Charlie Campbell on the Pleasures and Pitfalls of Amateur Cricket Captaincy
One of my favourite books is Herbert Yardley's The Education of a Poker Player. Yardley was a fascinating character – a less principled Edward Snowden in a very different world. He was an American cryptologist hired by the State Department just before the First World War and fired almost twenty years later because his superiors felt that gentlemen should not read each other’s mail. Yardley went on to work for the Chinese and Canadian governments and wrote a number of controversial books revealing secrets about code-breaking and what eventually became the NSA. But for me his masterpiece was his last book, on poker. It is autobiographical, drawn from days and nights spent in a saloon in small-town Indiana.
I am not alone in turning to this book regularly before games. There's been a lot written about poker but many volumes are written by pros, and what works for a fearsome player with an armful of World Series bracelets doesn’t hold for the drunk amateur in a home game.
It's much the same in cricket. Many amateur cricketers turn to Mike Brearley's The Art of Captaincy for guidance. His book is rightly deemed a classic in its field and shows what it takes to succeed as a leader at the highest level. Since its publication in 1985 it has helped countless players and captains with their game. There is much in it for the Sunday skipper but he will also have to work out a good deal for himself. Amateur cricketers may be playing the same game as the professionals but the chasm in ability means everything is slightly different. In Sunday cricket, the perfect outswinger that takes the edge more often goes for four than into the hands of first slip.
The amateur captain doesn’t have players like Ian Botham or Bob Willis who can turn the match with bat or ball. He may not even have a full team, after the star opener pulled out the night before. The replacement is no batsman but he’s shown up and so he has to get a go. That is the cardinal rule of Sunday cricket, after all. But the longer the newcomer stays in, scratching around, the less likely his team is to win. At some stage a fresh umpire will be sent out with instructions to give him out the next time the ball hits the pad.
The bowling attack is not much stronger and the captain may not have seen all of them play before. He has to decipher what they mean when they say that they bowl a bit. This could signify anything from having represented your county at junior level to having recently had the yips and being as likely to bowl a nineteen-ball over as anything else. The skipper will get some clues from their kit. One late recruit to my team turned up in orange shorts. When asked what he bowled he replied confidently ‘Inside fast’. No captain likes taking someone off after just one over but sometimes you have no choice.
The field look on aghast as the fourth-change bowls wide after wide but it's not as if they're world beaters. First slip's knees are gone, the keeper stops one in three, and few of the others can both throw and catch. The question for the captain is how many fielders can you hide? We all know that the weakest should probably go at mid on but what about the rest? And how do you make sure they don’t drift away from where they're supposed to be?
Off the field, the captain has just as much to think about, if not more. Did he remember the match balls? Is the tea going to be ready in time? And will he have enough players for next Sunday?
These are some of the many questions I have tried to address in Herding Cats. I wanted to write a book that was aimed, like Yardley's, predominantly at the enthusiastic amateur – he or she who loves the game without having quite mastered it. There are so many people who spend more time than they ever intended running an amateur cricket team. What are the secrets that could make this easier? What are the major pitfalls? And how do you get them to turn up on time?
Over the last eight years, I have played over 200 games of amateur cricket, for more than twenty teams, with or against thousands of players. Many of them appear in some form or other in Herding Cats and have helped with some of the answers to these questions. India may be the powerhouse of professional cricket but England is where the amateur game thrives. Nowhere else is cricket played so badly with such enthusiasm. We should celebrate that.
Charlie Campbell is captain of the Authors Cricket Club, a team of writers that first played together in the late nineteenth century. PG Wodehouse, Arthur Conan Doyle and AA Milne all turned out for the original side. He revived the Authors in 2012 with novelist Nicholas Hogg and since then they have played over 150 games, against opposition that has included the Vatican, the Church of England, a Rajasthan Royals XI and the national team of Japan. Their book, The Authors XI: A Season of English Cricket from Hackney to Hambledon, was shortlisted for the Cricket Society and MCC Book of the Year award. Charlie is the author of Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People and his second book, Herding Cats, examines the art of amateur cricket captaincy.