14 July 2023

A degree in people

Mike Brearley's stats (66 innings, 39 tests, 1442 runs, average of 22.88, strike rate of 29.79 with a highest score of 91) wouldn’t turn any heads in these Bazball days of English cricket. Weren’t startling during the time he played (1976-1981) either. Indeed, if Tony Greig’s surreptitious work for World Series Cricket had not come to light, Brearley may have had an even shorter test career, not least of all on account of his age (he was 34 when he played his first test, against the West Indies in 1976).

As it happened, Brearley had captaincy shoved on him, and that is how he came to be remembered as a legend of the game of cricket. He captained England in 31 of the 39 tests he played, winning 18 and losing just 4. That’s 58% and puts him ahead of Mark Vaughan (50.98%), Peter May (48.78%), Andrew Strauss (48%), Len Hutton (47.82%), Joe Root (42.18%) and Alistair Cook (40.67%).

It is not too useful to compare players from different eras. Of those mentioned above, Root (64) and Cook (59) captained a lot more tests than did Brearley. One could also factor in the personnel each skipper had at his disposal. Brearley himself had a fantastic duo of bowlers, Bob Willis and Ian Botham, taking 112 (at 24) and 150 (at 19) wickets under his leadership. The latter was of course a one-in-a-decade kind of player. Throw in the batsmen, the strengths of the opposition, levels of professionalism and it gets even murkier.

There is consensus, however, that Mike Brearley was ‘intuitive, resourceful, sympathetic and clear-thinking.’ In the famous Ashes series of 1981 he was pushed back into captaincy after Ian Botham was sacked. Botham recovered his confidence under Brearley and starred in the England turnaround that’s still spoken of in awe.  

The Australian quick, Rodney Hogg, perhaps came up with the best explanation: ‘He (Brearley) has a degree in people.’ He does have a ‘real’ degree as well (in Classical and Moral Sciences from Cambridge University), served as the President of the British Psychoanalytical Society and has done the rounds as a motivational speaker. He knew people.

Well, all people know people. Some people know people better. Brearley, for example. Hogg thinks it mattered and few would argue with that contention.

All this was 40 years ago, but what made me think of Brearley is the flak that Sri Lanka’s white-ball captain, Dasun Shanaka, has been getting following a run of poor scores in the World Cup qualifying tournament in Zimbabwe.

Now Dasun has a lot of talent in his team and it can be argued that his ‘success’ is more a reflection of the contributions of his teammates, in particular the bowling unit. On the other hand, Dasun’s predecessors who have better batting stats weren’t exactly leading talent-poor teams.

Maybe in this day and age of increasingly aggressive cricket where a spate of dot balls could draw jeers every captain needs to earn his place in the team. If he is a specialised batter then the selectors should be able to defend his selection by pointing out that he is better than anyone else in the selection mix apart from the other batters selected. It’s a bit like the theory that any cricket has to meet a minimum standard as a fielder before he or she is considered as a batsman, bowler or wicket keeper. Not too many takers for this theory though, considering that all international teams carry ‘fielding passengers’ who are harder to hide now that we have field restrictions, the Dilscoop, reverse-sweep, switch-hit etc.

The argument about captaincy is a bit different though. Not every great batter or bowler is a leader. A team could theoretically be made of exceptionally gifted and accomplished batters, bowlers and a wicketkeeper, but there is no guarantee that one (or more of them) is endowed with the skills one expects a leader to have. None of them, theoretically, may have ‘a degree in people.’

Dasun Shanaka is no Mike Brearley. I would add, ‘yet,’ for he has time. But in victory, he talks about the main contributors and throws in the word ‘team’ and in defeat he shields all of them. So he gets nailed. And now that the team has made winning a habit, albeit against opposition less stiff than will be confronted in India at the World Cup, people seem to have forgotten captain and captaincy; they see a hole in the batting line up and think ‘out bowling unit is fine, the batting can be tweaked — conclusion: Dasun out.’

If it were just about batters and bowlers, then we don’t need to have a World Cup at all: we could just add up the batting averages of each team and figure out the winner, maybe after figuring out a way to throw in the bowling stats into the mix as well. It’s a bunch of things, obviously: batting, bowling, fielding, wicketkeeping, reading the wicket, the toss, targeting batters and bowlers, left-right combinations, pacing an innings, field-setting and innumerable bits and pieces of strategy. Much of this has to do with captaincy.

There’s the Dimuth Karunaratne option of course for the red-ball skipper’s leadership credentials are good. He’s ‘new’ to THIS team and that cannot be forgotten. Anyone else? Anyone else at this point in time with the biggest ODI tournament just a couple of months away?
If it was proven skills as a batter, Dasun Shanaka wouldn’t make this team. Not as a bowler and not as an allrounder. Brearley wouldn’t have been in the Ashes-winning team either. Brearley had a degree in people and I think Dasun Shanaka has one too. That’s ‘qualification’ that can make a difference in certain times. Like right now.


['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below] 

Other articles in this series: 

Faces dripping with time

Saji Coomaraswamy and rewards that matter

Revolutionary unburdening

Seeing, unseeing and seeing again

Alex Carey and the (small) matter of legacy

The Edelweiss of Mirissa 

The insomnial dreams of Kapila Kumara Kalinga 

The clothes we wear and the clothes that wear us (down) 

Every mountain, every rock, is sacred 

Manufacturing passivity and obedience 

Precept and practice 

Sanjeew Lonliyes: rawness unplugged, unlimited 

In praise of courage, determination and insanity 

The relative values of life and death 

Feet that walk 

Sarinda's eyes 

Poetry and poets will not be buried 

Sunny Dayananda 

Reunion Peradeniya (1980-1990) 

What makes Oxygen breathable?  

Sorrowing and delighting the world 

The greatest fallacy  

Encounters with Liyanage Amarakeerthi 

Beyond praise and blame 

Letters that cut and heal the heart 

Vanished and vanishing trails 


A forgotten dawn song from Embilipitiya 

The soft rain of neighbourliness  

The Gold Medals of being 

Jaya Sri Ratna Sri 

All those we've loved before 

Reflections on waves and markings 

A chorus of National Anthems 

Saying what and how 

'Say when' 

Respond to insults in line with the Akkosa Sutra 

The loves of our lives 

The right time, the right person 

The silent equivalent of a thousand words 

Crazy cousins are besties for life 

Unities, free and endearing 

Free verse and the return key

"Sorry, Earth!" 

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis 

The revolution is the song 

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins 

The day I won a Pulitzer 


Ella Deloria's silences 

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness 

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable  


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan 

Enlightening geometries 

Let's meet at 'The Commons' 

It all begins with a dot 

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation 

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone 

On sweeping close to one's feet 

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts... 

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm 

Who really wrote 'Mother'? 

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing 

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed 

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember 

On loving, always 

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal 

When you turn 80... 

It is good to be conscious of nudities  

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday  

There's a one in a million and a one in ten 

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling 

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California 

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature 

Pathways missed 

Architectures of the demolished 

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts 

Who the heck do you think I am? 

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha' 

The Mangala Sabhava 

So how are things in Sri Lanka? 

The most beautiful father 

Palmam qui meruit ferat 

The sweetest three-letter poem 

Buddhangala Kamatahan 

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello 

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership 

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked 

Pure-Rathna, a class act 

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna 

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other 

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles 

Matters of honor and dignity 

Yet another Mother's Day 

A cockroach named 'Don't' 

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth 

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara 

Sweeping the clutter away 

Some play music, others listen 

Completing unfinished texts 

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn 

I am at Jaga Food, where are you? 

On separating the missing from the disappeared 

Moments without tenses 

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have) 

The world is made of waves 


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller 

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya' 

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist 

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses 

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced 

Some stories are written on the covers themselves 

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature 

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time  

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie 

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists? 

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords 

The books of disquiet 

A song of terraced paddy fields 

Of ants, bridges and possibilities 

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva  

World's End 

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse 

Street corner stories 

Who did not listen, who's not listening still? 

The book of layering 

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain 

The world is made for re-colouring 

The gift and yoke of bastardy 

The 'English Smile' 

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5 

Visual cartographers and cartography 

Ithaca from a long ago and right now 

Lessons written in invisible ink 

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness' 

A tea-maker story seldom told 

On academic activism 

The interchangeability of light and darkness 

Back to TRADITIONAL rice 

Sisterhood: moments, just moments 

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging 

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha 

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows 

Sirith, like pirith, persist 

Fragrances that will not be bottled  

Colours and textures of living heritage 

Countries of the past, present and future 

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched 

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains 

The ways of the lotus 

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace 

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville 

Live and tell the tale as you will 

Between struggle and cooperation 

Of love and other intangibles 

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions 

The universe of smallness 

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers 

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills 

Serendipitous amber rules the world 

Continents of the heart