Tuesday, Aug 16, 2022

Perception And Practice

'Sachin and I played 122 Test matches together; I never threatened his place in the team as a batsman. But I can tell you he sometimes threatened mine as a bowler— he was such a natural as a leg spinner!'

Full text of the second Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi Memorial Lecture delivered by India's highest wicket taker on November 13, 2013

In 1990, as a teenager, I took my first steps in international cricket and was eager for encouragement and a kind word in the cricketing world. I came across a comment from an accomplished Indian cricketer and a respected leader of men.

I quote: "This lad, I don't see him winning Test matches for India, either at home or abroad. He rarely turns the ball. At best he can be restrictive." The assessment came from Mr. Mansur Ali khan Pataudi.

Two decades of international cricket and 619 Test wickets later, it is indeed a great honour and privilege to address this august gathering.

It was my misfortune that I never had a chance to confront Pataudi on his comment, but I am confident that had I done so, he would have had a good laugh. Unlike many men with a reputation for possessing a sense of humour, he was capable of taking a joke against himself.

In cricket, as in most things in life, perceiving is believing. I think it was the great English left arm spinner Wilfred Rhodes who said that if the batsman thinks it’s spinning, then it’s spinning. As you might imagine, it is a philosophy I can identify with.

In recent years such gifted bowlers as Shane Warne and Saqlain Mushtaq have spoken of the ‘zooter’ and the ‘teesra’ respectively to keep the opposition guessing and wasting hours in their back rooms figuring out what these exotic terms meant.

Perception. It is all a matter of perception. After all, what can a teesra be? A leg break bowled with an off break action that turns out to be an off break after all?

The great Nawab of Pataudi was acutely aware of the role of perception. He was, in some ways, an Englishman but he had an Indian heart, and that was crucial. It was said of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, educated in Eton and Cambridge, that he was the last Englishman to rule India. Pataudi, educated in Winchester and Oxford was, by contrast, the first Indian to lead India.

He understood the ‘Indian way’, and the importance of putting processes in place.

He was a management guru long before the term was in common use; he understood too the value of symbolism, which in the Indian context is important.

A captain must find the mid-point between arm-waving leadership and over-subtlety, which is a sure way of getting the message lost.

Pataudi had the balance right—and has been the beacon for every Indian captain since.

He first led the team at 21, when every other player was senior to him. He must have worked hard at appearing almost casual in his stroke play, as if to suggest that cricket was the easiest game in the world— in fact so easy that he could play the best bowlers with just one good eye. The effect on his team was phenomenal. The perception of ease communicated itself to the many who were inhibited, diffident and under-confident.

Once asked, “When did you think you could play Test cricket?” he airily replied, “When I saw the English bowling.”

He was never hurried, and was never caught playing an ugly stroke. He was a man who believed in Team India long before the concept was given a name.

No longer were the players from Mumbai or Delhi or Karnataka or Tamil Nadu—they were from India. This was an important concept in a generation born before Independence and now coming to terms with freedom and choice.

My closest interaction with Pataudi came many years after he had retired. He was the President of a players’ association formed to work in tandem with the board. I was the vice president.

He was keen on putting in place a system that would outlive the personalities, much like he had done as captain of India. He discussed with us the genuine problems we had and—naturally—had a keen understanding of players and player issues.

Despite the general perception that a players’ association is just a version of a trade union determined to be difficult, the governing body listened to us.

Perceptions were against us, yet the players' working in tandem with the BCCI ensured that the benefits of playing cricket accrued to the players.

A system of percentages from sponsorship money was worked out and demarcated in a manner that ensured that those who played for their state or country would never want for money.

Both sides appreciated the significance of communication. It was never black and white—with the players making demands and the board stonewalling their efforts. The importance of negotiated meeting points was driven home early.

These experience stood me in good stead when, after my playing days, I decided to become an administrator with the Karnataka State Cricket Association.

While playing, most of us give little or no thought to administration and the view from beyond the boundary. This view can sometimes be unnaturally rosy or the exact opposite depending on one’s temperament. Just as playing requires a specific set of skills, so too does administration.

My three-year stint, along with my colleague in the Indian team, Javagal Srinath, who is the secretary, taught me a few things, and I believe now that just as other areas of the game—like umpiring—administration too can benefit from having people who have played at the highest level.

For one, the focus will remain—or should remain, at any rate—the game and the player. All the experience of playing in various grounds and other infrastructure facilities surely come in handy. Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad and I—apart from our seniors like Roger Binny and others—came through the electoral system, and that is something I am proud of.

At the end of three years, I can safely say that I have also enriched myself in accountancy and law.

Some perceptions have to be willed into reality. For years we thought we were a sporting nation, but we had little to show for it.

India's sporting successes in the last decade have changed all that. The improved performances of our athletes at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, the London Olympics, and in world tournaments by our boxers, archers, badminton, chess, billiards, snooker and tennis players are evidence of the impressive progress we continue to make.

Other sports can take their cue from cricket too. A generation ago, if anyone had suggested that a player from Ranchi would lead India one day, he would have been laughed at.

The game has spread across the country, taking in areas like Rae Bareilly and Bharuch and Naichanpur and Davangere, places, which previously had little or no connection with the game.

The reason is simple—the infrastructure is now available outside the big cities, and so too the coaches and the incentives.

Such things can happen in other sports to tennis courts in Shimoga or swimming pools in Meerut can produce champions.

We owe it to our youngsters to provide the facilities that will attract them to sport. From the quantity will emerge quality, as cricket is discovering now.

Our cricket team realized its goal of being ranked the No 1 Test team and also won the T20 and as well as the 50-over World Cups. This year, we won the Champions Trophy too. I am proud to have been a part of the core group that laid the foundation for such heady success.

It is in this backdrop that I reflect on India's position of dominance in the administration of cricket globally. Power equations have shifted and India's influence is substantial, but this is only natural and a result of the economics that drive sport.

The region that generates significant sponsorship and patronage besides the tremendous and, at times fanatical following for cricket shall certainly have an important role in defining the path for the game's future.

Not so long ago, Indians were keen on a stint in the English county championship for both cricketing and commercial reasons. Those days, travelling in the sub continent was a challenge for many teams. But today, the Shane Watsons and the A B de Villiers of the world are as familiar with curry and naan as bacon and eggs.

I gather that the Indians have devised codes for communication on the ground, given that half the players in the opposition now understand the relevant Hindi and certainly know the meaning of all the unprintable uttered in the heat of play...

It is important for followers of the sport from across the world to recognize that India is a multi-cultural society and we have over several centuries accommodated and assimilated the cultures of those who came to our country.

This ability to amalgamate the influences of various cultures has enriched us and we have a well-deserved reputation for graciousness and hospitality.

No foreign player has ever had to carry his cricket coffin in India, for example. The same could not be said of touring Indians of my time.

Notwithstanding the position of pre-eminence we enjoy both on and off the field, it is extremely important for us to demonstrate leadership with responsibility.

Traditionally our leadership style has relied less on belligerence and more on driving consensus. It is important that the development of cricket and its popularity among its member nations are protected and nurtured.

There has been a shift in the Balance of Power. It is extremely important that we wear our power lightly and make contributions that are worthy of emulation, because, cricket has to be above every other consideration.

The game is set to change dramatically over the next 20 years as society itself is set to change. And as India march towards becoming an economic super power, one thing is certain, this change will be led and sustained by India.

This is something to be proud of. Power can be a heady thing, but with power comes responsibility. We must prepare to adapt to the change, embrace it and respond to it in the manner that serves the game best.

In the years since the democratization of the International Cricket Council with the removal of the Veto power that had been granted to its founding members, changes in the game have been rapid, and led by India.

A second World Cup was held in India in 1996, the principle of rotation having been established a decade earlier when the tournament was first played in the subcontinent.

An Indian became the President of the ICC and showed the international body how it could earn money from the game.

With the Indian economy undergoing a dramatic shift in the 1990s and the consuming classes increasing in numbers larger than the population of a small country, it all came together for the game.

In the cricketing world too, there was a cultural shift around the time I was making my international debut. India had won the World Cup less than a decade earlier, a Test series in England three years later, and had begun to suggest that the fulcrum of world cricket was beginning to shift.

It was exciting to be part of the process of change.

Within the team too there was a shift in culture. New systems were taken on board. Training methods, fitness, number of matches was all notched up many levels and cricketers themselves came under greater scrutiny, as there was an explosion in the media.

Every slightest niggle was attended to, professional physios came on board which was a pleasant change from some we had in the past whose expertise was limited to preparing tea, organising luggage and occasionally give the players a hair cut.

Soon players began to get a larger share of the revenue generated by the game.

Whether it was money that began to change perceptions or vice versa, there was an attempt by the more sensitive world players to dig deeper into cultural reorientation.

The idea that, as one English cricketer put it, this region was an area to send your mother-in-law to was replaced by one that seemed to say this was the region to run away from your mother-in-law to.

Done the poverty, done the disease, let's go back, said another international cricketer people like that would now give an arm and a leg to return in a professional capacity.

They were not all like that, of course, and much of the response to the new India was led by players like Steve Waugh whose understanding of the country and its people and whose charity work here have been exemplary.

Within a generation, the perceptions about India changed. While men like Waugh embraced the change, welcomed it and contributed towards sustaining it, I suspect some of our own lacked that vision

It took us a little longer to come to terms with the power, the enormity of the expectations and the need to channelize it constructively.

Initially, it seemed to be all about making money and telling everybody who was boss. As often happens, those who were out of power tended to imitate the actions of those who were in power earlier, and that did not serve the game well.

It is ironic that the rest of the cricketing world has accepted India’s lead role rather more easily and with greater pragmatism than India have.

On the field, players have worked it out without even being conscious of it. Days after Kevin Pietersen and Mahela Jayawardene share a dressing room in Delhi, they are facing off against each other in Colombo.

Rohit Sharma and Mitchell Johnson are laughing and joking in the Mumbai dressing room, but a few days later, one of them is trying to knock the other’s block off in an international match.

This has been a remarkable, often unacknowledged contribution by the BCCI.

For over the years, it has been dealing with perceptions too.

Earlier generations spoke of a relationship that was more employer-employee than parent-child (to borrow a phrase from Kapil Dev). Yet today, domestic players in cricket are better off than internationals in most other sports India participates in.

The regular Ranji Trophy player is guaranteed a steady income, which is well above the average salary of professionals in many other fields. The one-time payment to former players was again a very unique initiative.

On many issues, players and fans are closer to the BCCI’s way of thinking than is realised.

India has been criticized for their stand on the DRS issue, for example. But personally, I have my reservations too—some of the drawbacks were evident in the recent Ashes series in England and the current Australian captain has expressed his concern too.

We have maintained that the system needs tweaking, we need additional inputs not because we are looking for 100 percent certainty every time—you don’t need to be a student of quantum physics to know that is not possible— but in order to eliminate some obvious drawbacks in the system - an expert in technology need to certify the science behind the various tools used.

Yet the perception in this case is that the BCCI is a hundred percent wrong.

The question of the Future Tours Programme or the FTP is an intriguing one. With the Test championship slated for 2017, all Test-playing countries have an obligation to play a certain number of matches home and away. Home countries have television obligations, which have to dovetail into the overall programme.

While we rejoice in the commercial success of the sport, I feel there is an urgent need for us to adapt to the changing times.

In a consumer-driven market, where the paying spectator and television determine the commercial viability of all forms of entertainment given the wide array of choices that are on offer, the powers that be have the task of striking a balance.

The challenge of maintaining tradition while we adapt to the modern demands of cricket are proving to be complex.

It may be practical to step away from the unimaginative approach of packing every series with a couple of Test Matches, a few one dayers followed by a couple of 20-over games and instead consider carving out separate calendars for each format.

Three different seasons for the game to accommodate the three different formats is easily conceivable. Here too India can lead the change as they have done with the IPL, now the richest domestic tournament in the sport.

Specific seasons for specific formats will facilitate better planning for a longer term cricket calendar, provide clarity for spectators and allow players to prepare for the different physical and mental demands of each format. 

A good analogy would be the tennis season which moves in a logical manner from surface to surface: hard-court, clay, grass, indoors.

A staggered season will enable the spread of cricket to new territories, allow better planning and conduct of domestic competitions in each cricket-playing nation.

As the head of the ICC’s Cricket Committee, I have already brought to the discussions some of the thoughts that has been expressed here.

I strongly believe that cricket remains an ethical sport, but there are increasing challenges from the unknown enemy looking to tarnish its fair name with the lure of lucre.

Desperate cricketers adopt desperate means to enrich themselves. Cricket does not exist in isolation. We are a reflection of society in general and are not immune to its influences.

It is not surprising that a fringe cricketer is lured by the inducement of riches that can transform his earnings many times over. We must be pro-active in our efforts to deal with these challenges.

A little over a decade ago, when the matter first caught us all by surprise, we forgot to put in place a system to ensure there would be no repetition. The perception was that a name-and-shame policy would be deterrent enough. How wrong we were!

The possibility of a criminal charge and jail sentences for those found guilty offer some hope that we might be learning our lessons finally. I had suggested that players involved should have their records removed from the books. It has to be a name-and-jail policy now.

Cricketers are trained in their formative years only to provide expression to their talent. They are often ill prepared to deal with the baggage that accompanies national or international recognition.

Suddenly thrust into the limelight, they find themselves lacking in the skills to handle fame and fortune.

We need both education and mentoring here.

Most corporate have a system of education to prepare their employees for overseas assignments. This includes cross-cultural orientation and business etiquette.

Cricket deserves no less. Every aspiring cricketer should be given the training to meet the demands that go with being a professional.

Cricketers today have a lifestyle, but do they have a life? Player development is an area that I am deeply committed to.

At an early stage, education is crucial; as a player evolves, he must also be provided with an environment where his insecurities and handicaps are dealt with professionally.

In recent years, for example, many top international players have gone through phases of depression. Often the problem is either detected late or simply hidden away in embarrassment.

The few players who have boldly spoken and written about their own problems in this area have provided a glimpse into a world few of us understand and even fewer acknowledge exists.

Yet there are responses to stress and strain that could be addressed through proper counselling.

Victims of poor selection, improper injury management, even a poor run of scores need to have the opportunity to speak to those trained in handling such issues—issues that get blown up since top sportsmen tend to live in a fish-bowl atmosphere, with no place to hide when things go wrong.

There are connected issues too. I firmly believe that every cricketer should be put through a mentoring programme that encompasses a wide range of competencies that include:

  • Understanding his role as a professional sportsman.
  • Responsibility as an ambassador of the country, team, family and cricket board
  • Being a role model for aspiring youngsters
  • Financial management
  • A clear concept of the effects of the usage of drugs
  • A proper assessment of the paths that lead to bringing the game into disrepute with spot fixing and similar ills.

Policing and severe punishment can only be limited deterrents, but these preventive mechanisms through mentoring interventions can offer lasting solutions to the evils that threaten the gentleman’s game.

Cricketing battles should only be fought on the field and not off it.

The problems mentioned belong to the box named ‘reality’; they are not mere perceptions. But it is important to deal with both.

With a rise in the frequency of international tours, increase in the number of formats in which the game is played and a slowing down of wickets across the world, it was believed that the game was in danger of homogenization in terms of style, approach, and content.

Through much of my career, I read reports about how the game was becoming one-dimensional.

Yet, the opposite has happened. No one who watched a V V S Laxman or a Mahela Jayawardene bat ever mistook them for Australian or South African players; Michael Clarke is unmistakably Australian.

Perception is reality here. It helps us understand not just the batsmen but also the environment they emerged from and the contradictions or consistencies in their styles.

To those who grew up in the seventies and eighties, two teams stood out.

Not just for their dominance but for the impact of that dominance.

While these teams were at the top, it was difficult to imagine them being beaten by any other consistently.

Today, the gap between the top teams has narrowed so we no longer have a ‘West Indian’ era or an ‘Australian’ era—with one team so superior to all the others that their mere turning up to play seemed a guarantee of victory.

In the last couple of years, Australia, India, England and South Africa have all been No. 1 in Tests.

Cricket, generally, is in a good place right now, with greater competition among more teams, faster rates of scoring and a wonderful range of bowling among the teams. 

Pakistan can lose to Zimbabwe one day and then beat South Africa soon after. India can lose a series 0-4 in Australia and turn it around by the same margin when the series is played at home.

When I made my debut for Karnataka, the idea of India becoming the No 1 side was far-fetched.

In that same week, another man was making his debut, for India in another country.

A 16-year-old named Sachin Tendulkar had arrived, and now nearly a quarter century later, he gives his name to an era in cricket.

Turning points are not so easily recognized when they occur, but seen in perspective, on the eve of the great man’s 200th Test match, We both those who played with him and those who watched him—know we lived through this era.

Sachin and I played 122 Test matches together; I never threatened his place in the team as a batsman. But I can tell you he sometimes threatened mine as a bowler— he was such a natural as a leg spinner!

That he has played for so long and with such great authority is testimony both to his passion for the game and his incredible capacity for hard work.

Fans see only the final product—the exquisite straight drive or the smooth on-drive—but tend to forget the hours of sweat that went into producing such strokes. 

Perception leads many astray when they confuse the product with the process: the former is effortless only because of the effort that goes into the latter.

Sachin is three generations of players in himself. He began when Kapil Dev was still the spearhead of our attack, was a contemporary of the Dravids, Laxmans, Gangulys, Zaheers, Harbhajans, Dhonis and Sehwags and has placed Indian cricket in the strong and capable arms of Virat Kohli and Cheteswar Pujara.

The role of the game in India, as we bear witness to a handing over of the baton, cannot be exaggerated.

Neither can the role Sachin has played in it being all things to all men.

The game unites people like nothing else does, bringing together the politician and his driver, the society lady and her hairdresser in a manner that is unique and somehow inevitable.

When you consider the median age of the country is roughly the number of years Sachin has been playing first class cricket, you can understand what I mean.

For a great majority of our countrymen, Sachin Tendulkar has been a fixture all their lives.

Of no other sportsman in any other place or time can it be said that he symbolizes both the essence and the aspirations of a whole people. Yet even in the case of this genius, our perceptions have shifted.

When India dropped out of the World Cup in 2007, it was assumed that we had blown the last chance to crown the greatest one-day batsman with a deserving crown.

Yet, four years later, there he was, being carried on the shoulders of the next generation—literally—as the elusive World Cup was finally won in his sixth attempt.

When he turned 37 the previous year, many felt he had overstayed his welcome—a perception that was hammered home by the media. Yet it was then that he scored the first double-century in one-day internationals.

Few players have done as much as Sachin to alter the perception of the game in our country either individually or as part of the best teams to take the field for India. But it wasn’t just Sachin the batsman or Sachin the sharp thinker of the game alone who made the difference.

I remember him saying on a tour of the West Indies that “cricketers’ stories come pouring out when it rains.” With the game being held up or sometimes not even starting, the youngsters always sat around with the seniors listening to their stories, to their early hopes and disappointments and to their future aspirations.

This is some of the best education that juniors can have.

And those who come in with pre-conceived notions about superstars and their superhuman ways soon come to realize that even the greatest players are human beings, with all the insecurities and uncertainties that we as a race are subject to.

Not all changes are planned, not all alterations in perception are logical or inevitable.

Yet, despite everything, I firmly believe that cricket will endure.

It has for 136 years.

The optimism is based on the thousands of boys I see playing in various grounds around the country.

It stems from the look in their eyes and the passion in their voices as they talk of becoming the next Tendulkar or Dhoni.

History has shown that it is in their periods of overwhelming superiority that nations sow the seeds of their fall from grace. It was true of the Roman Empire; it was true of the British Empire.

The analogy can be extended to cricket. Perched on top as the most significant and influential cricketing country, we must guard against repeating historical mistakes.

The present belongs to India. There is no reason why the future too can’t. We owe it to the coming generations to provide the wherewithal to become the best players they can be. On how we handle the present will depend the future.

In the course of his first international century shortly after his 21st birthday, Pataudi was batting with his skipper Nari Contractor when he walked down the wicket and told him, “Nari, let’s loft the ball over the fielders’ heads. That’s something that has never been tried in this country before.”

The greatest tribute to the Pataudi legacy is that at critical junctures, someone shows up with a solution. It is the attitude that made India the No 1 cricketing country.

Our preparations for the future must include not only coaching on the field of play but education off it too.

I was once asked by a youngster why he should waste his time with the game’s history. Nothing is a waste if you learn from it— and the past provides us with many answers.

We do not need to reinvent the wheel where the basics are concerned, but every stage of evolution demands an open mind and a fresh approach.

We must never be afraid to try something that has never been tried before. Whether lofting the ball over the fielders' heads or preparing youngsters for life as a sportsman with its joys, riches, responsibilities, possibilities and temptations.

Thank you one and all for your attention.

Text courtesy: BCCI