19 Jan 2016

Why India Lost to Australia Again

Australia beat India 3-0 yet again. Many of us knew that this would happen. But India fought harder than expected, which made me happy. The question is: Why, despite our best efforts, did Australia beat us in each match? Some incidents offered insights.

In the first ODI, Australia had to chase more than 300 runs on a ground where the record was about 280. India were favorites at the innings break. But by the 20th over of the Aussie innings, I had a strong feeling that India would lose if a wicket didn’t fall in the next 10 overs. When they didn’t send the ball to the boundary ropes, Smith and Bailey kept running singles and twos like they were playing box cricket.

“Stop the singles, Dhoni… stop the singles!” one side of my mind pleaded to the Indian skipper.

“How?”, asked the other. (This was a ‘Captain Jack Sparrow’ moment where I was sandwiched between two opinions and agreed with both of them.)

In the third one-day, Smith hit the ball to midwicket. It fell short of Rahane, bounced off his palms and spun away to his right. Smith ran a single. It’s normal, right? Players from every team ‘misfield’ when half a chance is missed.

But does this ‘tough misfield’ occur with the Aussies? Nope. Even if a ball falls short, it lands firmly in their palms, and the fielders are instantly ready to have a shy at the stumps.

Let’s look deeper. The Aussies have won 18 games in a row at home now (including their unbeaten streak in Australia during the World Cup. Remember how comprehensively they beat they Black Caps in the World Cup final?). Their level of cricket in domestic tournaments is far higher than that in most international matches. How do they develop this mental resilience and excellence? Automation.

Image Source: ESPNCricInfo

Tony Dungy, the coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers - the most hopeless football team in 1996 - didn’t believe that they needed the thickest playbook to win. They didn’t need to memorize hundreds of formations. They just needed to memorize a few key moves and get them right every time. Using these moves, the Bucs went on to win the Super Bowl. 

In the army, basic training teaches soldiers how to shoot, think, and communicate under fire. The entire organization relies on routines for building bases, setting strategic priorities, and deciding how to respond to attacks… all of which are rehearsed to the point of automation.

This automation can be understood better by a word we are familiar with: habit.

A habit is formed when an action is repeated till it becomes automated. Take brushing your teeth for example. Do we think while brushing? Or take driving. When we learn driving, we think so much before changing lanes that even bicyclists overtake us. We keep thinking about the distance from the car in front and the one behind, keep checking whether we are too close to the curb; a honking vehicle makes us nervous and so on. But once our hands are set at the wheel, we smoothly maneuver through traffic, instinctively know when to overtake and when to pull our foot off the gas pedal… all this while processing mounds of information in split seconds.

We become good drivers when driving becomes a habit. The same concept is applicable for everything - writing, exercising, cooking, coding, sports and what have you.

The Bucs ingrained the key formations in their minds till those became habits. Soldiers develop habits to shoot, think and communicate. Victory on the field (in sports and in battle) depends upon which side takes rational decisions more swiftly.

The Aussies have made running hard a habit (while batting and fielding). It’s not unusual to see three fielders converging on a ball and none of them colliding; in fact, they back each other up brilliantly. Their bowlers fixate on their strengths and stick to them, clinically chipping away at batsmen’s patience. Their batsmen… well… they are so strong mentally that they dominate any bowling attack. The quick running further adds to the pressure on bowlers.

However, you would notice that even the Aussies start making silly mistakes - playing reckless strokes, misfielding, bowling loose balls - when they are under pressure. Why? Because they are thinking, they are second guessing.

When we start thinking, we lose our advantage. Try this in anything you do. As long what you comes naturally, it's easy. But when you start thinking, doubts appear and they hinder your performance.

Dhoni, for instance, developed a reputation as the world’s best finisher when he knew that batsmen who followed could hold the innings together. But when Jadeja, Raina and Yuvraj lost their form, Dhoni started playing cautiously. He started thinking, and that, slowly but surely, impacted his ability. When he knows his bowlers will perform well, he simply rotates them like a wizard. But when they are all over the place, he starts thinking. That leads to him missing a trick or two, like he did in the third ODI against Maxwell.

We have more advocates for words than for action. While the former (including yours truly) keep thinking and ‘pondering’, the latter keep doing. Guess who gets better at what they do.

We are obsessed with having ten things to do, and keep discussing how we can add to that list. The list grows longer, and at the end of hour-long discussions we ask, “Okay, so what is the final agenda?” Then we are so overwhelmed that we complain about not having time. The doers, on the other hand, do just 3-5 things, but achieve remarkable results. And yes, the Chinese bamboo takes 5 years to grow an inch more than a tiny sapling. Patience is an integral part of habit formation, but so is persistence.

Every time you have a doubt which shouldn’t exist, it is because of lack of action. So trying to do more. Throw the spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks. Once you are done trying various things, stick to the ones which have provided best results and ignore the rest. Get as awesome at the task as the Aussies at fielding. Then, you can move on to the next one.

When the Indian cricket team imbibes this fundamental in itself, it will win the World Cup again.

12 comments :

  1. You know this post reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell's book 'Blink'. In it he speaks of the certainty that comes from the first instant, that almost impereceptible second where you make a decision, almost reflexively without thinking and how well it shapes everything we do. Most often we allow the analytical side of our brain dominate our actions and face a lot of tough situations when we should be allowing ourselves to adapt comfortably in any scenario. Good food for thought, Vishal. Not a cricket fan per se but I liked the parallels drawn in the post.

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    1. I love that book Shailaja. It's one of the few that has shaped my perception. What most readers didn't realize was that the 'intuition' and 'feeling in the gut' that people felt was a result of years of experience. That's when you just 'know' whether something will work or not. And for that, we have to keep doing a few things for long, and letting the others be at bay.

      Thanks for the insightful comment.

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  2. I am not a Cricket fan and honestly speaking I do not follow the technicalities of the game either but, I could see well the points you raised regarding consistency and habitual excellence of the Australian cricket team. All thanks to the wonderful way you explain (in every post for that matter).

    I couldn't agree more on the relevance of second guessing while driving or even while cooking (in my case) every time I invest too much thought in something, it isn't up to the mark.

    Loved this thought-provoking post mainly because you've helped me find answers to my many recent questions :)

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    1. Thanks ME. Glad it helped you.

      We will keep second-guessing until we become habituated to what we do. The key is to keep moving forward despite the doubts and hardships which we initially encounter...

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  3. Practice makes a person perfect and better than others. Remember the 10K hour rule. In India, do we train systematically and scientifically? No! Besides, there is hardly a culture of sports in our country unlike the Aussies. There is no dearth of talent though. I believe a systematic approach in training according to the player's capability may help.

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    1. True Rachna. Nothing rings truer than the 10,000 hour rule. The behavior of the Indian players, however, is not exclusive to them. It's common among most people in the world. We must learn to focus on a few things and excel at them rather than being a jack of all trades...

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  4. Over-indulgence of anything is harmful. Same applies to thinking as well. Not only does it create pressure which hampers our performance but over-thinking also kills one of the most beautiful gifts we are already endowed with - intuition which should actually be shaping our actions. Thanks for giving us so much to think about, Vishal. Thoughts, words, actions, habits... everything is so intricately interlinked that it's not always easy to find the right balance in application.

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    1. Intuitions should be shaping our habits.

      So true Arti. But instead of trusting better habits, we fall back on old habits in times of panic. Old habits cannot be eliminated; they can only be replaced by new ones. It's essential to ensure that the new ones are good.

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  5. I like what you said. It makes sense. We often mess up when we overthink things. That's specially true in times of pressure when we go with our reflexes. It's a pity we lost the series.

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  6. I don't watch cricket matches anymore. I agree we should stop discussing and analysing too much and resort to doiong what needs to be done. I hate the lengthy analysis that goes on and on at the end of every match. I find it as a pointless judging.

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    1. That's true Vinita. Judging is pointless unless we are in the battlefield.

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