What Business Can Learn From Cricket

Why high-performing teams lose focus and what they can do to come back fighting fit

Published: Sep 23, 2011
What Business Can Learn From Cricket
Image: Philip Brown/ Reuters
SHORT ON RESOURCES You know the team is in trouble when the wicketkeeper takes over the role of the strike bowler

Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s mojo finally took a break. After four years of letting him leap through loops and gifting him more than his share of get-out-of-jail cards it slunk away the moment the Indian team landed on the shores of Old Blighty.

When you take a hard look at India’s debacle in England you find that there are echoes of it in the world of business. Three companies in the last month — Yahoo, Apple and Research in Motion (makers of Blackberry) — considered giants at one point, are in the news because there are questions if they can continue to be major players in their businesses. Yahoo, because in spite of multiple CEO changes it hasn’t been able to break out of its rut for the past five years; Apple, because Steve Jobs has stepped down as CEO and Research in Motion because it’s fallen way behind Apple and Samsung in the smartphone race.

It would be a challenge to find anyone who would write off these companies as has-beens just as it would be amateurish to write off Team India just yet. Yes, the team has failed but it’s nothing that can’t be fixed. This is just a bad thing that has happened to a good team.

We’ve put together a team of experts from the fields of human resources, sports and executive coaching to try and understand why a high-performing team loses focus: What happens when your ability to think clearly suffers? What goes through the minds of players in a high-performing team when it’s caught in a spiral of under performance? How are confidence, team work and morale affected and how do leaders grapple with them and turn around the team? Optimum team dynamics is a must as teams and businesses go through natural cycles and phases.

You have to step back, reassess and adapt; get processes and systems in place and get into quality control mode.

Great teams do not surrender meekly. Look at Sony. The Japanese electronics giant had suffered a series of failures in the first half of the decade before it entered the high definition optical disc format war where its Blu-ray disc went up against HD DVD from Toshiba.

The war could have been the death knell for Sony but the company triumphed. It came back from the brink when Toshiba admitted defeat and launched its own version of Blu-ray in 2008.

These articles do not analyse the performance of the Indian cricket team. What we have attempted is to delve into the mind of successful coaches and team leaders to understand how to minimise the impact of pitfalls in business.

Business and cricket are both a test of endurance. In fact, we would argue, business more so because you have to report to work every day and you answer to thousands of shareholders; you are accountable to law, suppliers, vendors and consumers. Businesses need to be on top of their game every day and that is why it’s important to know how to stay on top.Over to the Expert now.

What Business Can Learn From Cricket
Image: Getty Images
CUTTING EDGE (L-R) Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Colin Croft and Joel Garner were the start in an inexhaustible line of fast bowlers that made sure West Indies dominated cricket for over a decade


by K. RamKumar

Lynch me for saying this: But anybody who imagined the Indian cricket team would dominate the world for a long time had gotten it all wrong. The writing was on the wall for all to see. And there are five rules I can cite using history, business and sport to prove my central hypothesis that there are significant differences between teams that dominate for 10 years as against teams that stay at the top for a short burst. 

Rule 1: Balance Your Resources
Remember Hannibal from Canne 217 B.C.? For 15 years he was considered the greatest military strategist until Scipio Africanus from Rome defeated him at Zama in 202 B.C. Under Hannibal’s leadership, Carthage was a great power. But the Roman Empire outlasted Carthage by 400 years.

Now look at business. There was the decade of Nokia; there was Cisco; and now there’s Apple.  But there are companies that have been around for 50 years. There’s Walmart which doesn’t seem to stop; there’s GE, which, bar a few hiccups, seems to be on a perpetual roll and Toyota that outsells every other car manufacturer.

Take cricket. The great West Indies team we talk of did not get on a roll beginning 1974-75, but 1979 after their World Cup victory that year. The essential difference between that team and the Indian team is that the Indians peaked when its main protagonists had grown old.

Go back now to 1979. Clive Lloyd was the only old person on the team and Andy Roberts the next oldest. In 1979, outstanding new blood came in through Desmond Haynes who replaced Roy Fredricks. A year earlier, they had match winners like Malcolm Marshall and Joel Garner coming in to replace Colin Croft, Vanburn Holder, Kieth Boyce and Wayne Daniel. They had a Rolls-Royce in the form of Micheal Holding at his prime by 24, the King Viv Richards and the destroyer Gordon Greenidge only four years into international cricket. My point is, the Indian team has been making do with the same old faces since 2007. That is why I’ve been saying enjoy being Number One while it lasts.

If I were to break all of these up, you’ll notice a few strands. Great civilisations, companies and teams that dominate for long periods hit their peaks early; have resources to see them through the future and have governance structures in place.

A few words of caution though. Peaking early is good, but of no use if you don’t balance your resources. You must know how to use that to your advantage. For Walmart it is logistics, for Toyota it is quality and for GE it is great leverage of capital. There is something extraordinarily cutting edge about what they created.

It was innovation from the 1940s to 1970s that sustained America and made it the superpower it is today: Highly concentrated, scientific materialistic inventions against academic invention. Every materialistic invention was economically leveraged.

But for all these great powers which lasted, they discovered this balance of resources early during their dominance and they had a lot of time left to push it through for years to come.

Rule 2: Team, Teams, Teams
Focussing only on M.S. Dhoni and his captaincy is wrong. He is doing the best with the resources he has. He hasn’t come out and blamed a colleague. He hasn’t said the system has failed him. He isn’t flawless, he’s not played well, or kept wickets well; but he’s held himself well.
This is like the great CEO problem. Rome was not Julius Caesar. People forget Caesar had nothing to do with Rome. Augustus and Hadrian were the ones who crafted the great Roman Empire. They were military generals who called themselves Caesars. The dominance of Rome came from professionalism.

An equivalent in the corporate world is the practicing general manager. They are professionals. You can have the heroic CEO, nothing wrong with it. But in a professional system, you need many heroic CEOs.  The great West Indies cricket team had three: Clive Lloyd followed by Sir Viv Richards and then Richie Richardson. The decline started after Richardson.

You can’t run a one man show. Sure, you can achieve a little, but only for a while. Even when India was at the top, in 2007 we lost a series to Australia in Australia and to Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka in 2008. A large part of our victories were in India. I don’t want to take anything away from the wins. But the wins weren’t thumping. We won because of some unthinkable heroism from individuals. Again, nothing wrong with this. But a great team walks into Carthage and lays Carthage waste. Preventing the Goths from entering Rome is not necessarily the same as walking into Carthage and laying it to waste.

Rule 3: Getting to Say No
The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is a money-making machine. But they have to know the trade-offs they’re making? And are they willing to risk it all for a few dollars more?

Look at ICICI. We didn’t know when to stop. Ninety-five percent of our retail asset book was great. But we went and pushed for the last optional 5 percent. The million extra cards we issued, the small ticket personal loan business and over reaching on two wheelers, almost spoilt an otherwise great, retail pioneering effort. In retrospect, I wish we had said no to the optional 5 percent. However, no regrets, there’s no formula here. The fact is we know how to correct it and are doing it with great focus. There is no shame in talking about mistakes. We salute our competition who got the balance correct.

That is what BCCI has to figure out. Which five percent is killing the team? At what point are you getting into the swamp? There’s no formula there. A great management knows when to stop or learns at the right time it’s time to stop, correct course and get the mix right.

Rule 4:  A Well Drilled Pipeline
If you don’t have a pipeline three steps deep, you’re in trouble. This was something I learned early at Hindustan Lever. If you don’t have two people to replace key members in the team, you’re doing something wrong.

To dominate for 20 years, you ought to be able to do what Cricket Australia did two months ago — sack the entire selection committee because the team was underperforming. Why can’t you ask Sachin Tendulkar and Dravid to play domestic tournaments? If bowlers get into the national side after having taken wickets of inconsequential players in domestic leagues and are then pitted in test matches against a Ricky Ponting, it can be intimidating.
Why can’t the BCCI call off the West Indies series next month? Or the inconsequential 5-match one day series in England? Instead, ask everybody to play domestic cricket for the next four months. Australia did that to Ricky Ponting. They made him play for Tasmania. But here R.P. Singh gets parachuted in from Miami where he’s on holiday, and he’s asked to bowl at the Oval. Then he gets the stick for not performing. Unfair! The real issue here is that the BCCI doesn’t know to say no where it matters.

Rule 5:  Stop Whining
When I was 15, I used to run for my school. After losing a race, I went back crying. My teacher, whom I still call Narayana Swamy sir, slapped me and asked me what was I crying about? I said because I lost. He then asked me, “Why do you run?” I replied, because I like to. So he asked me, “Will you stop running tomorrow?” I said, no. He then said, “Stop running the day you don’t like to run, not because you won or lost.” That is a lesson I have never forgotten.

Every crisis holds the context to change. You can’t change at the height of success, whether in cricket, business or life.

(The author is Executive Director on the board of ICICI Bank. He is responsible for HR, Customer Service and Operations)

(This story appears in the 07 October, 2011 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Udita Kacholia

    Refer to What Business can learn from Cricket (Forbes India, Oct 7, 2011). The article presents a very apt study of how the effective combination of skills as well as age-groups in a cricket team can contribute to being at the top for years to come. Fascinatingly, the same theory has been applied to business. Its very important that the right mix of experience and freshness along with skills, is maintained in a company in order to face the fluctuating environment.

    on Oct 7, 2011
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