World Cup 2023: The art of leading from the front
Nothing can explain how flat England have looked and this is where a great captain could have made the difference
What's happening to defending champions England isn't normal. They were expected to be better, they should've been better but at this point, barring a miracle of sorts, their World Cup is over.
As statistician Andy Zaltzman pointed out on X, between June 2015 to September 2023, England lost just nine of 131 completed ODIs by a margin of over 65 runs or 8 wickets. In this World Cup alone, after just five matches, they have added four to that list.
The reasons for this sudden slump are many but nothing can explain how uninterested England have looked and this is precisely the situation where a captain could have made a difference. But instead, skipper Jos Buttler looks like he has been held back by his own failings.
“There's no one else who can score your own runs or take your own wickets," said Buttler after the loss against Sri Lanka on Thursday. "That comes from the start, from the captain at the front. I've been a long way short of my best. As a leader, you want to lead through your own performance and I’ve not been able to do that.”
The words have an element of truth but it isn't the whole truth as former England skipper Mike Brearley or Buttler’s predecessor Eoin Morgan would tell us.
Brearley, widely regarded as one of England's finest skippers, averaged just 22.88 in a career spanning 39 Tests. Morgan averaged 39.29 over the course of his 248-match ODI career, a number that would have been higher but a batting slump towards the end. But the teams they were in charge of, kept winning.
Captaincy isn't just about leading from the front in terms of performance. Rather, you need to get the whole group playing as a team, you need to get the best out of individuals. That, and clarity in how you want the team to play.
The highlight of Brearley's captaincy stint, which ended with a record 58.06% success rate in 31 Tests between 1977 and 1981, was the 1981 Ashes Test at Headingley. Australia made 401 in the first innings. Having dismissed England for 174, they enforced the follow-on, making England bat again.
England allrounder Ian Botham came in with his team at 105/5, still 122 behind, and smashed 149 not out. It gave England's bowlers 129 runs to play with. And with Australia on 56/1, a defeat seemed imminent. But Bob Willis took eight of the last nine wickets to seal a legendary win.
Writing for the Guardian on the 30th anniversary of the match in 2011, Brearley said: “I had been Botham’s first Test captain, I knew him well; he and I got on well, if at times turbulently. He was excellent for me and not only in the obvious ways – taking wickets, scoring hundreds, and catching brilliantly at second slip. He also made me feel younger, made me laugh, kept me on my toes. He would tease me, bring me down to earth, so there was something symmetrical in our interaction, as well as the more obvious asymmetry... But at least he was getting loose... So, I was able to make some early assessments of him at Headingley, and Botham responded. I got him to run in faster to bowl... When he batted, I reckoned he was better off on that dodgy Headingley pitch in hitter mode than trying to ape his batting betters; I gave him his head.”
Botham himself, in the foreword to Brearley’s book about the 1981 series, wrote: “There is something about Brears. He knows how I feel and what I’m thinking... I took stuff from him that I’d clip other guys round the ear for.”
And this is something that Buttler has not been able to do. England simply haven’t responded. Not to the defeats, nor to Buttler.
Under Morgan, the team benefitted from the immense clarity that their leader possessed. England had a big impact on the way white-ball cricket was being played around the world. Their method of naming a batting-heavy lineup and going after the bowlers from start to finish changed the way teams looked at the shorter formats.
But while everyone harped on England's batting depth, Morgan focused on the bowlers just as much.
"When you scout for players in the shorter formats, you look for impact," he said in an interview in 2019. "Average might go out of the window sometimes and strike-rate comes right into it. How a batsman can perform in a particular phase of the game, against a particular bowler, becomes the be-all and end-all. As far as bowlers are concerned, they must be able to get wickets. If I had to pick either a world-class batsman or say a world-class leg-spinner, I’d 100% go for the bowler as my first pick in a tournament. Because they’re just so important."
Morgan trusted his instinct and would often find the most "pertinent thing about that game, on that venue, on that day, against that particular player". And then he would go all in.
But Buttler's team are in a daze that they haven't been able to snap out of. They just don't know what to do. The more they struggle, the faster they seem to sink.
"I think in any sport or anything, you can't protect anything or rely on the past, you have to go and create something new every time," said Buttler. "We know that as players, we touch on experience and things, having banked stuff before, but something we spoke about a lot as a team, that you have to go and create it again."
Maybe someday they will create it again but for now, the magic is lost and so are England.
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