How Dhoni succeeds by staying out of the herd


In our endeavour to constantly open your mind to new, new possibilities, YourStory presents a series of articles by Sumit Chakraberty exploring game strategies that would be just as clinching in business. 

Leadership and collaboration, gameplans and tactics have many parallels between sports and business. Looking at a game from a strategic perspective, therefore, can lead to moments of serendipity - 'Aha, maybe that's exactly what my business needs.' At the very least, it can remind us to be alive to new ideas and new ways of doing things. And the icing on the cake - a jolly good read about a game or a sportsman...

The first article in the series shows the value of not being stuck to doing something just because that's how it has always been done in the past. In other words, to stand outside the herd - not for the sake of it, but because the data at hand shows that the old way is not producing the desired results...

To win the toss and bowl first is not the done thing in Test cricket, especially in India. That the Indian captain chose to do that at the Wankhede with great success wasn't a fluke. Here's why.

At lunch on the first day of Sachin Tendulkar's final Test match at the Wankhede, India's most successful captain MS Dhoni was catching some flak from an old stalwart, Rahul Dravid. Part of a high profile commentary team for this marquee event, Dravid was critical of Dhoni's decision to bowl first on winning the toss.

The Mumbai crowd had let out a sigh of disappointment because they would have to wait for 12 wickets to fall before their hometown hero would walk out to bat for the last time. But that wasn't the reason for Dravid's disapproval.

The old adage has been to win the toss and bat first. The reason is simple: the wear and tear on the pitch over the course of a five-day Test makes it prudent to get out there and bat before divots and dusty patches appear and the ball starts misbehaving. There are exceptions, like when you encounter a green top on which the ball seams off the grass. But even on a fairly grassy wicket, which is liveliest on Day One before it gets baked in the sun, old pros would hesitate to give up the advantage of batting first. As the Aussie legend Ian Chappell has advised captains more than once: When you win the toss, “nine times out of ten you bat first; the tenth time you think about it and still bat first”.

In India, it has been even more of a no-brainer to choose batting, given the chance. Green tops are rare, and the formula is to bat first and pile on the runs, then let the spinners exploit the roughened up surface.

Given this background, it’s understandable that old-timers like Dravid look askance when a captain deviates from this seemingly failsafe formula. Dravid himself once did it and paid the price – India got thrashed by England at the Wankhede in 2006 after Dravid chose to bowl first on a seamer-friendly green wicket.

And now, here he was in circa 2013 as a commentator, feeling that the West Indies had got the better end of the deal on the first morning, having been invited to bat first on a wicket that wasn’t even all that green. At the lunch time score of 97 for 2, they appeared to be sitting pretty, having seen off the new ball and whatever early help there was for the seamers.

By conventional wisdom, Dhoni had made a mistake. When you win the toss and bowl first, you are expected to take a clutch of three or four wickets with the new ball to compensate for the disadvantage of batting last. And that hadn’t happened.

What Dravid hadn’t paid a mind to, however, was data on the Test matches played in India during the previous five years. Out of 26 Test matches before the Wankhede game, only five had been won by the team batting first. Six games were drawn, and as many as 15 out of the remaining 20 Tests favoured the team batting second.

In a lot of these matches, batting got easier as the match progressed - which is the opposite of how it used to be. The pattern can be traced back to when the pitches began to be relaid with a more clay-based soil, and a new variety of grass. The idea was to provide better binding to ensure matches didn't end prematurely. After that, the pitch hardly ever crumbled, however dry and dusty it appeared by the fourth or fifth day. In fact, it became harder to prise a batsman out once the moisture went out of the wicket, because the pitch would get so slow.

Nothing is so predictable, of course, in cricket or in business, but if three-quarters of the results were going in favour of the team batting second over a period of five years, there had to be something in it. Dhoni himself had won the toss and batted first against England at the Wankhede in November 2012, and lost. The Indian captain has a memory like an elephant and wasn’t going to get caught out again. This time when he won the toss, he put the Windies in to bat, even if that went counter to the expert opinion of all the ex-cricketers and commentators assembled there for this special Test, and at the cost of disappointing the Mumbai crowd that had turned up to watch Sachin Tendulkar bat in his last Test.

That's something to keep in mind the next time you want to turn a practice on its head because you have solid data to show that it's not working. Don't get put off by the doubters and naysayers.

Back at the Wankhede, batting was easy enough to begin with, but it soon became apparent that there was sharp turn and bounce for the spinners. The West Indies collapsed after lunch, and by the time it was India's turn to bat, the pitch got slower and lower, taking away some of the bite from the crafty rival off-spinner Shane Shillingford.

This was a reversal of what had happened the previous year when Dhoni chose to bat first against England. And that is what makes him such a successful captain. He constantly learns from setbacks. More importantly, he has the strength of mind to resist following the herd blindly. Conditioned by decades of one pattern of play, few cricketers and observers of the game are able to see that the pattern has changed, and then to act on that insight.

You might say we are reading too much into a one-sided series against a weak team. That's true to an extent, but this new pattern stretches all the way back to 2008. Besides, the West Indies were not quite the pushovers they were made to appear; they won six Tests in a row before arriving in India, and some of their players have been the top performers in the IPL. If Chris Gayle had got in on an easy wicket, anything could have happened. But they got no quarter from the Indian captain at the Wankhede, and when the West Indies captain Darren Sammy won the toss in Kolkata, what did he do? He chose to bat first and got beaten roundly.

Why did Dhoni do the opposite and let his bowlers have first use of the wicket? Was it because he had seen the data, applied his mind to it, and had the gumption to stand outside the herd? Or is he just a lucky captain as ex-cricketers like to say? Let's hope for the sake of Indian cricket that it's the former, because who knows, the wind may change again, and the man at the helm may have to set a new course.


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