October 30, 2013

What does good team culture consist of?

Team spirit is defined not by words but by deeds, although these might not be obvious. And the advent of the T20 mercenary has complicated things somewhat

"Aura", "class", "x-factor": all names we give to the special individual performance or distinctive sporting team, to capture an essence we struggle to put our finger on, yet that is unmistakably present. Lately they have been joined by a new vogue word, "culture", a sort of upwardly mobile, perhaps more professional, version of what would once have been called "team spirit". In cricket it aims to put a name to the community created by the members of a team that makes them hard to beat - although it is more often defined in the negative - a weakness identified as the outcome of a "poor culture". The word was used 15 times in the Argus review in the context of it being "poor" and needing to "improve".

What are the qualities of a "good" sporting team culture? In my experience, positive cultures have always been defined by the willingness of players to sacrifice their own personal pride, ego and attitude for the betterment of the greater team performance. It is understood that there will be conflicts between the interests of the individual and the collective, but also that in these cases there can only be one winner, and that a course once decided will be followed. Triumphs are shared; mistakes are met without blame but with an understanding that they will be rectified with no excuse offered. Talent and skill, of course, are still the non-negotiables. But outside of the most gifted teams, there will always be a need to extract more than the sum of the parts.

Not every sport places the same emphasis on inner cohesion. It's no fluke that it was football that produced the most famous counter to the cult of culture, the remark by Spurs' Steve Archibald that "team spirit is a chimera glimpsed in a moment of victory". It has been proven in multiple studies that the greatest determinate of success in the English Premier League is money. It is a game constructed around the excelling of individual genius, mainly because the currency of scoring is so high: a single flash of brilliance can change everything, and the souls most capable of these trade at extraordinary premiums.

It can, though, be argued that games might be won by such, but dynasties are built around men of the integrity and willingness of a Giggs or a Neville.

How different is cricket? What is good for the individual generally is good for the team. A double-hundred goes a long way to setting up a game. A destructive spell of bowling more so. But goals do diverge, often enough for it to matter. The term "pole hunting" is heard when bowlers search for wickets with miracle deliveries rather than serve the team end of persevering with patience and accuracy to complement the bowler from the other end.

A batsman knows when his partner is with him - it is in the eyes. Failures of concentration and/or of trust are poison to partnerships. Cricket is a long-duration sport - a large amount of time is spent uninvolved and inactive in the game. Behaviours during these periods count as well. That is not to say traits such as selfishness are not valued in good teams - it is just they are displayed as a hunger and desire for collective, not personal, glory.

Culture is also generally something that does not need to be articulated: it is a common bond of expectations and a set of standards that goes beyond what those who try to define it mount on the dressing-room wall before a season starts. It is defined not by words but by deeds, although these might not be obvious. In his county diary, On and Off the Field, Ed Smith suggested that it stemmed from the unremembered acts of love and kindness. The "tap on the shoulder that says more than words, staying on at the bar when you are bored but one of your team-mates is down and lonely; not giving pub talk to players out of form; sitting on the balcony when you are out - not because you have been told to, but because you are sharing the journey of the guys out there."

It is a standard set by senior players. Ricky Ponting would throw balls for hours at a time to the fringe players in the Tasmania squad, because as a team "we would only be as good as our worst player". Mike Hussey went out of his way to ensure that the newest member of any team he played in felt immediately comfortable - partly because he remembered the opposite treatment as a young cricketer. Both trained harder, like men possessed, although never to the detriment of anyone else's preparation. Maybe with the proliferation of support staff, players have become less self-reliant or accountable for helping each other. There has become a lessening of the general sense of the common weal.

Dan Marsh, former captain and now coach of the Tasmania team, passed on to George Bailey a sage piece of advice: "Captaincy starts, not finishes, at 6pm"

The buck stops with the captain. Dan Marsh, former captain and now coach of the Tasmania team, passed on to George Bailey a sage piece of advice: "Captaincy starts, not finishes, at 6pm." Tossing a coin and setting fields are the easy bit. Setting standards through behaviour, empowering and caring for your players, takes time and energy. I still remember a conversation Michael Clarke had with me before one of my more successful Test innings. He told me to trust my defence as he had not seen many better. He didn't care if I batted all day for 50 because it was what the team needed. It was a timely and uplifting moment.

I have played in teams with poor cultures. Players concerned more for their own averages and career trajectories than winning. Players turning up hungover when their game was over. Batsmen showing little interest in fielding - the only skill in cricket actually performed as a team. Michael Bevan once said that fielding was the best indicator of a team's sense of mutuality, because it is something done for one another without (much) statistical recognition. In a team that fields well, players are usually pulling for one another.

So what to make of the supposed cultural malaise in Australian cricket? It is important to note that the only people who are in the know and are able to gauge the culture of a team are those inside the dressing room. Only they are aware of those players who really care. I have played with innumerable lesser-known, unfashionable players who have lived and breathed "the team" and been vital cogs in the team's functioning wheel. Their contributions could not have been guessed at by onlookers.

There is, however, a bigger issue at play currently in Australian cricket and perhaps cricket in general. One is money, the other is mobility of labour. As with the EPL, and as now seen in cricket through the IPL, a new dynamic for teams is individual earning power. Previously contracts were fairly flat and match payments even - the team was an easy buy-in. Now it is a harder sell. To some, winning has been made less important. Players are also not spending the time they used to with the same team.

Historically cricket tours were the breeding ground for "team spirit". Now, with condensed tours and different formats, for which players fly in and out, there is little time for the emergence of mutual reliance; instead tours can be times where problems emerge. At any one time, a player can be an active member of five or six teams across three formats around the world. It takes a certain character to want to contribute to the betterment of all those teams. Others are happy to take their money and keep moving. The pay cheque secures their obedience, but no more.

Ed Cowan is a top-order batsman with Tasmania and Australia, and the author of In the Firing Line