How a leader can be blinded by a coterie: A lesson from Indian cricket
It's a familiar scene in the corporate world: A boss gets cosy with a set of familiar faces, and others find it hard to break into the inner circle. This proves counter-productive before long. The coterie around the boss land plum positions, the potential of talented newcomers is undervalued, and ultimately the atmosphere in an organisation gets vitiated.
It may be too early to conclude that something similar is happening in the Indian cricket team, but there are telltale signs. Consider the treatment of Stuart Binny, who broke into the Indian ODI team for New Zealand on the back of impressive performances in the Ranji Trophy and IPL. A medium pace all-rounder like him would have fancied his chances on seam-friendly wickets, following his exploits for Rajasthan Royals. The Indian captain, MS Dhoni, himself had more than once bemoaned India's lack of a seam bowling all-rounder. The inclusion of Binny for the tour thus seemed like a good move by the selectors to experiment with new combinations ahead of next year's World Cup to be played in Australia and New Zealand.
Domestic performances, IPL exploits and the selectors' nod mean little, however, if the captain has other ideas. Regardless of the drubbing in South Africa, and Ravichander Ashwin's ineffectiveness in the middle overs, Dhoni was obdurate about playing two spinners on Kiwi wickets.
After two losses and a tie, Binny finally got into the playing eleven for the fourth ODI, but only as a fielder, as it turned out. He was so low down in the order that he got no batting. When it came to bowling, he was given one over, in which he conceded 8 runs, before being consigned to the outfield. Dhoni must have seen something he didn't like in that one over, because Binny was dropped for the next game, which was the final ODI of the NZ tour.
India lost the series 4-0. Ashwin played all five games and picked a grand total of one wicket. And Dhoni praised the Kiwi batsmen for cleverly keeping their wickets intact in the middle overs for a blast in the end. One would have thought the connection between Ashwin's lack of penetration and the Kiwi batting success was obvious, but apparently it wasn't to Dhoni.
The Indian captain blasted India's seamers for not using their heads in the slog overs, glossing over the fact that New Zealand were always getting into the slog with seven or eight wickets in hand. Sure, Shami Mohammed and Bhuvaneshwar Kumar are inexperienced, but better bowlers than them would be hard put to contain a team if no wicket-taking pressure is applied in the middle overs.
It's in the middle overs that India lost the plot in New Zealand, and Dhoni admitted as much after the ODI series. Why then did he persist with his Chennai Superkings team-mates Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, instead of having a go at the Kiwi middle order with the seam bowling of Binny, who took 11 wickets in 6 domestic matches right before the tour? Why not at least try another spinner when India were getting roundly beaten in match after match? Leg-spinner Amit Mishra, another top performer in the IPL, sat out the entire tour on the reserve benches.
Dhoni deserves the benefit of the doubt, given his success rate as captain of India. Perhaps it was miscalculation and misplaced faith, more than cronyism and the Chennai connection. But, it would be a great pity if Indian cricket goes down the path it has so many times in the past - when a coterie so blinded a captain that he could not see all the talent available to him or the best ways to achieve his goal.
A team leader anywhere, in cricket or in business, must understand the pitfalls of getting sucked into a coterie. Often, it's the talent outside the coterie that could help the leader succeed, but the boss is too insulated or too stubborn to see that - until it's too late.