February 20, 2013

You need the Kumbles and Dravids, not just the Tendulkars

How do we assess talent? And why do we persevere with players who we believe have special skills even when they don't display them consistently enough?

In a country of over a billion people, talent ought to be as common as table salt. Why fuss over it? Especially talent in cricket - synonymous with sport in India, and hence intensely followed and widely played.

Clearly, though, that isn't the case, for had talent been so common, India would have been churning out prodigies all the time, sitting secure as Test No. 1, and ruling the other ICC rankings tables for decades together. Perhaps that's why talented cricketers are so revered - and rightly so. Rohit Sharma finds himself in this hallowed club, protected and persisted with to fortify his "god-gifted talent", as MS Dhoni puts it.

In a sense, Rohit's talent has even superseded the intangible yet highly consequential yardstick of form, the lack of which is often responsible for a player being dropped from a team.

But isn't talent as intangible and indefinable as form? Talent means a special natural ability or aptitude, but who is to judge if that ability is special or everyday? Wouldn't the answer be highly subjective? Our judgement of talent is often based on preconceived notions of what constitutes it, and thus of who is "talented".

For instance, Sachin Tendulkar has been widely recognised as talented, but in comparison, but not many would say the same for Anil Kumble - at least they wouldn't say that he was talented in the same measure as Tendulkar. Does that make him less talented?

From the beginning Tendulkar displayed special skills to successfully deal with all kinds of challenges thrown at him. He could do things others couldn't. He always seemed to have enough time to play the fastest bowlers on the fastest pitches. He had more than one stroke for every delivery. His timing and balance were superior to those of his peers, and above all, he had the ability to keep the good balls out and punish the bad balls consistently.

He had more time because he could pick the ball a fraction earlier, which allowed him to get into the right positions before the ball arrived. He had more strokes because he had supreme control over his bat's movements, and the extra time he had made that possible. His timing was also a gift, for he always knew precisely when to bring the bat down at the desired speed and angles. His ability to keep the good balls out, though, was not natural but nurtured.

On the other hand, Kumble, who made his debut a year after Tendulkar, was first considered the antithesis of what a talented player should be. Unlike Tendulkar, who was marked as a "special talent", Kumble fought a constant battle to prove people wrong, for legspinners of his type were not supposed to succeed beyond a point. The preconceived notions about talented legspinners were to do with their natural ability to get loop, drift in the air and vicious turn off the surface. Kumble ticked none of these boxes, for his height and high-arm action didn't allow him to create loop, nor did he spin the ball off the surface. He relied on unbelievable accuracy and subtle variations to create deception.

In Kumble's or Dravid's case, not only did we fail to assess their talent fairly but we were also as quick to discredit it. What they possessed didn't match our understanding of talent

The jury could be divided on whether Kumble qualified as talented or whether his success was the result of sheer hard work. Even Rahul Dravid was rarely considered talented in his early days, for our notions about talented batsmen often have to do with flair and panache. The dogged approach to blunting an attack for sessions on end isn't what talent is all about - or so we are made to believe.

This is not about whether Rohit is talented or not. That, again, is a personal perception. The point I am making is simple - whether someone is permitted to or prohibited from making the cut shouldn't solely depend on our understanding of his talent, for our judgement of it could be skewed.

Tendulkar, the most gifted of cricketers, also became one of the most successful through hard work, not talent alone. An abundance of talent cannot automatically discipline the mind to be selective, which is a crucial quality.

While greatness can have a touch of predictability and boredom to it, because it can't be achieved without a little bit of self-denial, talent is seldom boring, because it allows you to do things others can't fathom.

Not only that, Tendulkar, with all his talent, needed to keep evolving as a batsman to remain one step ahead of the opposition. He wasn't the most technically correct player when he started out. He used to lean on his bat in his stance, which resulted in his head falling over and made him play across the line. He knew that to complement his talent and make the most of it, he needed to keep working on those little chinks in his game.

Over a period of time, the most talented batsman also became the most technically correct batsman. Talent put Tendulkar on the right path and his discipline took him to his destination.

The popular judgement of talent, in Tendulkar's case, was accurate, and fortunately he proved us right too. But in Kumble's or Dravid's case, not only did we fail to assess their talent fairly, we were also quick to discredit it. What they possessed didn't match our understanding of talent. They didn't have the flair (though they had the ability to concentrate for long hours). They didn't have two shots for the same ball, or a delivery that turned a lot, but they had the ability to be consistent in their approach. That is talent too.

I grew up with many cricketers who were considered far more talented than I was, but most of them didn't even get to first-class level, let alone don the India colours. You might be justified in giving more opportunities to players at the junior level who are perceived to be talented, but we must acknowledge that talent doesn't always translate into success and that our understanding of talent can be slightly warped at times.

One may be tempted to give talented players a longer rope, but there's no guarantee that they'll turn out to be successes. Vinod Kambli, at one time, was considered more talented than Tendulkar.

It's imperative to ensure, especially in a team sport, that players who are considered less talented aren't given a rough deal in order to promote a talented player. It's tempting to find another Tendulkar, but that shouldn't mean that the Dravids and Kumbles aren't given a fair run.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here