Ask any sportsperson about the least favourite part of their life. Interacting with the media will be a unanimous winner. It is further loathsome if you are with the Indian men’s cricket team, where eyeballs are more than all other cricket-playing nations combined and constant media scrutiny in more languages than the number of teams in an ICC event.
In a system of undefined pathways to selection, undeniable power struggle and inevitable insecurity, transparency hits the exit button. The end result is a bunch of cliches and generic responses in all public interactions.
A few cliches are fillers for the one being interviewed, switched off after a hard day’s work, looking not to rouse any fire. Certain cliches are used to display confidence, integrity, and all the other universally accepted nouns of success.
Hence, rarely does anything tangible come out of these routine interactions. However, Rohit Sharma said something ahead of the first Test against England in Hyderabad requires attention. “We look to play our cricket, and I am not interested in looking at how the opposition is going to play.”
Contrast this with what Ben Stokes said after the game. “I'm a great observer of the game. I learned a lot from our first innings in the field. I watched a lot of how the Indian spinners operate in the field and the fields that Rohit set. So, I tried to take a lot of that into our innings here when we obviously had to bowl them out.”
In what is an opaque system by design, the roles and responsibilities at every level of team management are unclear. In an ideal world, the coaching staff should have a say in the selection process and also in listing out a well-defined player pool across formats, especially when there is centralisation of the leadership group (coach and captain) right now. But, given that the selection committee has historically borne the brunt of non-performance, let’s assume the leadership group has no say here.
Indian cricket is at a stage where players are so well-off that they carry their personal physios and cooks to tours. Most, if not all, have personal coaches. More power to them. But that means if Shubman Gill wants assistance on his struggles with left-arm spin or Shreyas Iyer to his short ball woes (which he persistently denies), they will be far more comfortable reaching out to the men who have seen them evolve over time.
Head coaches have gone on record saying that assisting players with techniques is not what they are in for at this level. So that is one more responsibility out of the window.
That leaves the leadership group with two clear objectives: 1) Maintaining positivity within the team by giving players a sense of security, and 2) Defining clear strategies for tournaments and formulating tactics for phases of play.
While #1 is tricky, given it is often a factor of results and it is impossible to keep everyone happy anyway, it is difficult to fathom how #2 is possible without looking at the opposition.
The best football managers are the ones who have defined plans based on the team they are facing. Despite being resourceful, Pep Guardiola will not be who he is if he doesn’t have counters to the formations and substitutions his opponents are going to present on the day. Djokovic and Nadal would not have overtaken Federer had they not realised long back to keep the ball away from his impenetrable forehand as much as possible.
How can any tactic ever be designed in any sport where everyone competing takes the field simultaneously without looking at the opposition?
The most glorious achievement by an Indian team in the last decade was on the back of some ingenious bowling plans and corresponding fielding positions during the Border Gavaskar Trophy 2020-21.
Instead of being bullish about not looking at the opposition, shouldn’t the leadership group think of it as their primary job? If the inward-looking mantra they are swearing by is indeed the truth, isn’t it hurting the team more than doing any good?
If this leadership group looked at the opposition, it would not have taken them two days into the WTC final to realise that Travis Head struggles on the short ball. Or that England players have gone on record saying that they are gonna sweep the living daylight out of Indian spinners.
This doesn’t mean that there are no plans at all for the opposition when India take the field. For all the chokes on the big day, India have still been ruthless now and again. But there has been a clear lack of Plan B.
The lack of Plan B was on display when the bowlers and the captain were waiting for a false shot while Ollie Pope kept sweeping on day four in Hyderabad. Lack of Plan B was on display when an out-of-form Marnus Labuschagne milked Indian bowlers for singles in the World Cup final. The players were so switched off during the Pope masterclass that chances were shelved. Even England’s numbers eight and nine feasted on deer stuck in headlight.
The lack of Plan B is essentially why Head twice, Aiden Markram in December, and Pope have now played once-in-a-lifetime kind of knocks against India in the last few months. Not looking at the opposition can also be a factor of players not wanting to trust analysts and being averse to data. Ask any team analyst, and they will tell you they are the first to lose their jobs and the last to be credited.
Getting out of the comfort zone has never been an Indian cricket thing. Adoption of anything new has perennially been the slowest here. It is thus when England and Australia have marched forward in the past decade using data and technology to their advantage, Indian cricket has been third on achievements in what, for all practical purposes, is a three-horse race.
It is one thing to appear confident in media interactions. It’s completely different to be bullish towards a philosophy that has failed far too often. One doesn’t need data to infer that if something has not worked at a crucial stage for a while now, it will certainly not work in the future as well.
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