Change is a fundamental state of existence, despite the knowledge of which most of us show some sort of resistance to it. Be it individuals or organizations, there is scepticism when some form of change is introduced into an otherwise predictable system of life. I might not have been very different but for the opportunity to be a part of the Indian cricket team during a major season of change, and the positives it has brought to cricket as a whole in India assures me that it was essential to transform ourselves this way.
The 2000s was a decade of change in a lot of ways for India. The increasing influx of youth in politics, the Indian middle class becoming more consumerist, the invasion of technology in our lives, and many more that we’ve all experienced. This period was also an era of prominent changes in Indian cricket. To most cricket viewers in India, 2011 might be the year of reckoning—with the World Cup victory. However, I believe that the transformations that Indian cricket saw in the 2000s was what set the stage for Indian cricket as you see it today.
We went through four phases of change in this period. Initially, there were some established paradigms that were revamped and certain assumptions about the way cricket is to be played were changed. This was followed by a period of building cultural adhesiveness, which then set the stage for experimentation with newer methods and strategies within the team. Finally, all positive change is initiated with the right leadership, and also thereby feeds back into the evolutionary styles and standards of leadership, as was true for us in cricket as well.
Today it is taken for granted that Indian Premier League (IPL) teams can have an international coach and non-Indian support staff in key roles.
However, in those days this concept for the national team itself was a novelty. Till 2000, we’d had a tradition of illustrious Indian coaches. Unquestionably, there’s nothing wrong with having Indian coaches, but like everything else, as times change, sometimes new measures are called for. When John Wright took over in 2000, it was a big step. There were certainly questions about a foreign coach and pundits wrote extensively about whether this undermines our ability or faith in ourselves to produce world-class coaches. There were also questions whether cultural barriers could be overcome by a non-Indian coach. Sometimes the only way to answer questions and quell doubts is to show results, and that was exactly how the team, together with the new coach, went about it.
The importance of support functions
Gradually, we started seeing physiotherapists and trainers from outside India in the support staff. The fundamental concept and importance of a support group went up. The team wasn’t only captain, coach and players. Physical fitness, performance analysis all began gaining importance. New methods of training and professionalism were brought in, and the emphasis on fitness increased. Some of this was also a function of the thinking and methods of a non-Indian coach, and learnings from a different culture of sport. All this acceptance of innovative ways of thinking and doing inched us towards the eventual World Cup victory under Gary Kirsten’s watch.
Around the 2003 World Cup, the team was a combination of youngsters and senior players, with about half the squad below 25 years of age, and an equal number having crossed 30. Every 5 years is a generation, and every generation demonstrates a different behaviour in the same context. Being India, vast cultural and linguistic differences also exist (of course, this seems trivial now, having seen the potpourri that the IPL is). Towards integrating all these diverse individuals there was some cultural innovations that emerged.
The huddle was one of them. Around the 2003 World Cup was when the Indian team started huddling prominently. Everyone was encouraged to let go of any inhibitions to come together, talk together, and celebrate together more often. Batting is when two teammates are together on the ground and they tend to speak to each other and be in sync all the time. However, fielding is when the team of 11 is usually disconnected, unless a wicket falls. We used wicket breaks, drinks breaks, start of a game and other impulsive opportunities to initiate the huddle. People started voicing their thoughts, appreciating one another, sharing information and go back charged.
Creating a larger think-tank
Sportspersons are not corporate employees—we’re unused to the construct of having meetings and all of us would rather go out and be on the ground than spend time in discussions. In those days, the ‘planning’ bit was often left to the senior players and sometimes meetings could be one-way communication forums rather than an involved exchange of ideas and thoughts.
This led us to start a practice of distributing thinking responsibility and ownership, with the creation of multiple captains for strategic teams like batting, bowling, and fielding. Each of these sub-teams or individuals assigned to an area were to go back and do homework on strategy for their area. It was their strategy that would get discussed at the team meetings—the usual suspects like captains, coaches and seniors would take a step back.
For instance, a young fielding ‘captain’ got to plan field positions for each opponent batsman, along with a teammate or two as his deputies. He had to look at data, think it through and come back with a plan—he could seek advice from seniors, but he had to OWN it. Further, he had to speak up in front of the whole team at meetings. The fielding strategy sub-unit had to also listen to the bowling strategy sub-unit’s proposal and both had to mutually use each other’s inputs to work their strategies suitably. This strengthened listening, interactivity, and participation, and meetings were not talk-down. Further, this helped cultivate leadership and ownership amongst the youngsters.
Captaincy and leadership in Indian cricket also transitioned in this period, not just across different individuals but also in the way it was implemented. Specialist captains emerged for different formats, and there were dynamics like having a former captain become a senior team member, a young team member taking over as captain for short stints, etc.
Leadership is a tough art. Depending upon the construct of the relationship between a captain and a team member, in some of these non-linear reporting scenarios, there is a lot of maturity expected of the leader. For instance, younger leaders may feel insecure early on, and they need to find the right balance between being independent and building on others’ advice and experience. Assurance in oneself will go a long way in helping achieve this balance. Young leaders also have to be considerate of the changes in equation with some of their friends and peers. Someone like (Mahendra Singh) Dhoni has handled this very well and this has undoubtedly contributed to his success.
For senior players who were captains (or could have been captains), working to help a young captain again entails a great level of self-assurance and objectivity. When I was captain, I knew that my senior teammates were my source of support and strategic thinking. There was little or no place for insecurity, as we’d been in reverse roles earlier and we all had our eye on the goals of the team.
Of course, between then and now, a lot more has happened in Indian cricket. However, I look back at this era and believe that it set the stage for a lot of good that followed and is yet to come for this sport. ©2013/Tenvic
Anil Kumble is a former Test cricket captain, founder of Tenvic and chief mentor to the Mumbai Indians team.