Sunday, February 1, 2015

Fleming: Attacking captaincy will be the key at World Cup

Fleming believes Brendon McCullum firing from the front will enhance New Zealand's chances.
Fleming believes Brendon McCullum firing from the front will enhance New Zealand's chances. © Getty
It is all very well to try and tell yourself captaining your country in an ICC Cricket World Cup is the same as captaining at any other time - but it is not.
True, there is still the toss of the coin and the decisions to be made about tactics, but there really is a completely different dynamic.
The eyes of the world are on you for starters and you realise that as soon as you step into a media conference before a ball is bowled. There are more journalists, asking more questions, than at any other time. Turn on the television, listen to the radio, surf the internet or pick up a newspaper and you cannot avoid it. Everyone seems to be talking about cricket and most of them are telling you what to do.
On top of that, venues are full and, in the case of New Zealand at this tournament, expectation levels are rising all the time too, in the face of encouraging form in the lead-up to the action getting underway.
And remember, this is the tournament that comes around just once every four years. And although I was fortunate enough to captain the Black Caps in three ICC Cricket World Cups, in 1999, 2003 and 2007, for Brendon McCullum as a captain, it may be his one shot at glory while at the helm.
New Zealand's initial advantage is that, like Australia, they know the conditions. And given their opening match is against Sri Lanka, a side they are facing in the lead-up to the tournament, that is another plus.
But after that every match brings with it a new opponent and perhaps an unfamiliar team and unfamiliar players. Suddenly you and your backroom staff have got to change tack and do it quickly. The video analysts will be working long hours both before and during the tournament to ensure each captain gets all the information he needs on every opponent and that, in turn, will mean plenty of homework away from the public eye for McCullum and the other leaders.
However, there is one piece of good news for captains around the world and especially positive ones, like McCullum and it is that the current playing conditions work in their favour and actually bring captaincy back into a position where the man in charge really can shape the action.
I felt the old regulations, with five fielders allowed outside the 30-yard circle at all times outside the powerplays, created very formulaic cricket with both sides, at times, on autopilot waiting for the final overs. Now, with the change since 2012 with one of those fielders having to shift into the circle, it not only gives batsmen more scope to attack but also offers the captains the chance to get creative in an attacking sense. McCullum is someone who will relish the chance to be positive and he knows that wickets rather than containment remain the best way to make progress.
The attention will be very much on McCullum, along with the other captains, as I believe cricket is the only major sport left where on-field leadership remains fundamental to the outcome of a match. There is no earpiece to the coach and the buck stops with the man in charge. I enjoyed that challenge and the responsibility, and I know that good captains grasp the nettle. Just look at the way MS Dhoni pushed himself up the batting order in the 2011 final as a prime example of that idea.
My relationship with Dhoni at Chennai Super Kings gave me the chance to talk with him about that decision and he said it was an instinct, that was his time to lead from the front. Positivity and decisiveness like that can galvanise a team, whereas hesitancy can flow through each player and create paralysis. And in World Cups, where the matches come thick and fast and momentum and winning confidence can be crucial, that is a key point to remember.
Good communication is also crucial. A captain needs to ensure his players know what the team plans are at any given time and he needs to manage players those who are also not in the playing XI. That is essential because in a tournament spread over almost two months, cricket becomes very much a squad game. Making those who are not playing feel, they are still vital cogs in the wheel is all part of the role of the captain as a man-manager.
But for all the attention to the needs of his players and the tournament as a whole, the captain needs to ensure his own form is spot-on. After all, he is usually one of the leading players in a team; anything less that good productivity and the team suffers from not only his lack of productivity but also the fact he is worrying about his own game as well as the team's requirements.
As the team's public face, McCullum's role will also extend to managing expectations not just his own but also those of his players and country. McCullum, along with coach Mike Hesson, is publicly low-key and that is the Kiwi way. It is a good way too, as getting too up or too down about things can affect a team's equilibrium. But still there has to be thought about how to cope with the very biggest occasions, with matches like the fourth pool game against Australia at a jam-packed Eden Park on February 28, very much on the radar.
There are no former New Zealand players who can offer an insight into coping with the ultimate pressure of winning an ICC Cricket World Cup, let alone doing so on home soil, but for guidance on dealing with expectations, both within the dressing room and from the expectant home public, the best place to start is undoubtedly the New Zealand rugby union team. Far from buckling though, the All Blacks rose to the challenge and lifted the title and I expect McCullum and Hesson to lean on their rugby union counterparts for insights in how to handle the pressure.
There will be pressure, that is for sure, but if McCullum can manage it, manage his players and maintain his own form a big ask, admittedly there is no reason why New Zealand cannot break their semifinal hoodoo once and for all, make it to the final and ultimately lift the greatest prize in the game.


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