At the start of the season 2010-11, Team Rajasthan were last, placed at Number 27 of a roll that read 27 teams in total. Not having won the Ranji title ever, not even coming close to a final in over three decades, we Rajasthan, seemingly, weren’t playing to win the honour, but to save what we could of ours.
Indian domestic cricket, till last year (there’s a new structure in place now), comprised 27 state teams, which were further divided into two groups of 15 and 12 teams each. The top 15 were, as the name would suggest, a part of the ‘Elite group’ and the remaining 12 were in the lower ‘Plate group’. Rajasthan were not only in the Plate group but right at the bottom of that group too.
For most teams in this lesser group, each game is a bonus. The race is between the big guns of the Elite group; a plate team’s participation is unfortunately, a mere formality. There are many substandard teams in the Plate group that never venture outside their comfort zone of below-par performances year after year. In fact, after a while below-par performances become a habit and anything else except a bottom of the table finish seems to make these teams nervous.
But Rajasthan, even though from the Plate group, decided to change this trend. As wise men have said, the first step towards improvement is to acknowledge that there’s indeed a need to change. Since Rajasthan was a team of quintessential ‘underdogs’, it had nothing to lose, and all to gain. The team took the first crucial step by addressing the key area, which was batting. The management decided to hire three seasoned (batting) professionals from the circuit, besides preparing an exhaustive blueprint for the road ahead.
Here’s Rajasthan’s prescription for all those who wish to pick up a lesson or two in team building, management and success.
Cooperation and competition
Many people believe that since 11 players of a team play against a set of 11 members of another team, cricket must be a team sport. There can’t be a more inaccurate assessment of this beautiful game. Yes, if the teammates decide to not just play with each other but also for each other, cricket could be branded a ‘team sport’. Otherwise, a team may function as a set of different individuals doing their own thing.
That’s exactly what was happening in Rajasthan before we, the professionals, set foot on Rajasthan soil. There was a natural hierarchy in place, which entailed the seniors getting the lion’s share of everything (cushy batting order, appropriate bowling positions, guaranteed place in the starting XI, etc.) and the juniors always lived on the knife’s edge, for one below-par performance ensured an early exit. We needed to change that if we were to harbour any dreams of bringing about a change. That’s where ‘cooperation’ became important. We sent a message across that this team would be ‘all for one and one for all’. Anyone not adhering to this unwritten code of operation was not invited to be a part of our group.
Here, you have to be a little careful and resist the temptation of getting carried away with this ‘cooperation’ bit. One needs to keep adding a healthy mix of the essential ‘competition’ in it too. Some believe that encouraging competition will adversely affect the cooperation and hence discourage any such notions. But healthy competition within the group is as important as looking after each other’s back.
We encouraged that in Rajasthan by pitting two of our main bowlers (Pankaj Singh and Deepak Chahar) against each other and the result was that both got 40 wickets apiece. On the other hand, professionals Hrishikesh Kanitkar, Rashmi Ranjan Parida and I) were competed amongst themselves as to who would score the maximum number of runs in the season and the result was an aggregate of nearly 2000 runs from the three of us. This, in turn, ignited the desire in the lesser known players to be a part of the same group and the results were astonishing. The guys who were happy to score 400 runs in a season started scoring nearly a thousand. The bar was raised without any verbal diktat, and the team flourished.
This holds an important lesson for corporate managers—while ensuring that the entire team is contributing to each other’s success, they must also encourage healthy competition. In fact, I’d go a step further and suggest that such competition should be rewarded too.
Keeping team membership stable
Do victories make the team membership stable or a stable team leads to victories? I’m tempted to go with the latter, for Rajasthan worked on the principle of ‘hire them because you wouldn’t want to fire them’, and it worked. Before the season began we picked our squad of 15, fairly judiciously, and then vowed not to make any changes till it was absolutely mandatory. In fact, we made only one change in the entire campaign and that was because our original choice was recuperating from an injury when the season started. We sent out a strong message to every member of the team that he was picked because he was the best in the state and would be given ample opportunities to prove that. Building a winning team is all about the faith in your own abilities to spot the right talent.
If a player is good enough to be selected at the beginning of a season or series, he ought to be good enough to be persisted with even after a couple of failures. Fickle selectors not only ruin the player but also the team.
The same is true for business managers—they should be extremely prudent while hiring new recruits, but once the decision is made, it’s imperative to back them to the hilt. There’s a thin line between keeping everyone on their toes and making them insecure. A constant threat to their job will add unnecessary pressure on them, and hence will prevent them from expressing themselves.
Carve out time for practice
Once the competition starts, there’s so much focus on the ‘real thing’ that most teams completely forget the importance of playing the game in a ‘less-pressure-nothing-at-stake’ atmosphere. The pressure to perform is so high in a match that not even a single player dares to innovate, for that might let the team down. The entire team gets so obsessed with following a script that it starts working mechanically with no room for innovation, leave alone the sheer joy of playing the sport. That mindset kick-starts a team’s downward spiral because if you are not improving in sports, you are going down. There’s no such thing as stagnation or maintaining a status quo in sport. That’s why it’s ever so important to take regular breaks from the high-pressure match scenario and play in an environment where it’s absolutely fine to fail. Carving time out for practice not only rejuvenates the team but also helps its players to turn a new leaf every now and then.
Isn’t that true in the corporate world too? Don’t we, after a while, just go through the motions and become mechanical? Isn’t the pressure to succeed so high that we refrain from moving an inch from the tried and tested formula, even if it isn’t yielding the same results anymore? Unless we find time to work in ‘no-pressure’ environment, we will never innovate, improve and also rejuvenate. Presenting the same PPT and mouthing the same words could be quite boring beyond a point. There isn’t a magic wand that can make a start-up or a company that’s struggling a runaway success overnight. For any change to happen, people who matter must accept that there’s a need to change. Once that’s accepted, focus should shift on identifying the problem areas and addressing them appropriately.
Rajasthan’s road to the Ranji Trophy is a quintessential underdog story replete with numerous anecdotes. Though there’s never one single blueprint to succeed, stories such as this can inspire all of us to look at the road to success—in sport, business, and life.