, you can't make people behave like people they're not. Okay, you've got naturally sparky players like Graeme Swann, but then you might have someone like Pietersen, who will walk around with his hands in his pockets. He's not being negative - that's just the way his body language works - so don't try to make him jump about like someone else.

"This is a good pitch, and you have to work for both your wickets and your runs. When you do get a wicket you go in for the kill. That new man is likely to give you a chance, even a small one, at some point in his first 20 balls. If he doesn't, drop off again and make them work for it.

"As skipper you will bring the players together at scheduled moments, like before the start of play and at tea. You will also do it spontaneously at opportune moments, like the drinks break or at the fall of wicket.

"But you don't want to overcomplicate things, and you don't want to get inside your own bowler's head. At most you will give your players two points to think about. Keep it simple, keep it clear, keep it short.

"For example, at tea time the bowling coach might go over with his laptop to someone like Broad and just say, this is your pitch map, 70% of your deliveries are on a length, 20% might be a bit short, they've scored most of their runs off the latter, let's try to pitch it up a bit more."

With England 47-1 going into Saturday, 353 in arrears with three days left and further rain forecast over the weekend, Strauss will have further opportunities to show off his skippering skills.

His batsmen should fill their boots on an easy pitch, his fielders improve in the second innings and his attack have more overs in the tank. But they will still need to be marshalled well. This series may turn out to be tighter than some anticipated.


  • Comment number 1.

    Quite a few commentators are saying that this isn't an easy pitch.

  • Comment number 2.

    Top blogging as always Tom. Fingers crossed Anderson is OK and Broad's tonsils calm down. Looking forward to a fascinating day's play tomorrow

  • Comment number 3.

    Great article Tom, proving to be a decent sports journalist. Shame Bresnan got injured I feel he could have added some control and has been unlucky with the bat. Does anyone think he would have been picked ahead of a only 80% fit Broad or Tremlett?

  • Comment number 4.

    Great Read! Strauss is an excellent skipper and he doesn't get the praise he deserves I think.

    One point, though, is that people seem to feel as if Sri Lanka are just here to make up the numbers and it will be a post-Ashes procession for England. Not a chance! This Sri Lankan team are still high class, albeit with a less familiar bowling line up, and I feel they haven't really been given the respect they deserve! They have some of the best batsmen currently playing test cricket, mixed in with some quality youngsters. This is a team in transition, but still a team capable of pushing England all the way.

  • Comment number 5.

    Why is it that England are only "weary" when they're losing. Sri Linka is rated ahead of England in test cricket and deservedly so.

  • Comment number 6.

    No news on Jimmy A then. I wonder whether Chris Woakes will figure in this series. He's a genuine all-rounder. Possibly not yet physically mature enough for Test cricket (I don't know). I can't imagine England playing 5 specialist batsmen. Unless we find an all-rounder or are lucky enough to win tosses all the time England will struggle to bowl out quality batting sides. Not because our attack is poor. It is a fine Test attack. But it's a man light. I'd give Woakes a go against Sri Lanka.

  • Comment number 7.

    @5 - england are 3rd in the icc test rankings and sri lanka are 4th. and deservedly so...

  • Comment number 8.

    @7. Be that as it may, it still stinks when English journalists use "weariness" as an excuse for poor England performances. It's just bad journalism.

  • Comment number 9.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 10.

    @5 i can't see any reference to weariness in this article - am i missing something, or are you making it up?

  • Comment number 11.

    So much for England's bowling strength.Toothless without Anderson. Overhyped to the core....

  • Comment number 12.

    @8 well its not as bad as making up "facts" to prove an argument!

  • Comment number 13.

    Happy Daze! Summer is here - you can tell by the gales and rain. The first Home Test of the year is always special, and with sides rated 3 and 4 playing eachother really should be quite tight.

    Hope Jimmy's ok. Doesn't look good to me.

  • Comment number 14.

    Couldn't believe it yesterday when the numpties in Sky commentary box kept repeating that the Strauss catch in slips was "good" and that it had bounced "off his fingers" and not the ground. It was pretty clear in the replays that it bounced off the turf.

    They really need to get their eyes checked. Haven't heard a more bigoted form of commentary than on Sky.

    It's also funny when England start losing... then they suddenly change tack and start laying into the english players big time. What a joke!

  • Comment number 15.

    #14, what are you on about pal? That was a perfectly good catch even with the foreshortening of the long lens!

  • Comment number 16.

    Wow - someone actually praising the England team! Wonders will never cease...

  • Comment number 17.

    400 runs in the first innings at the end of Day 2 is a decent total for the visitors. Forcing a result in the remaining 7 sessions may be difficult for both sides. If they decide to be bold, Dilshan and Strauss have match winners to fetch them the lead and set the tone for the rest of the series. Best wishes.

    Dr. Cajetan Coelho

  • Comment number 18.

    I remember back to the winter when Shango the numpty was going on about Herath being better than Swann.
    He's certainly not on this evidence!

  • Comment number 19.

    Toothless attack without Anderson what test match are you watching. The only toothless attack I see is Sri Lanka. The wickets doing nothing 400 doesn't look anywhere near par. If Murili was around it may be a different matter

  • Comment number 20.

    Strauss will be really annoyed he could as should have made a big ton here

  • Comment number 21.

    Not the spiciest cricket you've ever seen, this. Highlight of last 2hrs seeing seagull divebomb lone punter and cover him in disgrace


    Who let ponting in to get some tips??

  • Comment number 22.

    I just need to know what the numbers mean under the 3 lions on the England Cricketers Shirts.
    I'm sure this has been asked before, but I'm totally ignorant

  • Comment number 23.

    Brian: I think it notes that they are the 250th or whatever player to have played for England. Copied the idea from the Aussies if I've got it right.

  • Comment number 24.

    Would it be possible for Pranav Soneji to be accompanied at all times by somebody who can spell? A few recent examples: sophoriphic, debonaire, discernable, desparately ... I could go on and on. It is very distracting (and I haven't even mentioned the lapses in syntax, malapropisms, wrong choices of words, etc.).

  • Comment number 25.

    I daresay that Mrs Odicean and I are not alone in wondering why on earth it was decided to play the first Test in Cardiff, in May, in the inevitable wet weather. So far the cricket has been interesting if not riveting.

  • Comment number 26.


    If you're still there, the number indicates that the player is the n-th person to receive a Test Cap for England. Other sides do this too. It is interesting to note that England are well into the 600s (= 600 people havé been capped). Australia are into the 300s.


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