You couldn't pose a more severe test of captaincy than this. You take over in the middle of a five-match series, with the side already trailing behind tough opponents - the Australians. Your predecessor as captain is still in the side, which has played unconvincingly in the previous two games. The enemy scores 401 runs in the first innings. Your own side's batting performance remains feeble, and England have to follow on, more than 250 runs behind. Do you have any chance of winning whatsoever?
The answer has become sporting history. Mike Brearley's team, playing at Headingley in 1981, achieved perhaps the most remarkable victory ever won on an English cricket pitch. In terms of runs and wickets, the victory was achieved by the man Brearley replaced as captain - Ian Botham. At first thought, the idea of the deposed leader giving one of the greatest all-round performances of all time in the very next match seems out of all question. But in the wake of his resignation after the Lord's match (he wouldn't have been reappointed, anyway), Botham had given an unequivocal vote for Brearley.
'The best captain in this country', Botham said of a man who 'I've always admired.' To rub in that admiration, Botham called Brearley 'by a long way the best captain I've played under.' Like all great leaders, Brearley seemed 'to bring out the best in everybody around him', creating in the side the 'willingness to win - everybody wants to do well for him.' During that historic win at Headingley, you could sense Brearley's influence just by watching him on the pitch, quick to congratulate, but never effusively; or on the dressing-room balcony - pointing to Botham with the message, after his wonderful century, to stay on and score more.
Yet in hindsight Mike Brearley isn't wholly happy with his style of captaincy or leadership. In an ideal world, he would have been more consultative. Not for him the flag-waving, over-the-top bravado of some leaders, or the quiet hard-man style of 'do what I do, not what I say.' Brearley always wanted an honest and open environment for the England and Middlesex cricket elevens, one in which everybody would have an input on the crucial matters of direction, style and at times even composition of the team.
He's a great believer, in theory, in using all your resources, which must include all the available minds. In practice, however, he doesn't believe that he lived up to his ideal. In honest reflection, while he listened to other attitudes and ideas, if he didn't like what he heard, he ignored it. He didn't, he believes, try to understand and certainly not to incorporate views with which he disagreed. That sounds like extreme inattention. Yet the cornerstone of Brearley's brilliantly successful leadership was the opposite: true attentiveness.
He was able to get the best from his teams, in the way Botham acknowledges, because the players believed in his genuine concern for them as individuals and players, and for the welfare of the team as a whole. The key was his total commitment to the success of players and team alike, together with lack of concern for his own image, performance and benefits. He made time for others as individuals and was attentive to their requirements - something which, on their own confession, many business managers fail to do.
Whether that's out of bad organisation, shyness, aversion or laziness, it's a serious failing. As General MacArthur once observed, the greatest asset which a leader can have is the care of the people under his command and the ability to show that care. That must, of course, be accompanied by technical mastery of the job - and Brearley was without question an astute tactical captain, who had served a long and fruitful apprenticeship in the game.
In his childhood and early cricketing career, Brearley would follow his father (once an excellent club cricketer) round the club grounds, listening to his thoughts on the game and discussion of its finer points. Brearley remembers digesting and analysing his father's comments on field positionings, bowling changes and the general tactical evolution of the game. Research into past tactics, study of current tactics in world cricket and a striving for tactical innovation - for staying abreast, preferably ahead, of current ideas - became the foundation of Brearley's own approach on the field.
Off the field, the foundation of success was Brearley's desire to understand his players and hence their interaction as a team. It was almost a matter of curiosity. How did each player view the game tactically? What was each one's psychological make-up? Brealey spent inordinate time, especially on tour, on communicating with his players, whenever and wherever he could: changing room, field of play, anywhere. Within that communication, a great deal of Brearley's time was spent listening.
On tour, he would sit with players individually - a habit initiated on his first tour to Australia - and discuss how they saw their tour going, how they perceived their own form, what they were contributing to training and deriving from it, what they thought about selection, how they would change the side. Details of the tour hotels and facilities came into the talks. Did they have any ideas on how to improve any aspect of the tour? The principles, he says, are clear: listen with an open mind, and assimilate what you hear: never dismiss what you hear out of hand, even if your gut reaction is to disagree.
Brearley recalls one lunch, on his first tour as vice-captain in India (never an easy country for visiting cricketers). He spent the meal with the great spin bowler, Derek Underwood, discussing in detail the latter's outlook on cricket. Brearley was fascinated by the Kent man's views on field placings (especially for his own bowling); what he thought about the batsmen he faced - who he liked (and didn't like) to bowl at; his favourite grounds, and which end he preferred on those grounds; what time of day he liked to bowl, and for how many overs in a spell.
All this detail went into Brearley's memory banks. It was acquired in a very relaxed manner, not in interview or appraisal style, but as a discussion between equals from which Brearley could draw immensely helpful tips for use during future campaigns. This essentially humble approach allowed Brearley to build up a massive fund of knowledge about the available players and how they thought about and reacted to different situations, different teamns, different players, individual grounds.
Leading in international sport and leading in business have much in common - including the fact that victory and defeat are often finely balanced, and may well hinge on the single big decision. In that amazing Headingley test, Australia required a mere 130 runs for victory. They began badly when both Botham and Chris Old took early wickets. But the turning-point was Brearley's decision to switch Bob Willis from one end to the other. Running in like a man possessed ('out of this world', said commentator Richie Benaud), Willis proceeded to take eight wickets for 43 runs.
The greater the knowledge of the decision-maker, the more intensive his preparation, the more likely the balance is to swing in his favour. You can reach your decisions in lofty and lonely isolation. But that guarantees a lower level of knowledge and preparedness than leading in concert: which isn't just the modern ideal, but the modern necessity. Business has become too complex and specialised for one person, however able, to play the whole hand: you need partners.
Similarly, a cricket captain depends wholly on the special talents of others. Brearley knew that very well: he also knew the importance of keeping himself available and his mind open to all avenues of information, to ex-players and to respected members of the media. On tours he found it vital to build a good relationship with another key source: the physiotherapist. The physio spends many hours with the players; when they are with him, they may sometimes be slightly depressed and 'down', slightly vulnerable.
Players tend to talk to and confide in the physio, discussing not only their physical condition, but their mental state and their attitudes towards the opposition and their team-mates. Those conversations provide a deep store of knowledge for a captain, who needs to know if players feel unjustly treated, or - even more important - need that extra boost to their confidence to raise performance to the required level.
Some problems, however, don't arise from passing moods, but from basic situations: like dealing with the older, experienced players. Many times Brearley had to face that familiar issue: when do you drop the veteran in favour of the young enthusiast? How long do you keep the cynical older player in the side, simply because you don't want to admit how much damage he's doing to morale? How many chances do you give to the player of great reputation who for some reason is no longer delivering? How long should you keep hoping that his return to form is just around the corner?
In this area, Brearley as Test captain was lucky to have experienced the problems early in his Middlesex captaincy. The side was highly experienced, verging on the mature. For all its experience, the team was struggling. Not only were results unsatisfactory, but his messages weren't getting through. The fairly widespread resentment of the changes being introduced was led by the older established players. When Brearley eventually got round to removing three or four of these 'blocking' players, the side's form and morale were transformed. The county went on to a very successful run.
That was the moment when Brearley realised how much courage a leader really does need. It takes courage to make hard decisions about people and to act against the cynics on the team. But nothing damages morale more, or so effectively undermines the environment you're trying to create, than cynicism. The action he took may not have made Brearley any friends. But he understood from that moment that good leadership is not about seeking popularity, but about being respected. Hard but fair decisions lay down the path to respect - which is clearly what Brearley achieved.
Once again, Botham testifies to one of Brearley's key strengths: 'I have a great deal of respect for him', he has said, adding that the other players felt the same way. Brearley never did solve the problem presented by one particular player, though - Phil Edmonds, the talented but temperamentally difficult spinner. Like Brearley, he is Oxbridge-educated, very eloquent, with very strong views on how cricket should be played. Edmonds felt that Brearley never gave him the benefit of the doubt, not only when selecting sides, but also in field placings (when Brearley actually did put him on to bowl) and the length of his bowling spells.
Brearley tried a variety of tactics, every ploy he felt possible, in the effort to bring the best out of Edmonds and incorporate him into the team. There were long face-to-face discussions, covering all the tricky subjects: Brearley would give his views on Edmonds as a bowler, as a player, even as an individual. The captain tried anger and confrontation. At other times, he would ignore Edmonds completely. Nothing worked. Brearley believes that this player never trusted him or believed what he said.
In consequence, Brearley thinks that he never got the best out of Edmonds as a player, let alone as a person. This failure contrasts sharply with his ability to obtain stunning results with Ian Botham. You might think that the two Oxbridge men would have far more in common and would find it easier to form a winning combination. But it was the Brearley-Botham axis that produced the chemistry and the results - and Brearley thinks he knows one reason why; there was no competition between the two.
Brearley offered no challenge to Botham as an individual, which wasn't the case with the intellectual Phil Edmonds. Botham was an outrageously gifted cricketer, but wasn't know for long thoughtful moments and introspection. His captain's cricketing gifts were of a lower order - and as a batsman in Test cricket, much to his own chagrin and puzzlement, Brearley didn't even live up to those talents. He is, however, a deep thinker, and in handling Botham he showed the true qualities of a brilliant leader.
He could challenge Botham without damaging the relationship. He could provoke him with astute, pointed comments. In the 1981 series against Australia, the turning point came, not with Botham's thunderous batting at Headingley (which he followed with another devastating century at Old Trafford), but with his bowling at Headingley. Botham hadn't performed well with either ball or bat in the previous matches (getting the dreaded pair, two noughts, at Lord's, where he returned to the pavilion in humiliating silence).
Now Brearley kept Botham on and on: the result, even though Australia amassed a large total, was an excellent analysis of six wickets for 95 runs. Brearley played a key role in rebuilding Botham's confidence. He was even prepared to rile Botham into improving his bowling by calling him 'the side-step queen'. That was after watching him run up - or to be more precise, amble up - on the wrong line. Not many men would dare call Botham a queen. But Brearley could interest and bond with the all-rounder, because there was no antagonism or competition between them.
The victorious series against Australia has gone down in history as 'Botham's Ashes': but they were Brearley's, too. While Botham's astonishing hitting and explosive bowling were the stars of the show, it shouldn't be forgotten that the new captain won splendid and unexpected performances from many others: like fast bowler Graham Dilley and spinner John Embury as batsmen, and, of course, Bob Willis as a lethal strike bowler. A team that under Botham had under-performed excelled itself for the new captain.
It included the Yorkshire opener Geoff Boycott, a man of tremendous and prickly pride, who could also have presented a problem. Again, because Boycott as a batsman wasn't challenged by his captain, the relationship was manageable. Boycott could be manipulated and chivvied: and Brearley cleverly used the rest of the team to bring the Yorkshireman down to earth when ever became quite unbearable. As a side issue, Brearley believes that Boycott, with his direct and almost abrasive style, would have led Phil Edmonds more successfully. He would have been less sensitive than Brearley to Edmonds' mood swings.
Brearley's unequalled achievement as England's cricket captain can be distilled down to his consistent team-first philosophy. The team was everything to Brearley, and its members knew that well and accepted it totally. He made every effort to be fair and open with the players and to involve them wholeheartedly in the team's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. If leaders don't pay close attention to their team members, they will fail: and attention is by definition personal.
In fact, Brearley believes that the personal attributes of leadership, rather than the technicalities, are crucial. Personal issues caused him the problems and anxieties and, in his own candid appraisal, his failures. By the same token, sensitive handling of personal issues explain his success. That Headingley victory in 1981, and the subsequent clinching of the series, depended greatly on the contribution of a captain who, as a player, produced relatively little in the way of runs or even catches.
The extent of that contribution can be gauged by a vital moment at Edgbaston, a remarkable match in which bowlers dominated - with no batsman on either side passing 50. Brearley took a key decision when the game seemed lost: Australia needed only 151 runs to win, and were two-thirds of the way home with five wickets left. At that point, Brearley gave the ball to Botham, and recalls that 'he didn't want to bowl.' Botham admits that 'I wasn't too keen', but he did as his captain asked - and proceeded to take five wickets for one run in one of the most devastating spells ever seen in Test cricket.
Afterwards, the ex-captain admitted revealingly that, in the same situation, he probably wouldn't have put himself on to bowl. But Brearley's ever-attentive mind had spotted how Botham's confidence as a bowler had surged - he was really 'going in hard', as the Australians found to their cost. That sense of timing, of knowing, not only the right thing to do, but when to do it, is the hallmark of the great leader. It springs from the same attribute which explains why Botham and his team colleagues found Brearley to be a great captain - because he paid attention to his players, and used what he learned to gain their respect and, even more important, their best performances.