'Cricket should not shy away from technological change throwing up new challenges'

Microsoft CEO and cricket fan Satya Nadella talks about growing up with cricket in his life, and the future of the game

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
In an age of corporate jargon, baseball is the boardroom king, with "curveballs" and "ballpark figures" flying in from "left-field" in business meetings the world over. But for the man in the hot seat of one of the most iconic US corporations of them all, a whole different ball game has always held sway.
"Cricket for most of us South Asians is an obsession," says Satya Nadella, the Hyderabad-born CEO of Microsoft, the third largest technology giant in the world according to the Forbes rankings. "I grew up with it, I played under some amazing captains, and ever since, I think, even in my day job, I reflect back on the lessons learned on the dusty fields of the Deccan Plateau."
Nadella's career trajectory epitomises the American Dream. As a child growing up in Andhra Pradesh, he was pushed hard academically by his civil-servant father, though not to the detriment of other interests - as demonstrated by the three posters he had up on his bedroom wall: the philosopher Karl Marx, the goddess Lakshmi… and the stylish Hyderabadi batsman ML Jaisimha, whose 39-Test record never quite lived up to the purity of his cover drive.
And so, after a childhood spent balancing a love of cricket and computers, Nadella emerged in 1988 as a well-rounded graduate (and 1st XI offspinner) from Hyderabad Public School, and went on to apply for a place at the University of Wisconsin to study electrical engineering. At the age of 21, he was embarking on a journey into the unknown.
"I went to the United States right when Sachin Tendulkar started to play for India so I look at it and say, wow, I missed the entire Sachin era of Indian cricket," he says of his sudden uprooting from the passion of his childhood. "But luckily enough, thanks to streaming, and video on demand, and sites like Cricinfo, I was able to follow his career. It was as if I was in India all through. I guess that's the power of modern technology."
One of the key things that makes people tick is confidence in themselves, and you don't want to break that unnecessarily
And now, here he is at Lord's - on the face of it, an incongruous setting for the launch of his autobiography Hit Refresh, the story of how he rose through the ranks at Microsoft after joining the corporation in 1992, before, 22 years later, taking over the reins of a four-decade-old behemoth and setting it on a course to challenge once again the mobile-era sheriffs of Apple and Google.
But from the moment he is welcomed on stage with perhaps the most niche in-joke that has ever been uttered in a crowded room ("Please put your hands together for the only person in Silicon Valley who doesn't think a 'googly' is someone who works in Mountain View") to his referencing, later that same evening, of Don Bradman's average in answer to a particularly stiff question on BBC's Newsnight, it is clear that Nadella considers the sport of his heritage to be a vital frame of reference in an extraordinarily successful career.
"Sport is one place where I've realised you are, in fact, much more hardcore, and willing to drop anyone who's not in form," he says of his leadership style. "But also, you've got to know when to persist in that very crucial time, when it could make all the difference. It's fascinating to watch that. It's like trying to find a new No. 4 batsman - if you don't give someone a long enough run, they'll never make it. Or a spinner, who I have a lot of sympathy with - just because one batsman hits you for a couple of sixes, that means nothing. You've got to get them back."
Three life lessons in particular emerged directly from Nadella's days on the cricket field. First was the importance of competing at all times, no matter how daunting the opposition may be - something that was drummed into him by his PE teacher during a schools match where he and his team-mates had allowed themselves to be intimidated by the strokeplay of a visiting Australian batsman. "You play to compete!" he says. "You must always have respect for your competitor, but don't be in awe."
Then, in another match, Nadella looked on helplessly as a talented but self-destructive fast bowler dropped a catch on purpose to make a petty point about the captain's tactics. "Our heads all went down in that moment," he said. Individual brilliance - while vital for success - means nothing unless coupled to an overarching team ethic.
And, as for the third indelible lesson, that one relates to Nadella's own bowling.
"One day I was really struggling, bowling trash, being hit all over the park. So my captain, who could also bowl offspin, replaced me, took the wicket, then gave me the ball back," he says.
"I always wondered why he did that, because I went on to get a bunch of wickets in that match. I feel he did it because he didn't want to break my confidence, and I thought 'What an enlightened leader.' I think that's true for any of us who lead organisations. We all have to make big calls, but you have to have that sensibility. One of the key things that makes people tick is confidence in themselves, and you don't want to break that unnecessarily."
Throughout our half-hour interview on a balcony overlooking the now deserted Lord's square, it's impossible to ignore the boyish delight that Nadella takes in his surroundings. This is his first ever visit to the grandest venue in the game, and he drinks in every detail - not least his fellow Hyderabadi Mohammad Azharuddin's place on the away dressing room's honours board. As for the chance not only to set foot on the hallowed turf but to bowl a few balls as well, he greets this with near incredulity. It seems that, even for the boss of an US$85 billion corporation, there are still some experiences that money cannot buy.
It is no exaggeration to say that much of that current valuation is attributable to Nadella himself, who is only the third CEO in Microsoft's history, after Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. The company's share price rose by 60% in his first 18 months in the job, and reached an all-time high in October 2016, thanks largely to his enlightened approach to cloud-based technology, and his faith in three particular pillars of technological advancement - Artificial Intelligence, Mixed Reality, and quantum computing.
Why any of this should be relevant to cricket is probably not immediately clear. But as Nadella himself points out: "If you look at any field - sport, healthcare, education, public sector, automobiles - every company in every industry is becoming a software company. Whenever I watch cricket games, all the people in the dressing room doing the analysis all have laptops, and so we want to supply the tech that drives their success. I think if there's anything you can be sure of, we will have more screens and more computers in our lives, not less."
If you look at any field - sport, healthcare, education, public sector, automobiles - every company in every industry is becoming a software company
This is not exactly a prospect that delights everyone with a vested interest in traditional sport - not least the parents of device-obsessed kids, who find it increasingly hard to persuade them to unplug for any length of time. For many such people, the rise of e-sports is regarded as the first sign of the apocalypse. And yet, Nadella's revealing (and gratifying) excitement at witnessing Lord's in the flesh lends credibility to his belief that a mixed-reality future will offer sport, quite literally, the best of both worlds.
"I play a lot of Bradman 360 on the XBox, and I'm looking forward to that game being a virtual reality game, which would be awesome to see," he says. "One of the phenomena we are seeing is that the ability to see something immersively, virtually in particular, gives you more of an impetus and inspiration to go and see it in physical reality.
"We should not think of these digital enhancements as a replacement to the actual thing. If anything, we should think of how does this help you perhaps engage more? What if I could lay down the Lord's pitch in my backyard and practise my straight drive, and maybe the next day actually come to Lord's? That would be fun."
That outlandish prospect may not be quite so far into the future as one might think. Earlier this month, Microsoft unveiled their latest move in that market - a mixed-reality headset, in partnership with Samsung, that Nadella believes in the long run will be an "amazing distribution vehicle for sport".
"The mixed-reality dream goes beyond being a gaming or commercial application," he says. "One of the things we've seen, in soccer mainly, but even in cricket to some degree, is that fan engagement is no longer limited to just the game. Real Madrid has some 500 million followers, which is the equivalent of the second biggest nation state in the world. And they are all using a lot of Microsoft technology to completely transform the fan experience way beyond the stadium.
"We want to make progress on it in such a way that, socially, wearing it untethered in a stadium, while watching the game with full fidelity, while having it augmented, would be, I think, a more natural thing than staring at your phone."
That sort of next-level technology remains a few years from being fully realised. And yet, a meeting with Cricket Australia in Melbourne last year underlined the extent to which sports analysts have taken the tools that companies such as Microsoft have already put at their disposal and run with them.
"I was pretty stunned to see their use of technology," says Nadella. "Take Steve Smith's record from when he was a schoolboy cricketer. Every match is digitised, so they now have a digital twin of Steve's career, which can then be used not only to improve his own performance but to identity the next Steve Smith.
"One of our guys in India took a whole lot of video of Rahul Dravid, and he tells me that our AI can detect the transitions of his straight-drive technique changing, which is pretty amazing. The degree to which technology can now get used so broadly is exciting.
"We should not shy away from technology and technology change throwing up new challenges. One of the things that has made cricket such an enduring sport is the variability of it. The weather, the continents in which it is played, the change at any given time. If the opposition can analyse you, you have to be really on top of your game to improve, and what a challenge that would be. I'm sure Dravid would have enjoyed it."
Last year 300 million PCs were sold, compared to a billion smartphones. But guess what, PCs are the lifeblood of creativity. You can't create much on a phone - you do need large screens. Similarly, I hope that the world finds that they can really start thinking about cricket's three formats all being part of the viewer's experience
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nadella is a cricket traditionalist at heart. "I've always thought of Test cricket as the Russian novel, with its plots and subplots," he says. "It has such an intricate tapestry to it that the more people would watch it, the more in love they would be. I don't have the expertise to give ICC advice, but I hope they figure out how to get people to come back and watch it, because if we lose Test cricket, you'll have one less fan…"
But equally, Nadella insists he does not begrudge the success of T20, or the lessons that can be learnt from the past decade - and he should know, having lived through Microsoft's own "T20" moment in roughly the same time frame, when the explosion of mobile technology caught the company on the hop and paved the way for Apple to steal their crown as the world's most influential brand.
"The one thing that is constant for us as individuals or institutions, or even sport, is change," he says. "The key is not to rue having missed anything. The question is how are you going to catch the next wave? Here we are, 43 years after inception, the third largest tech company in the world, and competing with a whole load of new characters.
"To use the analogy of what has happened in our industry - last year 300 million PCs were sold, compared to a billion smartphones. But guess what? PCs are the lifeblood of creativity. You can't create much on a phone - you do need large screens. Similarly, I hope that the world finds that they can really start thinking about cricket's three formats all being part of the viewer's experience and the player's experience, as opposed to being divided into distinct markets."
Time is up in the busy schedule of one of the world's uber executives. It barely feels as though we've scratched the surface of what he'd like talk about in cricket terms, however - the possibilities for quantum computing in umpiring technology will have to wait another day. "Maybe this is something I should follow up," he says. "Maybe there's a huge opportunity for us to partner up with the ICC."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo @miller_cricket