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What's with India's don't-win-but-don't-lose attitude?

The country's cricket, at all levels, is suffering because of players' reluctance to challenge themselves

Harsha Bhogle

February 15, 2013

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MS Dhoni collects yet another series trophy, West Indies v India, 3rd Test, Dominica, 5th day, July 10, 2011
By agreeing to a draw in Dominica, India gave up their first chance of winning two Tests in a series in West Indies © AFP
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As I watched the last day of the Irani Cup unfold, completely inconsequential, and devoid of a challenge, I wondered what it is about our cricket system that encourages so many teams to play safe, to believe that getting the first-innings lead is all that matters. It bothered me - and I hope it bothers a lot of people - that a higher sporting goal, that of winning the game outright, seems to be so low down the priority of most teams.

Among the many responses I got on Twitter when I posed the question why, one came from Anand Halve, among India's foremost marketing analysts. "Do you think 'It's ok if you don't win but don't lose' is a reflection of a national mindset that goes beyond cricket?" he asked, and being the analytical sort, promptly followed it with another: "The Minimax vs Maximin criterion as a motto for living?"

The definition of Minimax in game theory, simplified, is (courtesy Wikipedia): "… each player minimises the maximum payoff possible for the other - since the game is zero-sum, he also minimises his own maximum loss (i.e. maximises his minimum payoff)."

At the start of day five of the Irani Cup, Rest of India were 413 ahead with 90 overs left in the match. Remember, it was a last-day pitch, and except on day one, a run rate of four an over hadn't been reached. You would have thought 4.5 runs per over would have been not only a safe enough challenge but also one that would have given their bowlers the best opportunity to take ten wickets. Instead, they batted on and set Mumbai 517 from a maximum of 67 overs.

When I asked Harbhajan Singh, the Rest of India captain, if he had contemplated a declaration overnight, he suggested that on a track like that, they didn't want to offer the opposition a chance. He was minimising the maximum payoff possible for the opposition (to win the game by chasing 413 on the last day) but also maximising his minimum payoff (to win on first-innings lead). In this case, aiming for his maximum payoff, winning outright, would have been excellent for cricket, would have given his bowlers something to play for on the last day, and would have thrown the gauntlet down for the Mumbai batsmen, who would have had no choice but to go for the target, since otherwise they had lost the game on first-innings lead.

And so we had another day of low-pressure, low-challenge cricket, which, as it turns out, is ingrained in India's domestic structure. The idea of challenging yourself to discover how good you can be is unfortunately considered outdated, unfashionable or just stupid. Which is such a pity.

To go back to Halve's question: is this a national trait, to effectively do just enough to get a favourable but sub-optimal result? And is this reluctance to take pressure reflected in a fragility that is manifest when pressure is inevitable? It is for the social scientists to examine whether this is a national trait, but on the evidence of a little bit of research, I have to conclude that it is an overwhelming feature of Indian cricket.

Let's start at the top and the now infamous Test in Dominica in 2011. India, leading the series 1-0, had to make 180 from 47 overs to win. Their worst-case scenario, a defeat, was remote. By the time they moved to a target of 86 from 15 overs, with seven wickets in hand, it had disappeared. India could either draw or win. They chose to draw rather than challenge themselves to win. The result was favourable (a series win) but sub-optimal (1-0 instead of 2-0). It suggested India didn't want to be pushed.

One level lower, we saw the mindset in the Irani Cup. Even more unfortunate was Mumbai's approach in their Ranji Trophy match against Gujarat. Needing 135 from a minimum of 41 overs to seal an outright win, Mumbai opted to dawdle to 65 for 1 from 27 overs, with opener Kaustubh Pawar scoring 15 not out from 88 balls. If you love bright, attacking cricket, you would have been particularly pained by the statement by the Mumbai coach: "It wasn't really going to matter eventually - whether we went for the target or not. The fact is, we have achieved the objective of qualifying." Mumbai allowed themselves to play dull, purposeless cricket instead of challenging themselves for a superior cause.

Go lower and at Under-16 level you have a similar attitude. It is inevitable, for youngsters to be looking at what senior cricketers do. Sample this from Mumbai v Jharkhand in the Vijay Merchant Trophy quarter-final. Mumbai made 360 and bowled Jharkhand out for 46. Facing a seemingly inevitable innings defeat, Jharkhand found themselves fielding again while Mumbai made 440 for 9, a lead of 754. They then left Jharkhand around 33 overs of batting. The moment Mumbai's lead went beyond 450 or 500, there was no competitive interest left in the match, and the only purpose was generating numbers - statistics that would look good on paper, batting averages. What you didn't get was a contest that would make those numbers relevant.

Worse still by batting on, you are looking at generating batting numbers rather than allowing bowlers to win the match in the fourth innings. By the time the bowlers are given their shot, there was no competitive element left in the game. How do you produce attacking bowlers who can win you a game in a 50-50 situation on the last day if they don't get the practice to do so? By minimising the maximum payoff possible for the opposition, teams, and therefore Indian cricket, lose out much more in the long run.

From time to time, the technical committee of the BCCI has tried to make winning outright more attractive than winning by merely achieving a first-innings lead, but committees cannot change mindsets that have been ingrained over generations. Till the mindset changes to one that rewards winning, India will have to live with batsman-dominated-but-largely-uncompetitive cricket.

Minimax might be a good concept in some business situations, even in some sports, but it is harming Indian cricket.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. He is currently contracted to the BCCI. His Twitter feed is here

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Posted by Prad81_viji84 on (February 18, 2013, 8:45 GMT)

points should be given based number of wickets taken by a team and runs scored against overs faced. Will help all departments to get better. Just an idea!! Take vote on these ideas!!

Posted by Shan156 on (February 16, 2013, 23:10 GMT)

@Cpt.Meanster, ok that is an excuse that you have been using for quite some time - that India don't do well in tests because they don't like it. I suppose if and when India beat Austraila in the test series to follow, you will change your stand. But, let's not go there now. You say that India are brilliant in ODIs and T20s because they love it. We have seen that brilliance in India surely against England even though they only won 3-2 and not 5-0 as many like you predicted. They also lost an ODI series just before that to Pakistan. And, that brilliance was nowhere to be seen when they toured Eng. Of course, it may be too long before for you since you think that Ind. smashed Eng. in the T20s also and that happened just 2 months back. The T20 series was drawn 1-1. How is that smashing? Only you could explain.

Posted by Cpt.Meanster on (February 16, 2013, 19:35 GMT)

@Nutcutlet: So here we go again friend. You and I are DIFFERENT. So why wouldn't you accept that there are critics of test cricket such as myself in the world ? Is it fear that stops you from doing so ? OR, plain ignorance to acknowledge a large group of people who will ultimately shape the future of cricket. Speaking of India's position in world cricket, I don't think anybody has the rights to determine that other than the BCCI and the Indian players themselves. It's very simple, India don't do well in tests and they don't like it. They are brilliant in ODIs and T20s and they love it. They smashed England recently to prove it so that isn't bad eh ? Besides, please do not insult Bangladesh cause they have some degree of pride too. In fact they would have done well against India compared to the boys from good ol' England who simply don't deserve to play ODI cricket. So you see, everyone has their preferences, there are no written rules with regards to liking a certain format.

Posted by   on (February 16, 2013, 18:18 GMT)

The system could be tweaked such that a team cannot bat for more than 225 overs putting both innings together. In addition to this a few more interesting rules will make sure the teams play good result oriented cricket.

Posted by   on (February 16, 2013, 18:08 GMT)

May be the system could be tweaked such that in the first innings a team is not allowed to bat for more than 135 overs. Let there be an upper limit in test cricket. and no more than 90 overs in the second innings. This will make sure a result always is there.

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Harsha Bhogle Harsha Bhogle is one of the world's leading cricket commentators. Starting off as a chemical engineer and going on to work in advertising before moving into television, he is also a writer, quiz host, television presenter and talk-show host, and a corporate motivational speaker. He was voted Cricinfo readers' "favourite cricket commentator" in a poll in 2008, and one of his proudest possessions is a photograph of a group of spectators in Pakistan holding a banner that said "Harsha Bhogle Fan Club". He has commentated on nearly 100 Tests and more than 400 ODIs.

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