Good captaincy is like pornography; it's difficult to define but you know it when you see it.
When a captain signals from the opening delivery, he's trying to win the Test match, there's an urgency on the field and an expectation in the stands. Conversely, when a captain pushes fielders back allowing the batsman a single so the fielding side can attack a tail-ender, there's no logic to the ploy.
Once a captain basically stops trying to dismiss a batsman, the fans might as well adjourn to the bar because the contest is then like Monty Python's dead parrot — it has ceased to be.
These are two extreme examples and most international captaincy falls somewhere in between those parameters. Nevertheless captaincy, like the game, is constantly evolving and what was once deemed practical, is often declared out of date.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni made a reference to the changing nature of field placements following the recent whitewash against Australia. While his point is taken about requiring alternative field placings in an era of aggressive batsmen, armed with meatier weapons and enjoying shorter boundaries, there's one axiom a skipper should never ignore; try to do what the batsman would like least.
This adage applies equally to field placements and bowling changes. The most difficult aspect of captaincy is when the opposition begins to assert their authority. The fielding captain then has to warily traverse the high wire and balance the saving of runs with letting the batsmen know their wicket is still under threat.
In these periods of play a match can quickly slip away or hopes may be revived, depending on the awareness and boldness of the fielding captain. A bold captain who holds his nerve in this situation can make believers out of his team-mates and then nothing appears impossible.
Too many cooks...
However, on field is only part of the job. The leadership aspect of captaincy is critical and this is where modern trends may be hampering captains and not allowing them to do the job properly.
When I was interviewed for the Argus report in 2011, I said in part; “I don't think the current system allows you to captain Australia properly.”
Why not was the harrumphed response. “Because there are too many people to tell to get stuffed,” I replied. As captain, I only needed to tell the team manager to keep his nose out of the cricket side of the business.
Now, there's up to a dozen coaches, fitness and medical guys and even a high performance manager, who all need to be reminded of their place. All these people are looking to justify their existence. Instead of Michael Clarke, along with a few of his trusted senior players mapping out the plan for each day's play, the skipper now receives more input than the US President — and generally from people who are not qualified to captain a primary school cricket team.
It's a ridiculous burden to place on any captain and it inhibits good leadership. Apart from a bit of preparatory work in consultation with the players, the captaincy is best left to the skipper on the field.
If the captain isn't doing the job properly, the solution is not to provide him with more advisors but to sack him and find someone who is up to the task.
If there's a dearth of leadership candidates then the system is failing and improvements are needed but replacing coaches will not solve the problem.
Captaincy by committee doesn't work. One of the craziest suggestions I ever heard was the idea of wiring up captain Hansie Cronje so he could hear off-field coach Bob Woolmer. A captain has to be confident of his decisions and the last thing he needs is to be constantly second guessed or bombarded with ideas. If a captain needs an earpiece then find him a job as a security guard.
Learning on the job
The best way to improve as a captain is by doing the job. A junior captain can also learn from watching renowned skippers but he won't improve if he's surrounded by off-field advisors in the development stage.
That system becomes self-fulfilling when he's later appointed at the international level where he has to be supported by even more advisors.
Developing a few strong leaders is just as important as producing competitive young cricketers. That should be the aim of every international administration and their production lines need to reflect those aims.