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In a sense, Rohit's talent has even superseded the intangible yet highly consequential yardstick of form, the lack of which is often responsible for a player being dropped from a team.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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • shan on February 22, 2013, 19:10 GMT

    Good analysis Akash. Talent & discipline of mind are the two things which makes players in any sport to stand out & become consistent. Rohit Sharma may have talent but no mind discipline in my assessment and that goes for the likes of Kambli, Gower and few others. Flair alone does not make them special but we as a spectator heavily influenced by sports writers who generally follow a safe path. So we tend to jump on the bandwagon of hero worship on say Tendulkar ( in his case he deserved it for up to a point) who had flair as well as other qualities & fail to recognise the likes of as you put it Dravid & Kumble who may not have had flair. Indian cricket has a lot of talented cricketers but by the nature of selection, poilitics & influence, not all of them get noticed.

  • Dummy4 on February 22, 2013, 19:09 GMT

    Labelling Dravid and Kumble lesser talented, and thus lesser hailed, is typical of Indian Psyche. Just consider the respect of Kumble and Dravid overseas, particularly in Australia, England and South Africa, One will come to know that they were at least equally respected vis a vis Tendulkar. These two players have been more match winner and saver than Tendulkar. As for Rohit Sharma, He will remain an enigma for ordinary people like us. In the name of talent he has played more than 90 one day matches and we have been waiting for glimpse of talent in terms of results. To me, his talent is more a hype than substance.

  • beverly on February 22, 2013, 12:53 GMT

    Yes, Tendulkar is a very talented cricketer but as Dhoni said, Rohit is among the 'gifted'. The difference between the talented and the gifted is that the talented has to still work hard to maintain success. But the gifted with or without practice, usually does what the talented does with equal success and often supersedes the ability of the talented. Example, the talented Sachin Tendulkar usually has to go through a daily net routine to hit 300 balls within an hour, or a 1000 balls a day to prepare for his next match - that's how feels confident; but, Gary Sobers hardly practised but out performed everybody when it was his turn at the wicket. Brian Lara is also from the same mold - he would come straight from a Bacardy and Rum party over night and without effort, score 300 runs the next day. Viv Richards often broke curfews and went out to enjoy himself over night, but destroyed any attack next day. The Don, enough said. Rohit is like Carl Hooper; they are gifted but not committed

  • Dummy4 on February 21, 2013, 19:18 GMT

    Anil Kumble was certainly the best spinner and most consistent match winner for India . he could run through tail enders with his variations . India had started winning outside India when he was at his peak and later stages of his career . at this point of time India lacks a quality spinner like him ,, even Ojha is way too average compared to him and Ashwin , Harbhajan dont even count.

  • sabarinath on February 21, 2013, 18:33 GMT

    The below lines is the most candid analytical view that we have had in some time now.. "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 "

    But i felt Aakash had to ramble a lot about Tendulkar work ethics and talent, before hitting the bulls eye with the above point, in order to appease crazy Tendulkar fans, the ones of who do not understand the analysis and roll their sleeves and are ever ready to pick up a fight if some one they think is discrediting the master.

  • Nathan on February 21, 2013, 17:42 GMT

    Akash, as you have playing the Ranji leagues, may I request you to spell out the names of about 15-20 players that you want to identify as Hard Working, Dedicated, Judicious, even though they may have some hidden TALENT (whatever it means) and willing to work on it. If 50% of the players that you identify are going to define TEAM INDIA in the next 2-3 years, that will be a major morale BOOSTER to the identified players ... GO FOR IT and HOPE YOUR PREDICTIONS COME TRUE ...

  • Dummy4 on February 21, 2013, 15:00 GMT

    Akash..you stuck the right chord....when can you become selector.... Staying persistently consistent precedes any talent. My view - saying someone talented is insulting his hardwork which he did pursuing his dream .

  • Milind on February 21, 2013, 14:57 GMT

    A very odd post from an otherwise insightful writer. By what stretch of the imagination would you not call Dravid and Kumble 'talented'. Not flamboyant (ala Sehwag) perhaps, or outrageously charismatic and brilliant (ala Sachin) but surely India's greatest ever match winner (Kumble) and it's one of its two greatest players of fast bowling (Dravid) surely qualify as talented?

    Perhaps what Aakash means is that in the current era of T20 madness Indian selectors should not base their decisions on the ability of players to pull in the crowds, and they should calmly assess the ability to deliver, and not just the manner in which the delivery is made.

  • Cricker on February 21, 2013, 14:31 GMT

    I clearly remember one Hard working Specialist Opener who was successful when given chances was AXED just for INCLUDING a SPECIAL GIFTED player who is neither opener or good middle order player. Akash Chopra the Vitcim and Yuvraj the Gifted one. After that Akash never had a chance to.play for India again!

  • Dummy4 on February 21, 2013, 12:45 GMT

    YOU are SPOT ON AKASH: Your last paragraph just synonymous to what is happenning currently in INDIAN team: Dhoni was time and again giving opportunities to ROHIT who seems to be the BEST TALENT but giving RAW deal to hard working players like TIWARI's, RAHANE's etc....what a mindless moves, ROHIT kept on failing match after match but still finds himself in playing XI and TIWARI inspite of smallest opportunity this guy is performing but still sits in the stands carrying drinks series after series, COMPLETELY UNFFAIR of DHONI & MANAGEMENT