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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Pradhap 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!!

  • Shanmugam 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.

  • Jay 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.

  • Dummy4 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.

  • Dummy4 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.

  • Dummy4 on February 16, 2013, 17:37 GMT

    it was appalling to see the best bowler of this ranji season bowling at speed between 120 and 127 km.the problem is the casualness with which we approach the issues around us. country cricket has more been like a formality than a serious event.see how pattinson or starc or faulkner haved quikly filled the void in australian fast bowling deparment if there was any.playing it safe may not be a bad strategy altogether but excellence has to be the watchword for those who administer and those who get administered.

  • Ashok on February 16, 2013, 16:33 GMT

    @spinkingKK:Agree, Leadership is the driving force in Teams' attitude. Kapil & Shastri had lot of gumption to lead by example. In addition,a Captain needs a United, balanced team of best available Players. A good example of leader is Captain Cook of England who bent backwards to get KP into the side & united him in XI, after a huge rift with some players. Compare this with an inflexible Dhoni who managed to split the team into 2 camps on the OZ tour. Dhoni also lost respect of some via consistent benching of players like Rahul Sharma, Rahane, Pujara & Tiwary. How can the same players + Sehwag respect & give 100% effort under MSD's captaincy? Winning attitude is developed by the captain + 10 other in-form players who earned their spot on performance. Such a XI will be confident in themselves & in the team, being the best available. I would suggest eliminate "Politics" to achieve this first before we talk of winning.All theories are great but they do not always translate into results.

  • Tushar on February 16, 2013, 14:39 GMT

    @Debdip Your suggestion will lead to all 4 innings being played and more results, but I think the problem we need to address is that bowlers also try to take wickets. We need bowlers in our national team who can take 20 wickets. Limit on number of runs or max runs will not help that cause. First innings lead should not be incentivised with so many points. Making the final timeless might be another way. Players need to win the match outright. They won't get a win by lead in the first innings only.

    We can only make some suggestions. BCCI need to look at past records, format which have worked in other domestic circuits and come up with a sophisticated system.

  • ian on February 16, 2013, 13:30 GMT

    @Sir.Ivor: Thank you for your kind words. I do look forward to India's resurrection in Test cricket terms but I sense that there isn't the genuine commitment in the places that count. Capt MSD has enthusiasm for ODI & t20 formats, but has frankly admitted that he finds Tests ( 'Days cricket', he calls it) a burden; it's something which doesn't chime with his outlook or disposition. He is a poor Test capt, whilst being v good elsewhere. And as there are rich pickings to be had from the IPL, it's human nature to feel that TC doesn't bring comparative rewards, in financial terms. It's a pity that the only reward that seems to mean anything is $$$ to a lot of cricketers. One can have too much & greed does kick in. If only the bigger picture was appreciated! And then there is the ambivalence of the BCCI who have an unhappy knack of failing to communicate any sense of direction for Indian cricket beyond IPL & anti DRS. They do not offer the leadership India requires, IMO. Kohli capt? Yes!

  • KISH on February 16, 2013, 13:24 GMT

    can some one time-travel and make Ravi Shastri as the Indian captain instead of Mohammed Azharuddin? That would have changed the culutre of the Indian cricket forever. Shastri had the same fearlessness as Kapildev and always competed with tooth and nail and played the sport sportively than just for gains. If your opposition team is good enough to chase down a huge target with the bowlers you got, they deserve to win. After all, win and loss is part of the game. I remember in one of the olympics games, India's hockey captian Dhanraj Pillay, saying that they wanted a win against Poland to qualify for the semi's. They socred one goal and held on for that lead unitl the last minute before Poland equalized with a late goal and broke their hearts. All they had to do was to play the game sportively and let the best team win. India was the best team and they would have won. but, they played it safe and ended up losing. We are not sportive!