May 4, 2012

Is CSK's reputation strangling them?

They seem a shadow of their former selves. Has fear of losing begun to tie them down?

Jonathan Wilson's very academic dissection, in the Guardian this week, of Barcelona and Pep Guardiola's decline is worthy of much analysis. This is a shortish article, so let's get into it straightaway.

First, let us not forget that Barcelona is a team that many still view as the greatest on the planet. They have won a couple of trophies this year, made the semi-final of the Champions League, and finished a very strong second in La Liga, in the eyes of some a league that produces the highest quality of football. Many managers, owners and fans would have celebrated it as a great year. But Barcelona cannot, for like Manchester United and Tendulkar and Federer they are condemned to be weighed in different scales. A second place for Valencia or Arsenal would be a moment to celebrate; for Barcelona or United, something to grieve over.

Wilson also quotes a Hungarian coach, Bela Guttman, as saying that the third year is fatal; that that is normally the span of a great team. It is arguable but it possibly applies to family businesses too. The patriarch struggles and sets up something from scratch, the next generation, which has seen strife, understands the value of what he has done and takes the business to new heights, and finally the third, unaware of adversity and the need to stay rooted and fight your way out of trouble, leads the decline. You see that in individual sport: the mystery bowler and the girl with the booming forehand surprise everyone initially, ride the wave in the second, and become predictable and one-dimensional in the third - unless they have learnt to re-invent themselves in the interim.

Often great teams are blinded by success. They make the mistake of thinking that success will continue to flow, and in doing so, ignore the reasons that produced success in the first place. The great West Indies team went into decline because that great generation had been built on discipline and rigour. In subsequent teams that was a matter of individual choice, not a team ethic. The men who mattered didn't worry about the back end, about the systems that would keep the supply line running. Maybe they began believing stories of their own invincibility, a state of mind that afflicts even the mightiest.

And now I see the Chennai Super Kings, by some distance the best team in the relatively short history of the IPL, two-time winners, past winners of the Champions League, wearing the same colours as they did in those years, showcasing the same personalities but playing like someone else. The team, and its captain, look lethargic, there is little joy on the field, they look like they are reading from a tired script. An old family doctor would have said: give them a dose of vitamins.

Why is this great team suddenly floundering? I wonder if, at the start of the season, they were consumed by their own invincibility. In the two years gone by, whenever a tense situation loomed, they knew (and often the opponents knew too) that someone would take them home. That Dhoni, one of the game's great finishers, would find a way if no one else did. But in great teams you need free spirits continuously challenging beliefs, arguing against the status quo. The current method might still be the best, but it must emerge as such after being challenged. Who challenges Dhoni, a player with a record that few can aspire to possess? Is that it? Or is he just tired?

Maybe their reputation is strangling them: the fact that if CSK win it is just another day, but if they lose it is an event. And so, are they scared of losing? I sense this in another outstanding team on paper, the Mumbai Indians, too; this great fear of losing. And so, as Wilson says, maybe there is a "negative self-immolation": the tension, the obsession with the result. Inevitably tense teams are defensive teams. Flair resides with its close companion, freedom. CSK look tense, MI look tense. Delhi Daredevils have bigger deficiencies but they seem not to obsess over them. Kings Xl and Rajasthan Royals don't have the firepower, but they have freedom and positivity. They are not strangled by reputation.

Great teams replenish with youth, for the young bring vigour and irreverence. They do not accept reputations; you have to prove your worth to them. When the mighty are on their toes, they are doubly dangerous. Maybe that is the lesson for all teams. Maybe that is what Alex Ferguson does so well, constantly injecting youth. Maybe at Barcelona the speeches, the words of inspiration, have lost their sting. Maybe another Guardiola is needed. And maybe at CSK a vibrant, positive challenge to authority will work.

It will be interesting to see because in their completely different worlds, in differently evolved leagues, these are great teams.

Harsha Bhogle is contracted to the IPL. He also commentates on other cricket, and is a television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here