The most tormenting experience after a crushing cricket defeat is to relive the ignominy endlessly as numerous experts analyze the event on various media. The helplessness of not being able to give your point of View or counter some of the juvenile comments, makes it even more excruciating. But in a cricket crazy nation this is a reality and as a viewer I need to exercise my choice of using the remote control more proactively.
So as it happened, the floodgates opened and every yesteryear cricketer worth his salt and glucose, came out yesterday to strategize a resurgence in Indian Cricket, and everyone seem to have a clear path defined, only if the establishment gives them some sort of mandate to execute the same.
As the tirade grew, I started pondering on M S Dhoni. The man who for me has been a great story representing the emergence of the modern India – that of being driven by the growth of the hinterland. His exploits to emerge from the backyards of Indian cricket as a daredevil swashbuckling batsman – wicketkeeper to seamlessly transition into a daring and gambling skipper with instincts as that of a hawk, certainly captured the imaginations of zillions, and to aid it there were results to see. Under his leadership we conquered 2 world cups, numerous other glories, scaled up the heights of Test Cricket and achieved that unthinkable – a harmonious, united and happy dressing room.
However, since that glorious day at Wankhede on April 2nd 2011, the fall has been dramatic. Not only in terms of success %age of the team, but also Dhoni’s confidence levels as a skipper – or so it seems or appears to the naked eye.
Back in 2007 when MS took over captaincy, India was lurking in an abyss. He had nothing to lose. He was entrusted with a young uninhibited team and no expectations. They say, that’s a deadly state to be in. He worked out a brilliant winning concoction from that state that caught everyone’s attention and a new fearless leader emerged. Over the next couple of years, his composure, his calculated and sometimes purely gut-driven instinctive gambles paid off big time making him that ultimate punter who unnerved the opposition with his calmness + grit + fiercely combative spirit of a pugilist + daring of a punter. Effect was there to see. India came out of deep holes, turned it around with their backs to the wall, unlikely heroes emerged who saved or won games, unexpected moves caught oppositions by surprise and games turned head on…et al. India found itself a leader who simply dared – a quality last seen in another ex-leader, Sourav Ganguly.
It is this “Ability to Dare”, that made MS that glorious leader for that period of 2007 – 2011. Irrespective of who played, India kept winning games. Not just at home, even away some great stories emerged – The Triangular series victory in Australia, the Series win in New Zealand, Gritty performances in South Africa. While there were many other contributors to this journey, MS’s leadership was a critical one – as he was sure of what he was doing. He was relaxed, and at peace with himself.
Then the WC 2011 happened. Those 45 days on the road changed the way India played its cricket. The relentless pressure of a Cricket Crazy nation was visible on the players. Tension was writ large on everyone and for the first time MS Dhoni faltered with the bat – he was feeling the heat. His wicket keeping suffered. But he kept his composure intact. For the first time the stubbornness of MS as a skipper surfaced – (persisting with Chawla). Fortunately it was his masterstroke to promote himself in the finals to counter Murali, that clicked and clicked big time. The punter had played another masterly hand – and won. The world was at his feet, and he remained non-challant in the face of all frenzy.
At this point anyone willing to look at the period of 2007 – 2011 from a leadership lens would figure out great nuggets of wisdom from MS’s leadership journey that can be a great material for leadership thinking and learning.
However, the period post World Cup changed many things. For starters, India’s results away from home. Performances for some of our prominent names. But most importantly that “Ability to Dare” aspect of MS Dhoni. So I thought it would be worthwhile to explore a much larger question – Is there a shelf-life for Leaders? What happens when a leader hits a plateau or a downward curve? Is exit the only option?
Post the economic meltdown in 2008/09, the world has witnessed countless examples of Executive shakeups targeted at inducing newer thinking, energy and vitality into Organizations – all of them with the intent to reinvigorate their Organizational fortunes. There have been some sparkling stories too of revival and resurgence and in some cases things haven’t worked out the planned way – only to walk into another shake up. The primary driver in many of these shake ups have been the Incumbent’s ability to make a difference. It’s a confidence thing. If the appraisers lose confidence in the incumbent, then it’s a done deal – the shakeup. This confidence is evaluated from the thought process the incumbent exhibits – if it is tentative, low on conviction etc. its always thought to be better to have someone else with a different yet confident approach hold the reins. It’s a harsh world out there.
From that lens when I see MS’s leadership over the last 2 years and try to ask these questions – How confident does he look? What mindset is he operating under? I start getting some disturbing answers.
For example: As I sat in the stands in Colombo watching India play Australia in the WT20 Championship, I knew the key to India winning would be the wickets of Warner and Watson. If we got them the rest of Aussies lineup was vulnerable. And the key to these wickets was India to have started with spinners. Yet MS began with the pacers – now one can understand pacers for the first 2/3/4 overs, but he continued till 6th and by then they had amassed almost 70 runs. Game over. Couple of days later Pakistan defending a similar total bowled 18 over of spin and not only defeated Australia but kicked India out of the competition. MS’s explanation to this was he wanted the pacers to use the new ball when it was swinging – Now that would never have been the approach 2 years back. This is head of a leader who is low on confidence, feeling tremendous heat under the burden to live upto expectations created by past glories and who wanted to play safe. Of all people MS was not the one to pay by the book. He never did. He was the one who tossed it to Joginder for that last over, he was the one who dropped Sehwag from the team for the Triangluar series final to bring in better fielder-batsmen, he was the one who created Ravi Ashwin the new ball offspinner, he was the one who made Raina the match winner with the ball, and so on.
The whole episode of “Wanting a Turner wicket” reflects the mindset. Past 2 years his comments on conditions, his anger on curators, his displeasure on umpires – reflect the “victim” state his mind is at – finding solace in things beyond his control as an excuse. This isn’t him. Here is a man who nonchalantly would look into the camera and say – No international cricketer is 100% fit. But we are professionals and the only thing we need to do is to perform, no excuses. To hear him give so many excuses does reflect where his head is at.
Its evident, this leadership head isn’t clear. And this isn’t a one off case. These happen all the time. In Corporate parlance this is where Leaders are assigned to support system (Exec Coaches, Mentors etc.), to sort their head out. I don’t see that happening much now. (In the past the dressing room had a character called Paddy Upton, whose day job was to ensure there wasn’t any mental cobwebs). Unfortunately there isn’t anyone.
This is where the board needs to intervene. One thing that is disturbing me greatly is MS’s ability or inclination to listen. This has declined greatly. He has chosen to operate mostly on his own instincts. This is concerning. This is where learning ends and knowing begins. This is where listening ends and talking begins. This is where player ends and victim begins.
Some years back we saw one of our best captains disintegrate in a similar zone. The system didn’t catch him midway and prop him up. I hope the system is more proactive this time around. For this is a story that needs to succeed.