Cricket is quite possibly unique in the sheer number and diversity of tactical possibilities that lie within the game. Whilst there is nothing as blatant as the differences between a 5-4-1 and 3-4-3 formation in football, the subtleties and nuances are worthy of their own book – and many have been published, the most famous of which is The Art of Captaincy by former England skipper Mike Brearley – essential reading for any captain, as far as I’m concerned.
In this section, I’m not going to look in detail at the aspects of field setting and plans for batsmen – it goes without saying that this ought to vary depending on the strengths, weaknesses and confidence of both batsman and bowler alongside the game situation. There has been, as I’ve said, much written on this subject, so I’m going to leave it at one quote (yes, it’s indirectly plagiarised from Brearley’s book, but for me it’s an excellent summary) – ‘You only regret the things that you didn’t do’ I’ll let you think on that.
Instead, I’m going to concentrate on less specific tactics, both technical and mental, that are often successful in getting the best out of a team’s performance. There’s a chance that this may descend worryingly into the realms of autobiography in some of the following examples – you have been warned!
It’s an old cliche, but the best eleven players don’t necessarily make the best team. ‘Team spirit’ and plain and simple self-belief can go a long, long way to bridging any gaps of talent in any team sport at any level, and cricket is no exception. The hallmark of the great Australian sides of the current era – under Border, Taylor, Waugh and now Ponting – has been, alongside great skill, unshakeable belief that they will win, no matter what the story the scoreboard tells – something never more evident than Michael Bevan and Andy Bichel breaking English hearts at Port Elizabeth in the 2003 World Cup.
Now, this is something that only comes from consistently winning and obviously this isn’t within everyone’s reach, but the principle of playing at the very limit of your personal effort and for the team above anything else is very much possible for any side. It’s difficult to express in words exactly how this can be built, but countless teams upsetting the odds in all sports show that it’s not just the stuff of back-page fantasy. For me, the first stage in building a spirit and unity along these lines is to encourage enjoyment in every aspect of the game’s play – the coach, the captain and any individual player can play equally strong roles in establishing this, and once this foundation is created, it becomes easier for a player to go the extra yards for something he enjoys and feels part of. Once this stage is reached, the ‘snowball effect’ often takes hold, then the team as a unit goes from strength to strength – then there’s little limit to what’s possible, as countless tales of FA Cup shocks show.
Another approach that can have a significant effect on team performance is to emphasise the importance that running between the wickets has upon the course of a game for both the batting and fielding sides. If a team isn’t allowed to pick up singles and rotate the strike, pressure will always build in the batsmen’s minds as they become conscious of the run-rate falling. On the other hand, if a batting team is able to easily take four or five runs an over due to lax fielding or unnecessarily defensive field placings the match could be lost. A fielding side that’s able to restrict the flow of runs will not only benefit from a lower scoring rate, but also from more mistakes from the under-pressure batting side.
The basics of positive, aggressive fielding and running between the wickets (reinforced, of course, by backing up in both aspects of the game) can be concentrated upon in training/practice sessions in the form of either exercises or competitive environments, as natural inter-player competitiveness is likely to increase the intensity – and as such effectiveness – if there is a genuine ‘edge’ around them. With enough practice, these actions will become second nature and become an integral part of what the players see as cricket. Another benefit to ‘competitive’ practices of this nature are that they encourage batsmen to assess fielding positions and promote shots that are not only appropriate to the delivery, but also to the game situation and field setting – the mental aspect of a cricketer’s development is, for me, just as important as the technical side (if not even more so).