Mike Brearley could have been a civil servant, a spy or a professor of philosophy. But he chose cricket. He captained English County Middlesex for 12 years and the English national team for 31 tests. By the time he retired, he was regarded as one of the most astute captains the sport had ever seen. The pinnacle of his achievements came in 1981, when he led England to a dramatic come-from-behind victory in the Ashes series. Australian bowler Rodney Hogg had once famously said he has a “degree in people”. Sports UnLtd caught up with Brearley on the sidelines of the Bangalore Lit Fest where he broke down his thoughts on leadership. Edited excerpts:
Q. You've been a prolific writer on cricket, on psychoanalysis. Why write your memoir, Turning Over The Pebbles, now?
I never thought I would write one, partly because if you're a psychoanalyst or a psychotherapist of the kind I am, there’s an idea that you should remain fairly neutral, so that the person can project onto you different images that may or may not be related to how you are. So I've been a bit nervous about revealing things about myself more than necessary, but, as I got older, I feel as though this emergence of something different from the way I am happens anyway. People have lots of ways of learning about one from the internet or such channels, and patients anyway pick up quite a lot about you, from the way you are with them.
Turning Over The Pebbles is not an autobiography. There's a lot I don't talk about in the book, but it's about how I moved in my mind from being a fanatical little cricketer and footballer aged 9 to being this strange thing called a psychoanalyst, which I knew nothing about at all as a child. How did I get from one to the other and what is the nature of the conflicts/tensions/overlaps between cricket and philosophy, cricket and psychoanalysis, psychoanalysis and philosophy, literature and religion, why I'm not very practical in some ways and something a bit about old age too—that’s what the book is really about.
Q. You chose not to be a bureaucrat despite topping the civil services, you declined an offer to be a spy, in 1971 you left your position as a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle to take up cricket professionally. Despite having so many career options, why cricket?
Cricket was probably my first passion beyond the very basic things of life, like feeding and staying alive etc. My father was a very good sportsman, cricketer in particular. I have never lost that excitement about cricket, the pleasure in the game, that idea that it's a wide-ranging game with lots of different skills, phases, strategies, psychology. It involves a lot of the person and it can take a long time—so there's a long time for the mind either to help one with resilience or to hinder one with anxiety, stress, super ego, self-criticism, perhaps indulgence of oneself.
I played cricket at university pretty successfully, I'd been on an MCC tour, I'd been playing cricket professionally for a year and a half before I went back to philosophy and teaching. I enjoyed the teaching, but I didn't think I was really a born philosopher or that I was going to have enough ideas or creativity in that field to keep me going for a lifetime. At that same time, Middlesex offered me the captaincy, which I thought was a stimulating idea and would keep me absolutely involved in every minute of the game. The timing happened to be right, and I went back to cricket and played for another 12 years.
Q. You're known as one of the most astute captains the sport has ever seen. Where did you pick up your captaincy skills from?
First, my dad, who’s a Yorkshireman. Yorkshire people are opinionated, stubborn. When they play cricket, they're pretty serious about it, and they like to think about it and argue about it. I think it was in his culture of learning cricket and becoming an amateur cricketer himself, and I was brought up to think about who should be bowling and why, what fields one should have, what shot to play. I think it was gradually ingrained in me and then I learnt it by watching other people.
One of the things about sport is it's not just a physical activity, it's a shared activity among people—players, teachers, supporters, fans, writers—thinking about the game. Like, why did someone fail each time against a particular bowler, why did someone fail at the last hurdle, like people asked me about India at the World Cup recently. Those questions to me seem like any other question of history—what caused the First World War or the conflicts between India and Pakistan, say? All these questions seem to me questions of life, and they come up in a very sharp way in sport. While it’s in the culture of the game, I think I’m particularly interested in them. I don't watch that much cricket now, but I do like watching, especially Test cricket, and I can't watch now without thinking tactically and psychologically about the game.
Q. You were leading an England team that had the cricket glitterati—Ian Botham, Bob Willis, Geoffrey Boycott, David Gower. What was it like managing that dressing room?
In the first place, you have to be fair to the team, you mustn't have favourites. The second thing is that we're all individuals and we have a different relationship with each—in what you talk about, the way you joke, how much you confront, how much you put your arm around the shoulder. Some of that's spontaneous, and some of it has to be thought about.
What motivated Ian Botham was quite often to stir him up and to say things that provoked him. For example, when I came back for the Headingley Test [third Test of the 1981 Ashes series], having not played for a year [and replaced him as the captain], and he had lost his own form to some extent, I called him the ‘sidestep queen’. Because instead of running in and bowling full power, he was doing something more mannered, like stepping in. When I called him the ‘sidestep queen’, that provoked him and he ran in harder. [And he ended up as the Player of the Match.] With Bob Willis, it was much more likely that if I said something like that to him, he might feel put down or feel reduced. They were both good friends of mine and I’m talking about people I really was fond of, but they were different and it took me a while to realise that Bob was more sensitive than I appreciated.
These basic things are central in psychotherapy. You have to be empathetic with the other person and your hands have to hold them in a kind way. But you also have to be willing to challenge them. Leadership, like running a cricket team, is an art more than a science. It doesn't mean to say it hasn't got any rationality, it's got plenty of that, but it's more informal and more individual.
Q. The dramatic 1981 Ashes series, where Botham was the captain for the first two Tests, and England was down 0-1. You returned as captain for the third Test and England won three of the next four matches. How did you effect that turnaround?
First thing, and this is true of life in general, there's a great deal to do with luck. We were in an almost hopeless position and had been outplayed for the first three and a half days. Then there was the extraordinary stand between Botham and Graham Dilley for the 8th wicket, which gave us an outside chance of winning the match in the last innings. Botham scored 50 and 149 not out and he took six wickets in the first innings too. I think I was able to help him a bit by, first of all, the firm hand which I've mentioned before, and second, giving him his head because I thought on that particular pitch, which was very favourable to the bowlers, he should bat with total freedom and not try to be solemn. He did, and the luck went our way.
Bob Willis, in the very last innings, was out of form and out of confidence. The night before the last day, when we were set to bowl, Bob asked ‘how shall I bowl tomorrow’ and people like Graham Gooch, Mike Gatting, David Gower, me, we told him forget your worries about overstepping, forget about whether you should be an out-and-out fast bowler or a medium fast bowler, just bowl as fast as you can and as straight as you can, and if you get it right, they’ll find batting difficult. It was that simple an instruction. He did [just that], and took eight wickets.
Q. How important is a captain/leader to an outstanding team? For instance, the Australia team of the late 90s and 2000s, led by Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting?
When you are captaining the national team, you've got the best players in the country. They know how to play; it's a matter of tinkering and getting the morale right. Graham Gooch, who was himself a very fine cricketer, once said that as the batting coach of England, he didn't try and coach people; he tried to help them to score more runs. It's about nudging people and getting the whole team to support each other, and also about offering their opinion. So, it’s got something to do with democracy—you don't want a personality cult for the captain, you want someone who can communicate with people in a straightforward way. You still have to take authority and responsibility, you have to do things that people don't want you to do, so you have to be courageous. But you have to get people along with you. What I wanted to do–and I’m not saying I always achieved it as I could be quite rigid at times and authoritarian and a bit over-intellectual—was I tried to get a team where everyone would have a voice. I was the captain, but there would be 10 potential captains.
Q. You picked up the game from your father, who was a classical batter. The modern game is anything but that. Look at the change that Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes have brought about to Test Batting for England. Your thoughts?
I think they've done a remarkable job and I admire them very much. I don't know how else one might have turned around the team so quickly and so radically with more or less the same group of players. I think they did it by reducing anxiety about personal failure and team failure, and getting people to accept that it's a game that you’re playing because you enjoy it, like you did as a child.
And they also had to modify it a bit against Australia. In the second Test against Australia, Stokes was the slowest scorer of 100 balls of all the England batsmen. In other words, it's not just one way—you have to have shrewdness, you have to have care at times, you have to have [Virat] Kohli batting against Jimmy Anderson with the new ball, which was some of the most fascinating cricket I ever saw.
Cricket has changed and, of course, short-format cricket has increased inventiveness for both batters and bowlers. It's very interesting. The thing I worry about is it's pushing Test cricket into the corners. It's becoming more and more hurried—shorter tours, less people playing it, smaller crowds, except for England and, to some extent, in India and Australia. I'm worried about it getting pushed out of the game by IPL and other domestic T20 leagues.
Q. You recently wrote a book Spirit of Cricket, one of the most hotly-debated topics of recent times. Recently, in the ODI World Cup, Bangladesh captain Shakib al Hasan timed out Sri Lanka’s Angelo Mathews. Do we really need something called the spirit of cricket or should we just stick to codified laws?
The laws will never cover everything in the game. When does the ball become dead? That is a matter of opinion. Those are decisions for the umpire in the end, but they're also decisions for the players. If the ball is dead and considered by everyone to be dead, you can walk out of the crease. If it's not dead, you shouldn't do that. It's stupid and you have an entitlement to run somebody out. You might not like it, but it's fair.
There's always going to be a debate about these things. What about sledging? You can unsettle a batsman—that's one of the jobs of a bowler and a captain. You can unsettle a bowler—you hit his best ball for six, it's more difficult for him to build the next ball. If you show arrogance in doing it, he may feel intimidated. People didn't want to bowl at Viv Richards.
You can make people feel unsure, and that’s fair. But there's a gap between that and, on the other hand, saying, “I’ll break your arm.” It was alleged that somebody said something to Johnny Bairstow about his father David Bairstow’s suicide. And that just seems, to me, to be in terrible taste, although there's nothing in the laws that say you can't say something to a batter. You can use a general term—like, you have to be respectful—but that couldn’t cover all sorts of things about what's fair and what isn't. Walking, for instance. You can walk if you want to—it's fair, it's honest. Sometimes people walk only when it suits them. Is that hypocritical? Sometimes they only walk when they're given out. You can argue it both ways and I have my opinions about it, but I know they're not moral judgments. People get very self-righteous about these things. I think the spirit of the game is always going to be something about fair play. What’s played hard but played fair seems a good motto to me. Where you draw the lines, that’s always going to be debated.