February 15, 2013

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

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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