So here I am in Auckland awaiting the start of the first semi-final game between New Zealand and South Africa due to start in four hours time. I will be watching it on TV instead of going to the nearby Eden Park grounds. If Sri Lanka had beaten South Africa and made it to this game I would have tried to get tickets even though it would have been very hard. The four semi-finalists (New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, and India) are not surprises and all the games should be close ones.
I have written before about the difficult job of the cricket umpire but another challenging role is that facing the selectors of a cricket team, because of all the trade-offs that have to be considered.
A cricket team of eleven players usually has six players who are specialist batsmen, four who are specialist bowlers, and one player who is the wicket keeper. Of these eleven, one player is the captain. Unlike the case in baseball, American football, or basketball where the captain of the team, if they even have one, has only a nominal role and the non-playing coach or manager makes all the key decisions, in cricket the captain has real responsibilities. He is the one who makes all the decisions once the game starts, such as who should be given the chance to bowl, the field settings, the batting order, what tactics to adopt at every stage of the game, and so on. It is a very important position. A good captain will consult with his other players when necessary but the final decision is his and his alone.
This raises the question of how to select the captain. Should you first pick the team based on who are the best players and then select a captain from one of the players among the eleven or should you select someone you think would make an excellent captain even if that person is not quite good enough to make the team if he were not captain?
Most teams favor the first option (as do I) though there have been occasions when teams (mostly England as I recall) have gone with the second. The reason that it is better to select the best player first is that it is necessary for all the players to respect the captain because they are obliged to follow his orders on the field. It is easier to command respect if you yourself are an outstanding performer worthy of a position on the team in your own right, though a captain who has an excellent reputation for astuteness and a winning record can overcome the liability of not being an excellent player.
As far as I am aware, the teams in the current World Cup pick the team first. This is why I was surprised that the West Indies captain is Jason Holder who, at 23, is the youngest player in the team. This is not because he is not good but the fact that he is so young might make it difficult to have the senior players follow him. So far it has not been a problem, as far as I can see. He is also a fast bowler, a role that few captains have occupied.
But the selection problems do not end there. Another question is whether you select the very best wicket keeper even if their batting is not that good, or go with a so-so keeper who can bat well. I tend to favor the former, unless there is a wicket keeper who is pretty close in abilities to the best one available but is far superior in batting. The reason is that an excellent keeper who can take difficult catches and make good stumpings can make the difference in a game, while a poor keeper can lose one and adds to the sense of slovenliness in the fielding.
This was demonstrated by Pakistan who had been playing Umar Akmal as wicket-keeper even though Sarfraz Ahmed was a much better keeper. Akmal had been dropping catches regularly but bringing in Ahmed for the game against South Africa paid huge dividends for Pakistan because not only did Ahmed take six catches including one brilliant diving one, he also batted well, enabling them to beat the much more fancied South African team.
Since four bowlers are not enough, you also need to have at least one or more of the specialist batsmen bowl, and again the question arises as to the extent to which selectors are willing to go with a lesser batsman who can bowl fairly well over the best batsman. The same thing with selecting bowlers, whether one should go with the four best bowlers or sacrifice one of them for a lesser bowler who can bat better. Then there is the issue of what mix of bowlers to have, how many fast and how many spin, and what kind of spin bowlers.
This problem is eased for selectors if they have a very good all-rounder, someone who is a real threat with both the bat and the ball, but such players are few and far between. The genuine great all-rounders that come to my mind are Gary Sobers (West Indies), Imran Khan (Pakistan), Richard Hadlee (New Zealand), Kapil Dev (India), and Ian Botham (England). Interestingly, all of them were fast bowlers. I don’t see any players among the current teams who reach that level with both bat and ball. More common are batsmen who can bowl (fairly well) or bowlers who can bat (fairly well).