How to build a winning team

cricket blogs for Yahoo Cricket Columns

The World Cup is back to India after 28 years and with that the question - How to make a Champion team? Is it just luck as it often appears to the bystander or the lay spectator, or there are other factors. Is it a prescription that can be followed by all and sundry or is it just one of those one-off things.


A lot of these questions were asked when Rajasthan reached the pinnacle of domestic cricket, winning the Ranji Trophy starting from the bottom of the Plate or the lower division. Any number of articles have been written on that fairy tale journey, and any number would now be written on the CWC 2011 journey of Team India. The beauty of sport is that you can never come with one size fits all kind of a solution or prescription but there are a few general things that definitely underlie successful campaigns.


Napoleon Bonaparte famously preferred lucky generals to the brave ones. Seneca's definition of luck is what I like the most. "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity", he said. Good preparation is the key to any winning campaign. Without good preparation, you will never be able to grab the opportunity when it presents itself. The Team Rajasthan campaign and the CWC 2011 Team India campaigns are very good examples of good preparation making use of the opportunities that came their way. There are various facets of good preparation, both long term and short term, which I will dwell upon at length in my next article.


The next logical question would be how to have good preparation. The answer to this question is far more complex than it looks on the surface. It is not just the team combinations, good support staff, great coaches, celebrity players et al. The preparation goes much deeper. It goes to the root, as a lawyer would say, and it starts with the administration and the way it is run.


Sports Administration, I have said elsewhere, is no rocket science. It has to have the same elements as any other good administration, whether political, or a country's or a state's administration. The three basic principles are fairness, trust and a sense of purpose. For all the vilification that BCCI suffers, it is the best run sports organization in the country by a long distance, and a very fair man in Shashank Manohar as its president.


BCCI has, over the years, insulated its selection policies from the pulls and pressures of running such a huge organization and objectively tries to induct the best professionals to run the team, provides continuity to the support staff, and generates trust among the players that there are no hidden agendas behind selections. We did the same with Team Rajasthan. Once everyone was convinced that RCA had a purpose and its sense, the foundation of the turnaround was laid.


It was a team low on confidence sitting at the bottom of Plate group. Its only aspiration was to claw its way back to the Elite group. RCA administration left the cricketing decision to a select team led by Tarak Sinha and my job was to make sure that nobody brought any external pressure on them. Having played a lot of cricket just below the first class level, I was in a good position to appreciate their moves and give them the confidence.


The move to have three batting professionals was basically a confidence measure for the Team. Administration supported the talented players and went out of its way to get them fit, Ashok Menaria being a case in point. Many smaller issues which can become vexatious for a team's morale were sorted out.


Discipline and fitness were made non-negotiable to the extent that a player like Gagan Khoda was not considered on grounds of fitness. I can assure you that a half fit Murali would never have played the semis or finals in RCA kind of dispensation. For the first time, the Manager's position was not handed out to please vote banks, but was made a pivot of providing comfort to the team. Team India has also been doing the same for some time. Ranjib Biswal's continuity is a departure from the past practice of having a different manager for every match, and a very good departure.


Team India of course had the added problem of being the favourite. Their preparation had begun a lot earlier. The players had the confidence that they were free to make bona fide mistakes. When the fear of losing your place is taken away, the team exudes a different kind of confidence. For 40 years, we have had a dispensation in Rajasthan where nobody except those with proper connections were ever sure of their place in the team.


This year we had only one change in the squad throughout the Ranji season, and that too to get Ashok Menaria back in the squad after he reported fit. We all appreciated that anyone can have an off day in sport. Players were encouraged to share their doubts and ideas and the senior professionals guided the younger ones. In Team India this role is performed so well by Sachin, Zaheer and Dhoni. Gary Kirsten brings a serenity to the whole exercise. Paddy Upton's role in keeping the team relaxed and focused is also a very important one.


Remember, top level sports is played more in the mind. The more relaxed, more confident, and better prepared team will beat the more anxious, more tentative and more diffident team nine times out of ten. Spain had been the best soccer team never to have won the World Cup, and when they finally did it, it was on the back of a more relaxed team.


The 2003 Indian CWC team was a better team, man for man and on form with an outstanding leader in Saurav Ganguly, but the 2011 team was a more relaxed and a happier team. That's why they are the Champions. This is the open secret of forging winning combinations.


Next: Part II: Elements of good preparation