April 23, 2013

Unravelling the unravelling

How to deal with the lows as a team

Screaming fans, smiling faces, high fives, effective analysis, the regularity of clockwork - even if there is the occasional blip. This is what teams and players strive for, and ultimately what fans expect from the teams they support. Nobody said it was easy and if they did, they have probably never played sport, definitely not IPL cricket.

The variables of our great game stack the odds of success against the player. The importance of a toss, the nature of a pitch, the decision of an umpire, and the occasional ability of a ball to move or straighten can define what sort of a day a cricketer has. The best batsman in the world will have far more bad days than good, and the lot of a bowler is all too well known. Barring the elite few who have mastered this game, it's a constant struggle to come out on top. One thing that separates the good from the exceptional is their ability to handle these cycles, when the good days become as common as blue moons.

The team performance cycle is even trickier to deal with and a sterner test of character than a player's handling of his personal performances. With self-reflection and dealing with lapses in personal form (despite the variables mentioned), the subject remains constant and you manage to find a way of dealing with the highs and lows. Each guy is personally responsible and accountable for the choices he makes out there. Conversely, the team's performance is the sum of individual efforts, of which over 90% is beyond your personal control. It is the captain and the coach who are responsible for channeling and directing the group's effort, but within the group opinions on selection, batting orders, decisions and tactics may vary. When things are going well this responsibility unfolds without notice (and everyone's opinions are implicitly in sync with the decision makers); when things don't go well it has the potential to be a poison.

When a team finds itself on the rocky road of form, the captain has to show his real worth and be the catalyst to turn things around. It is not easy, but with the congested schedule the focus needs to shift quickly on to what lies ahead. Behind closed changing-room doors, performance reviews have to be honest while ensuring players don't lose any self-belief. The group's belief in the ability of the team must also be maintained. Inconsistent performances are often best remedied by consistent preparation and processes. Gauti [Knight Riders' captain Gautam Gambhir] is insistent on maintaining the energy levels that underlie intensity. Apart from that everyone is reminded to trust their natural ability and instinct, and to keep trusting each other.

Despite the best efforts of the captain, the coaches and all the support staff, the real change in fortune can only come from the foot soldiers - the players. It is easy to point fingers, to question tactics, to withdraw from the team goals and responsibility, to spread the poison. It is also easy to blame the variables, to seek solace in past glories, to bag and bury the mistakes, and to look forward to the end of the campaign. The secret to turning things around is to stay positive, to trust the processes and most importantly to trust each other. The senior players need to be consistent in their behaviour to ensure that the group remains calm. Everyone needs to buy in to avoid splintering within the group.

This tournament still has a very long way to go. By our own high standards we are disappointed by the start we have had and our inability to capitalise on some very favourable positions in some matches. It is unhealthy to harp on the past, but it is useful to look back for guidance. Of course certain things have changed, but we have a blueprint to consult for processes and attitudes. Last year's campaign should also serve as a good source of confidence. The calm and belief has not wavered one bit and we are in the right frame of mind to turn things around. The satisfaction of arriving at a destination by route of the rocky road can be greater than that which is got out of taking the smooth road.

Ryan ten Doeschate is an allrounder for the Netherlands and for Kolkata Knight Riders in the IPL