Friday, June 17, 2011

The New Definition of Talent

Harsha Bhogle has initiated a debate on talent and how to define it, in his article today in the Indian Express (also available on CricInfo and possibly other media outlets). He not only redefines talent, he has even given a formula for it! Or at least, the headline writers at IE have... And it is:

"real talent" = ability x hard work + consistency

To me at least, this is a new term he's inventing... "Real talent" is what he'd like to use, to gauge a sportsman, because it is a good predictor of "success" -- now there's another term that begs a clear definition! But going by what he writes in the article, he's interested in seeing talent converted to results in terms of metrics such as runs scored, wickets taken, matches won, and even career longevity. What he then proceeds to prescribe, are the prerequisites of success, but he labels those as talent. Therein lies my disagreement. We can keep those two terms separate and agree that talent isn't a pre-requisite to success.

Harsha references Malcolm Gladwell (from "Outliers") in saying that 10,000 hours of practice, in other words, "hard work" can make someone shine in any chosen field -- whether it's Bill Gates coding away, or Bradman hitting a golf ball, or Agassi hitting 2500 tennis balls a day, or Kirsten's now-famous throwdowns to Sachin Tendulkar. This is in keeping with the Protestant work ethic that dominates our current thinking, whether in middle-class families or in management books. And who can argue against hard work, and maximising your chances of success via that route?

But is that really talent? Can't we make space for those who are truly special in some ways? Who may or may not be successful by traditional measures? Harsha uses the example of Rohit Sharma -- how his strokes make you go "wow". I've written about talent and class in the past, using older examplars like Gower, Mark Waugh, Ganguly... You could take examples from other sports, like Federer in tennis, Jordan in basketball, Messi in football. The point remains the same -- these players are special in some way. It's their natural grace, their fluidity of movement, apparent effortlessness, their uncanny knack of timing, the lack of brute force -- all of those and more, combine to make you go "wow". A Rohit Sharma or a Yuvraj Singh belongs in that category. A Jonathan Trott or Ricky Ponting does not.

Now absolutely, that "class" does not guarantee success at any level of cricket. I believe the examples of Bradman, Tendulkar etc. are misleading -- they were both talented and hard-working. But their stupendous achievements owe a lot to their talent, not just to hard work. A Gower or Ganguly racked up great records (successes?) despite their aversion to hard work. Tendulkar might not have had as long a career, with as many records, but he would've gone down as an all-time great batsman even if he hadn't done all that practice with Kirsten. Hard work is admirable, sure. But talent is what makes you go "wow", lets you enjoy watching the sport.

Society today worships success to an inordinate extent. We value hard work and material returns over creativity and its attendant risk of failure. If an author writes a great novel but fails to find a publisher, he may be labelled a failure. But is he any less talented for it? A programmer may develop a great application, but his startup may "fail". Is he any less talented as a programmer? And a cricketer may play graceful, pleasing cricket, but not rack up enough runs to make it to the top. His game may not be seen by as many spectators as it might have, with hard work or luck or a godfather. But is he any less talented for it?

History is replete with examples of talented cricketers who underperformed relative to their talent. What does that mean? Doesn't it mean that they had as much talent as some others who achieved success, but didn't capitalize on it? Talent may need to be allied with hard work to achieve consistency. On top of that, you need some luck, and often the right contacts, to achieve success. But even in the absence of all these supporting factors, talent doesn't vanish -- it's there for all to see!

I call myself a "cricket stalker" for a good reason. There are some, perhaps many of us, who like watching cricket because it's a beautiful game. Not because we follow a particular team or player, and want them to win every time. Not because we want to see lots of runs scored, or wickets taken. Just for the sheer beauty of the proceedings. And you can find that beauty in a lower-division club game too, not just in international cricket. Talent, whether in batting, bowling or fielding (but I admit, mostly in batting) is what attracts me as a spectator. Just as beautiful prose is what makes a book worth reading, often, not the message contained therein. Please do leave some space for cricket as art...