Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Sporting life: Plans and when to ditch them

In sport and in life, should you stick to a clear route or be flexible in your approach? 
May 1, 2024

The great Yorkshire and England opening batter, Len Hutton, when captaining England, was once asked whether he thought one should stick to a strategy. His reply, as far as I can remember, went something like this: “You may have all the plans in the world, but as soon as you get onto the field you throw them out of the window.”

So: should you stick with your plan through thick and thin, and be accused of inflexibility and dogmatism? Or should you throw it out of the window, and be deemed fickle, unreliable and confusing?  Or should you sit on the fence and do nothing, which is its own form of decision?

As John Kay and Mervyn King put it in their book Radical Uncertainty, we often don’t know what the best tactics are, and there may be no objectively right decision. In which case, the sensible, rational way to go—whether embarking on an adventurous course or on a more cautious one—is to adopt a robust orientation that allows for revision. We cannot know for sure what will happen, but we can go into the situation with an open mind. 

It would be foolish to think that there could be a general answer to this kind of question. How we function is partly a matter of temperament. And some situations call for inventiveness, while others are best met with orthodoxy and carefulness. All practical leadership is a mixture of conviction about overall aims with a grasping of the unique moment. 

When there is nothing to choose between one approach and the other, it feels as though you are walking a slender tightrope. At some point, you just have to trust your intuition—though intuition is no good without the underpinnings of expertise. 

Leaders are often judged on their decision-making after the event, simply from the result—hindsight is a wonderful thing. But losing a match doesn’t necessarily mean the decisions were wrong; the alternative course might have been even worse. Nor does winning mean you were right; you might have won more convincingly had you pursued a different strategy.

On this occasion, our informed guess turned out to be correct

Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum were rightly acclaimed for their transformation of the England test team, but once things went less well in a few games, they were in some quarters scathingly criticised for not modifying the plan. We are quickly accused of having closed minds, or of having minds so open that our brains spill out. 

To take a cricketing example from my time as a player: Ray Illingworth and Brian Close were both fine England captains, and doughty Yorkshire cricketers. Illingworth was shrewd and canny; he knew the value of restricting the opposition batsmen’s scoring rate, frustrating them into mistakes. Close, by contrast, was bolder and more impatient. Rather than impose a crushing restraint, he would frequently change the bowling in search of a wicket. He was more likely to over-attack than over-defend. He himself loved hunkering down in dangerous fielding positions near to the batsman, like an energetic hippo. 

But both men would also vary their tactics according to  the situation. In 1970, Illingworth’s long-range plans to win back the Ashes revolved around his key fast bowler, John Snow. He gave Snow considerable latitude and responsibility, telling him at the start of the tour that he would be England’s strike bowler; until the first test match, Snow was to train and practise as hard as anyone else, but once the tests had begun he would not be expected to appear in less important matches. It would be up to him to make sure he was fit and raring to go for each test. England won a hard-fought series, with Snow taking 31 wickets, more than any English bowler since.

Close was flexible, too. As captain of Somerset, he relied a lot on one of the most accurate bowlers in English cricketing history, Tom Cartwright. Close was perfectly capable of digging in, of requiring steadiness and determination from himself and his team over long periods. And he fully endorsed the need for all members of the team to be courageous and battle it out when the going was hard. 

In the test match against Pakistan at Lord’s in 1978, we enforced the follow-on. When play resumed on the fourth day, after a Sunday rest, Pakistan were 96 for 2. Believing that on the dry, bare pitch we would have more chance of success with spinners, we opened with Phil Edmonds. In the first over, however, we noticed that, though there was no turn, there were faint green marks left where each ball pitched. We wondered if that meant that the pitch had “sweated” under the covers; perhaps the ball would move in the air or off the pitch more than earlier in the match. After just one over, I took Edmonds off and brought on Ian Botham. Sure enough, the ball swung sharply, Botham bowled beautifully; he took eight wickets for 34 and we won by an innings.  

On this occasion, our informed guess turned out to be correct. Botham bowled brilliantly, it’s true, and we won much more quickly than we could have expected. But it was not only the match result that proved that the change of plan was justified. What really proved it was that whereas the ball had not turned in Edmonds’s one over, it had swung the first ball bowled by Botham. Our hunch, based on the apparently slender evidence of the tiny green tinge that emerged where the ball had “kissed” the surface, turned out to be correct.

Many decisions in life are similarly arrived at—by noticing relevant clues, by joint discussion and collaboration, and by a sort of trial and error. We changed the first plan, but stuck firmly with the second.