Thursday, January 1, 2009

Is cricket a team sport?

There appears to be a serious dichotomy in modern-day cricket. Over the past few decades, top-level cricket has become a serious, professional team sport. The origins of this professionalization can probably be traced to the Kerry Packer led World Series Cricket, in the 1970s. Before that, in most cricket-playing countries barring England, the game was not a lucrative career alternative, even for Test players. The Packer revolution changed all that.

Now consider that there are probably a hundred million (more?) who play the game of cricket regularly. Of these, how many can be termed as professionals, i.e., those who earn a full-time living playing the game? Probably no more than a few thousand -- clearly, a minuscule minority of the players. Now that skewed ratio in itself doesn't imply a dichotomy in the game. Football (soccer) and basketball probably have similar ratios. But the dichotomy in the game of cricket arises from the different manner in which the game is played by amateurs vs. professionals. Perhaps a more accurate categorization would be recreational players vs. competitive players.

So what is this dichotomy I'm talking about? One way to think about it is, whether the players treat cricket as a team sport or an individual pursuit. At the professional level, as also in competitive leagues such as inter-office tournaments (like the Times Shield in Mumbai) or inter-club tournaments (like the Kanga League), cricket is clearly a team sport. It is generally played for the primary purpose of winning. If the players can enjoy themselves in the process, well and good. If not, too bad. They're getting paid for doing a job, after all. Now in order to achieve the goal of winning, the players must play as a team, with all the attendant sacrifices of the individual self to the team goal, etc.

Contrast this with recreational cricket, the kind that you and I play - or used to play, more accurately, in my case! - with the neighbourhood kids. The focus in such cricket is typically, squarely on the self! If I fancy myself as a batsman (most kids seem to), I would probably do my best to get the strike and keep it! If I'm a bowler, I would keep bowling for as long as the guys will let me. A bowler gets replaced when someone else really wants to bowl, not necessarily based on some tactical decision. In recreational cricket, you enjoy the game by virtue of doing what you like doing, not what the team happens to need at that stage.

Is this a bad thing? I don't think so. Certainly, it doesn't quite impart the lessons in life that kids need to learn. But hey, the recreational cricket field isn't necessarily the place for learning all of life's lessons. Those are better learned in competitive cricket (or any other sport, especially a team sport). If kids manage to have a good time playing the game in recreational mode rather than competitively, so be it.

Now I'm about to make an even stronger statement - cricket, in its basic form, is inherently more of an individualistic sport than a team sport! Fundamentally, the game pits ONE batsman against ONE bowler, at a time. A batsman succeeds almost purely due to his or her own ability to bat. Similarly a bowler succeeds by his ability to get the batsman out - although for several of the modes of dismissal, he does benefit from the presence of his teammates as fielders.

Consider the game from first principles. Bowlers bowls, batsman hits. Bowler aims to get the batsman out by hitting the stumps or inducing a catch. Batsman aims to score runs by hitting the ball as far from the pitch as he can, and running until the ball is thrown back. Fielders aim to stop the ball and throw it back towards the stumps, as quickly as possible. That's the basic game, with 'bowled', 'caught' and 'run out' being the fundamental modes of dismissal. Everything else is progressively derived from that foundation. For example, the LBW dismissal is necessary only to deal with the blatant use of the pads to avoid the 'bowled' dismissal. Most of the other dismissals, and Laws, have been layered on over time primarily for use in competitive cricket. Is 'timed out' ever necessary in recreational play, for example? Laws dealing with rolling the pitch, or using a new ball after 80 overs, etc. are only needed in the competitive game.

Now most competitive players start off in recreational mode as kids, like everyone else. They need to change their game, inculcate the team spirit, the winner's attitude, etc. along the way. The few that succeed in doing this, in addition to having natural talent of course, make it as professional cricketers. But somewhere deep down there is still the innate sense of playing an 'individual' game. That's why individual statistics and records are so integral to top-class cricket. That's why centuries and five-wicket hauls are given so much importance in judging a player's career. Cricket's sibling baseball is very similar in that respect - if anything, it's even more statistics-laden than cricket! Compare cricket and baseball with say, football or volleyball. The conclusion is obvious - some games are inherently, fundamentally, individualistic games even when played in a team setting. Others are inherently, fundamentally team games.

Perhaps we expect a bit too much team spirit of our international stars. Perhaps it's not quite right to declare on a batsman in the nineties (or 190s, as Sachin Tendulkar fans will doubtless point out!). Srinath did exactly the right thing by not attempting to get a wicket when Kumble had a ten-fer in sight. And Manoj Tiwari needs to be severely chastised for denying Badrinath a century, by deliberately bowling wides! Of course sometimes the individualistic streak can extend to selfishness - Boycott was accused of that, for example, especially when it came to running out his partners! But in most cases, I believe the quest for individual glory is acceptable because it's intrinsic to the game, and thus, usually contributes towards team goals anyway.


Harimohan said...

Hi Neeran,
Good stuff. In fact cricket in India was largely individualistic for most part even at the highest level apparently. I had this wonderful insight from someone who saw it up close Mr. Rajan Bala when I met him last. His book 'The covers are off' is a wonderful insight into how the game evolved since the second world war in India, the players and their individual streaks. Try and get a copy. You may have to order it, Rupa is the publisher, tell Crossword chaps, they will get it for you.
The team work angle has come into play only recently I feel, probably a function of the players realising that it is best for them. Classic case of wealth vs riches kind of a realisation. But its a topic that's close to my hear and one I can go on forever. Maybe I will write in more detail or we can chat when we meet but this whole idea of knowing what you can do best and doing it for the team is so wonderful. I loved watching Tendulkar in his early years but I simply admire the way he bats he says in the RBS ad...for the team. He plods, gets hit..but he ensures that we win. This time, my admiration for him is sealed.

Neeran Karnik said...

Hi Hari,

Thanks for the comments. Will try and get the book you mention - I haven't read it.

Tendulkar's commitment to the team is more obvious now, given how he's harnessing his diminished skills to the team's benefit. But even in the early days, he would play according to the team's needs. The way he saved a Test in England, batting out the fifth day with Prabhakar for company, for example... Or how he took upon himself the onus of neutralizing a Shane Warne in his pomp, or attacking McGrath in one-dayers.

By the way, I do agree that teamwork is incredibly important for success in competitive cricket. My point was that the game is inherently individualistic in nature, and that's reflected in how amateurs play and enjoy cricket. Sometimes that attitude is carried into the professional game, and that's not always a bad thing.

Cricket is a more cerebral game than the likes of hockey or football. An Anil Kumble applies his own mind towards plotting a particular batsman's dismissal. It's not (really) a team effort. A Rahul Dravid works out how to adapt his game for limited overs. His team has nothing to do with it. And yet, the net result of this individual effort is to the team's benefit. Even the "non-cerebral", instinctive players like Virendra Sehwag play as individuals, relying on their instincts rather than the coach or captain's instructions. To that extent, coaching a cricket team is very different from typical team sports. And you captured that beautifully in your book "The Men Within" of course -- how the coach recedes to the background once the match starts.