Thursday, March 19, 2015

Evolution of the Cricket World Cup

A global event is always one of the important points in time in the history of any sport. Athletes and sports persons competing from across the world fighting for the title generates enthusiasm and interest like nothing else. Talk to someone about the history of football and you will find that the discussion is almost always centered around a World Cup. The Tennis has Tennis-Open tournaments, F1 has Grand Prix. Cricket is no different. The ICC Cricket World Cup as it known now is the most prestigious global one-day Cricket tournaments that are hosted and it has produced some of the most gripping One-Day International matches in the history of cricket. Here I present my views on Cricket's most-followed tournament. I start with how I started following the World Cup after which I discuss how the different World Cups have fared and how they have evolved with the passage of time. As it turns out, my views are largely centered around India and its progress in the World Cup many a times, but it is nevertheless quite interesting.

My first World Cup was the 1999 one held in England. I was born in 92 around 20 days after the end of that year's World Cup (you may say that I arrived on earth after watching it!) and I wasn't old enough to remember anything during the 96 one. I remember two games of the 99 world cup - one was India against Sri Lanka for that partnership between Ganguly and Dravid (I hadn't seen such a big parternship before and was expecting and waiting for a wicket to fall soon - I just thought that's the nature of the game!) and the second was the semi-final between Australia and South Africa - perhaps the latter one more etched because of the number of times I have watched it since but I also remember it because I could not understand back then why Australia had won the match even though the scores were level.

Our generation has seen Australia dominate from the time we gained our senses, but India hadn't played too bad either starting from the late 90s and into the 2000s, so it was not so much of a surprise to me that India did so well in the 2003 World Cup as it was to my father and his cricket-following friends. My father's generation had seen India losing more matches than winning, so they were always a little pessimistic about India's chances - always wary of an imminent collapse. I watched the 2003 World Cup in light of this pessimism, but by the end I had realised (even though we lost the final) that we had a good team and a great World Cup.

Let me also talk a bit about the previous World Cups - about which I have heard from my father and my grandfather and also from some of the video footage captured during that time.  The first match of the 1975 World Cup had the then underdogs India pitted against the host nation England - a match where the English made 330 odd runs to which India responded with just 132 runs from the entire 60 overs with Sunil Gavaskar scoring just 36 runs of 174 balls which he later admitted to be his worst innings. But the 1975 World Cup is more known for showing how a great leader united a bunch of different players from different islands playing for different counties into a team which had character - it was the period where the West Indies were champions, both on the field and in the people's hearts.

Interestingly the first two world cups had no fielding restrictions. West Indies arrived in the 1979 World Cup as defending champions and favourites and they played like that too - a big credit for this goes to the swashbuckler from Antigua - Vivian Richards. In the final of 1979, the English captain tried to take advantage of the lack of field restrictions and sent all his fielders to the boundary. But that made little difference to Richards, who played one of his best innings in the World Cup to give West Indies their second trophy.

The next four World Cups were all won by a team that was probably the least expected to win it at that time. India, Australia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka were all underdogs to start in their respective victorious campaigns. But they all had a captain who had a pivotal role in the side's victory. Kapil Dev, Alan Border, Imran Khan and Arjuna Ranatunga have all gone on to be remembered as one the best leaders their cricketing sides have ever produced and they have inspired many great players in the subsequent generations.

Coming back to 2007, I was fairly confident of India's chances and hence was absolutely gutted when I saw India lose to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in the manner they did. It was a terrible performance from India to be polite. I did not have much idea about the role of pitch and other factors in a game at that time, but I am sure I wouldn't have been able to convince myself otherwise even if I had known about such things.

But the year 2007 was an important year for other reasons. It changed my life as a cricket follower and also changed the history of Indian cricket. India were in England after the disappointing World Cup. It was the 6th ODI of the 7 match series. India were up against a stiff target in a must win game. It was night time in India and I was watching the match at home with my father. I generally used to comment on a lot of things during the match, most of which would be meaningless. But that match I was particularly quiet. For the first time I had a weary feeling in my chest - a feeling of anxiety - the closer we got the more it grew. And I clearly remember the joy and relief I had on my face when Uthappa hit the winning runs. It was a match where I evolved from just a cricket watcher to a cricket fan. From then on, I started concentrating really hard and watching every ball closely, especially when India was batting. I started listening to the commentary very closely and learning as much as I could from as many sources as were provided on the television during a live match. You can say that I was in good cricket-following form. I carried this form into the ICC World T20 held that year, which was a turning point in Indian cricket, changing our attitude towards limited overs cricket and also giving us a great leader in the form of Dhoni.

The 2011 World Cup was by far the best of the 10 World Cups in terms of crowd support, overall coverage, media involvement, skill levels and general hype. It was also my first ICC tournament as a Cricket-fan and not just an India-fan. Of course, India ended up winning the World Cup, but didn't always look like doing so. Many a times in the group stages, India were under more pressure than the other teams to perform in front of their crowds. Australia played well during the group stages - although one of their two tough games in the group - the one against Sri Lanka was washed out and so they weren't really tested until they came up against Pakistan. I also liked the role played by the associate teams in the tournament. They managed to beat a few teams and scare a few others. More importantly, they managed to expose weak links that some of the strong teams carried. Australia had come to the World Cup with a pace-heavy attack and Kenya managed to exposed just how dangerous that tactic could prove in the subcontinent especially towards the latter stages with the pitches getting slower and lower. This was exactly what undid Australia in the quarter finals - their only spinner Jason Krejza proved ineffective on a track where they needed him the most. South Africa played well too until the quarter final where they just, well let's say they just imploded. New Zealand slipped under the radar through the World Cup except in the game against Pakistan where they managed a 100 runs in the last 5 overs. This was in contrast to England who were always in the news for their up and down campaign. But both were run over by a rampant Sri Lankan side with devastating openers and a ruthless Captain. Sri Lanka played well and were strong favourites to win the cup when they reached the final. Then came India vs Pakistan, the most important and the most watched game of the tournament. It did indeed turn out to be the thriller that it was expected to be with India holding their nerve at the end to reach the final. India then played their best cricket in the final at Mumbai where despite the pressure of chasing a big total in a World Cup final and despite Sachin falling early, two Indians - Gautam Gambhir and MS Dhoni played the innings of their life to give India its second World Cup. India also became the first host nation to ever lift the World Cup - thanks largely to the coach Gary Kirsten, Paddy Upton and Mike Horn who gave some sound mental advice to the team. And also thanks to Captain Cool MS Dhoni.

Comparing and contrasting the World Cups, I think the first few World Cups displayed aggressive batting and fearless captaincy. The next few World Cups from 92-2003 were won by sides with a better bowling attack in terms of skill and temperament (although i know Ricky Ponting played a blinder in the 2003 final). The last two World Cups have seen an increase in the skill and the power hitting levels of the batsmen due to which it has become even more imperative to pick up wickets at regular intervals during the game. The current World Cup (2015) is no different. At the time of this writing, the group stages have just been completed and the focus has been on taking wickets. The teams at the top of the groups are the teams which have managed to pick up a lot of wickets. Having said that, power hitting talent is a must in your side. I feel England lacked that and this along with improper man management was the cause of their early exit from the World Cup.

The last few World Cups have seen an increase in the size of the bats which obviously favours the batsman. To counter that, the ICC changed the field restrictions to just four fielders outside the inner circle in the middle overs and at the death. Although this has resulted in many teams playing five frontline bowlers and looking to take wickets all the time, it still has played a lot in the hands of the batsmen who have made full use of it - most of the totals in the group stages have been 270+ with a lot of strong teams scoring 330+ many times.

A different thing observed this World Cup is the change in helmets that some player have decided to use in response to the injury which led to the death of Phil Hughes. There is no standardized version of these helmets yet but most of them have a protection now on the back of the neck which can avoid the ball sneaking through that gap. Let's hope this becomes a standard so that no other batsman has to face the tragedy faced by Phil Hughes.

There has also been the use of the Decision Review System (DRS) in the last two World Cups. It is generally not used when India is playing in a bilateral/tri-series, but it is mandatory for ICC tournaments. India suffered a little in the previous World Cup where their tied match against England involved a controversial decision in which the system gave Ian Bell not out. But overall the system has been good and no team has fared too badly.

There has been an increased use of technology to promote the World Cup this time - with Star Sports telecasting all World Cup matches live for free on the Internet on their website and also on their apps on Android, iPhone and other major mobile platforms. The ICC has also launched an official app for the World Cup for mobile phones where the cricket fans can stay updated with the latest happenings of the World Cup. The ICC has also launched an official World Cup game for desktop and mobile which has generated interest among fans.

Talking about fans, they are and will always be the heart and soul of all World Cups. They are the reason the World Cup is such an important thing - they bring the World Cup alive with their passion, they inspire their teams to perform. A group of passionate fans cheering in the stadium can lift the morale of team and help them win in difficult situations. A classic example of this was the India vs South Africa game at MCG in this World Cup where the stadium was filled by a crowd of 86000 people, most of which were Indians. The amount of support for India and other subcontinent teams while playing abroad is just phenomenal and it's great to see their passion for the game. There is nothing better in sport than to see passionate and colourful fans enjoying their time in the crowds.

This was my view on the World Cups so far and how they've changed. Do let me know your views in the comments section below.

(Stats source: Cricinfo)

(This blog post was written as a part of the Blogger Dream Team Contest)

Monday, April 21, 2014

Your Team doesn't need a Manager. Your Team needs a Leader.

You are in office, sitting at your desk, minding your own business. You know you might not be the best but you still enjoy what you do. Then suddenly an email comes. You are invited to a meeting. You go in the conference room and see your team there. You realize you have a new Manager/Lead/Head. He introduces himself, talks about what he wants to do with the team, you listen. You wait. You wait and wait and wait. And then he talks about it. He talks about the "process" he wishes to put forward. He talks about the "expectations" he has from the team. He talks about the "responsibility" that team should have towards the company. You realize it is another one of those captains who would do well "on paper" but not in the real world.

I don't know why but most professional organizations today prefer trained managers/handlers as compared to intuitive leaders. These handlers specialize in "getting work done" out of people rather than motivating them to do it. They prefer to make sure the individuals abide by the law of the "process" rather than learning and growing themselves. I don't know why it's called a team, it looks like a group, the individuals don't learn from each other - Hell, they dont even learn from themselves. The captain is the most bizzare person in the team - he wants to get the work done - without getting his feet wet - and he doesn't take any responsibility if something goes wrong either. These are the characteristics of a team "owner", not a team "leader".

After looking at just a handful of leaders across different fields it becomes pretty much certain that leadership is something you can't obtain with beauty, brain or money. As my favourite Cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle very rightly puts it, "You can't just wake up one morning and say, 'Right 9 AM, Time to Lead'. That just doesn't happen". It has to come from within. And for this reason, good leaders stay the way they were before they became good leaders. It is because they had those qualities from a very young age and were shaped a great deal by it.

More than the skills, there are some features that distinguish good leaders from the not-so-good leaders. First and foremost is the respect for everybody else, not just in the team but in the entire community. It is natural, people only respect you when you have respect for them. Great leaders though, have not just respect but strong sense of belief in themselves and their team. They allow the team to follow their example. They impart this belief in the individual's mind and motivate him to realize his/her true value. This is the reason why quality people come from environments which have a good leader. Good leaders are also appreciated in the way they carry themselves. They generally have good ethics and moral values and are equally great to hangout with outside their profession. This quality of being a good person is what makes a lot of people want to be like them, which in turn produces some more good leaders. Another important quality is the strength to accept responsibility and stand by one's team when the team is going through tough times. It is easy to pick a scape goat, everyone loves to do it. Good leaders realize the truth, accept it and stay by it.

Such people are found in almost all fields. I am a cricket fan and I find a lot of similarities between the philosophies of life and the game of cricket, so most of my examples are always from cricket. Cricket has had it share of leaders as well. In fact most world cups have given the game a new leader. Clive Lloyd, Kapil Dev, Alan Border, Imran Khan, Arjuna Ranatunga, Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting, Saurav Ganguly, Ian Chappel, MS Dhoni to name a few. Of all these, I have only observed Dhoni very closely and I am certain he fulfills all the requirements I mentioned above.

I hope the organizations will realize some day that their current approach is too mechanical and would look to add a human touch to it. Then instead of following a "process", they would let individuals play their own game. Monotony would be replaced by Innovation and the individuals would become better professionals as well as better persons in life. There is always hope and room for improvement. May sanity prevail!