I was watching the Champions League cricket semifinal between New South Wales and Victoria today. The first wicket fell – David Warner who was playing brilliantly, unfortunately, got run out – and I was waiting for one of my favourite players, Simon Katich, the captain of the New South Wales team, who was all padded up, to walk in. But Katich decided otherwise. He sent one of his younger players, Daniel Smith, who was the wicket keeper, to go in and express himself. Katich disappointed fans like me, but he was merely doing something that he had done during the previous few matches.
Katich’s puzzling move
Watching Katich’s captaincy in this tournament, made me think about a few things. In his team’s first match, when the opponents and the conditions were uncertain, he came in to bat at No.3, after the loss of the first wicket. He was the best batsman in his team, and this is the position that the best batsman of a cricket team typically plays in. In that match, he changed the momentum of the game with a few strokes. He created gaps where none existed and teased the ball around for runs. When he was around, the pitch looked different and the bowling looked average. Then, after having nearly done his job, he got out to a loose shot. A Katich fan like me, felt disappointed, because the innings was primed up for the frenzied hittings of the last overs. Fortunately, New South Wales’ bowling attack was world-class (they had four bowlers who played for the Australian team) and so they won the match. I waited for the next match to watch Katich bat again. But in the next match against Sussex, Katich sent the younger players in to bat, to give them an opportunity to prove themselves in foreign conditions, while he enjoyed their displays from his team’s dugout. He continued doing this in subsequent matches – except for playing a brief cameo in the match against Somerset to take his team past the finishing line. Today’s match was a big game for his team. It was the semifinal of the tournament, and so though he sent one of his team members above the order, he himself came in after that and delighted fans like me by playing a beautiful cameo.
Katich was doing something, which managers do all the time in the corporate world. He was trying to be a team player. He was trying to reduce his team’s dependency on himself and make his team run on autopilot mode, by giving the young players more opportunities and exposure, getting them into the limelight, empowering his players and building their confidence while he himself stayed in the background. However, he chipped in with crucial runs and made crucial decisions when his team needed them. I have seen a few other cricket captains do it – Viv Richards who used to bat at No.3 till he became captain, promoted younger players after he became captain and continued doing that till he retired. There were matches where he batted as low as No.7, while greenhorns batted above him. When the going got tough, he opted to come in earlier and blasted the bowling of the opposition. Another captain who did this was Imran Khan. Many times he gave the ball to the rookies or the younger players, while he fielded at slip or at midon and watched the proceedings quietly. When the going was not good for Pakistan, he took the ball from the youngsters, bowled at a blistering pace, fired out a few of the best opposition batsmen and then handed back the ball to the rookies and went back to his perch at midon. It made for interesting viewing.
The question is this : Is what Katich did or what Viv Richards and Imran Khan did in the olden days, the right thing to do? Is it a good idea to take the back seat, when one is the best player in the team, and give opportunities to the young guns? Is it really a good idea to be a ‘team player’? It is an interesting question.
In the corporate world
If one puts the above question to a corporate manager, the answer that would come back would probably be ‘Yes’. The manager’s job is probably to reduce the dependency on himself / herself and make the team run on autopilot mode. That way the manager can take on new responsibilities and move up the ladder. It will help his / her teammates move up the ladder too, when they learn how to delegate responsibilites themselves.
It is quite interesting to look at the other side of the equation too. What happens to the manager’s skills when he / she delegates most of the core work? After this happens, the manager probably makes plans with deadlines and keeps track of the deadlines. The manager allows his / her teammates to do most of the work. After sometime the manager loses touch with the core technical part of his / her field. The manager’s skills in his / her area becomes rusty and after some point of time they become useless. The only thing that the manager can do is negotiate, make and track project plans and assign tasks to teammates. This might even have negative repercussions on the manager’s resume value in the job market. It might also increase the risk to the project, because the core of the project will be managed by people down the line, while the manager plays the role of a figurehead. The COO of the company that I used to work for, thought on these lines, and decided that if things continued in this way, the potential risks to projects were too high. He decided to introduce technical tests for middle and senior managers in the company. It was no surprise when a significant proportion of middle and senior managers failed in this test.
If we apply this reasoning to cricket we can say this : if Katich (or Viv Richards or Imran Khan) keeps following this strategy, his cricket skills might rust while his players will love him for giving them more opportunities. There might come a time when he might owe his place in the team more to his team’s loyalty rather than to his performance. Then a day will come when he will be ejected out of the team. This has happened many times before. (Imran Khan retired before his skills rusted, but Viv Richards was rusty in his last few matches and the West Indian selectors couldn’t wait for him to retire. It happened to Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh too). Is that a good state of affairs? Another way to look at it would be from a fan’s perspective. As a Katich fan, I was looking forward to watching him bat in every match. But because he wanted to give more exposure to the young guns, I could watch him in just a couple of matches. Isn’t that unfair to a fan like me?
A personal experience
I had an interesting experience on this front, when I was working with a team on a project once (this was during my study days). Our team had around six to seven members, it didn’t have stars, one of our teammates was a dissident, but the others bonded well. I did most of the organizing, always came prepared for meetings, bunked classes so that I could research and get information from the library for our project meetings, performed all the chores that teamwork demands and offered the limelight to other teammates. One of my teammates was shy to get on stage. We groomed him for a few weeks and built up his confidence. He did a good job when our final presentation had to be made. There were other teams which made flamboyant presentations, but our team came first. I think the reason for that was that we jelled as a team and brought the power of teamwork to the stage. Was what I did – being selfless and doing the grunt work and leaving the limelight to the others - the right thing? Was it good being a ‘team player’? It definitely was good for the team. It definitely helped my team’s performance. Was it good for me? I am not sure. I definitely missed an opportunity by giving the limelight to my other team members. The exercise showed me in good light as a team member, but it didn’t improve my presentation skills. My professor even asked me why I wasn’t part of the group which presented the team’s findings in public.
Finding the balance
So, what is the answer to the question – in cricket and in life? I think, looking at both sides of the equation, reducing the team’s dependency on stars and making the team run on autopilot mode, where everyone stands on his / her own legs knows his / her responsibilities and the team runs like a well-oiled machine, does seem to be a good thing, because it reduces the dependency of the team on an individual. On the other hand, it should probably be done without sacrificing individual brilliance or without allowing any individual player’s skills to become rusty. If this happens then the concerned individual player doesn’t add value to the team. I think sacrificing one’s individual interest for the team is like using a knife which cuts both ways. It should be done with care.
So, how does one find the balance between mitigating risk and encouraging individual flair and brilliance? That is a very interesting and a million-dollar question It is a question for cricket team captains and managers to ponder.
What do you think?
Postscript : For the record, Katich’s batting doesn’t look like it is going to get rusty in the near future He is one of the best batsmen in the world, going by his present form and is a breathtaking fielder (the best in the world, if you ask me!) and an interesting unconventional bowler. He is also a brilliant captain. How the Australian selectors missed giving him a longer run and elevating him to the Australian captaincy (after Ponting) remains a mystery. How can the selectors allow such breathtaking talent to not flower to its potential? It boggles the mind!
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