Strategists fail at their own strategy

“I think we can create an intensity in the field which at certain stages might make their old blokes look like they’re past their use-by date.”

That was what Ricky Ponting said at the start of the series!

At the start of the series, the visitors made public their blueprint for success in their series in India. The visitors had even coined a phrase that captured this strategy: “New Age Cricket” they called it. This strategy was based on a fundamental hypothesis that the Indians were “fat, lazy, aging, weak and slow”.

At one level this was an arrogant strategy. But it was also a bold admission at another level. Since the Australians were also admitting through this strategy that they could not get the Indians out with the bowling resources that it had and so, had to resort to a defensive ‘choking’ mindset.

The strategy consisted of bowling to choking fields which would deny the “fat, lazy, aging, weak and slow Indians” (FLAWSIs) boundary hits. The FLAWSIs would, therefore, need to either run hard for singles — and thereby tire their weak and unconditioned bones out. Either that or the FLAWSIs would need to invent rash strokes in a bid to remove the hand that was attempting to choke them for runs. While batting, this strategy consisted of pushing hard for singles so that the FLAWSIs would be energy sapped on the field.

All good. But so far in this series, this strategy had failed the Australians… Miserably.

Interestingly, the only time that India adopted the strategy on day-3 of the ongoing Test at Nagpur, the Australians failed at overcoming their own strategy. Indeed, they even ably assisted the hand that was attempting to choke them!

The strategists had failed at the strategy that they had penned.

Karma can sometimes be a cruel script-writer, as the Australians had already found out in this Test match!

Australia was completely throttled by India’s 8-1 off-side plan on day-3 of the Nagpur Test. This was necessary because India had played overly aggressive — bordering on arrogant cricket — for 2 days of this Test match. Almost all the batsmen had played aggressive cricket at some stage in their innings. Many of them had been felled by somewhat rash strokes. When bowling, India had thrown the kitchen sink in a bid to over-attack. India opened the bowling with Harbhajan Singh! Runs leaked. Something needed to be done.

Dhoni, the captain had authored — nay, borrowed — the strategy overnight and communicated it to all his players. Each player had a role. As I said in the match report as it evolved, the strategy required the players to swallow their collective egos and be bloody-minded about it. India played like Australia would have, in the past.

It is one thing devising a plan. It is another to execute it to perfection. The pace bowlers had to bowl long (very long) spells. Harbhajan Singh had to bide his time. Amit Mishra was hardly to be seen. If it didn’t work, the team would be lampooned by everyone. Indeed, the team was besieged by the commentators even as the game was in progress.

It was a bold statement from a team that was hungry for success. Success at any cost? Yes, as long as it was within the rules of the game. It was within the rules. It wasn’t attractive, but effective.

It was effective because the architects stuck to their plan. It also worked because Australia, the original authors of this strategy had no answers.

John Eales, Australian rugby union footballer and arguably the most successful captain in the history of Australian Rugby, said once that his mantra was to maintain courage under fire and to never lose commitment to the goal. The Indians played in a manner that may have made John Eales proud. The team stuck to its goal of playing mean-minded cricket.

The Australian’s did not try a leg-side stroke till the 12th over — it didn’t come off. The team tapped a ball on the leg-side only in the 18th over. The first run on the leg-side came in the 21st over of the day! This was more than mean-minded bowling from the Indians. It was breath-sucking stuff. Highly impressive. As I have said, it is one thing to construct a strategy. It needs to be overseen by men who have shed their egos and it needs to be implemented.

But in reality, the authors who had penned the strategy against the FLAWSIs were found wanting. Australia did not make any efforts to combat this strategy. There was no attempt to reduce the angles that the pace bowlers were bowling at. It was strange cricket from the Australians indeed. In a rather empty and hollow manner, Australia had played directly into the hands of the very team that they decreed was fat, lazy, aging, weak and slow!

Peter Roebuck criticises this tactic in todays’ The Age. And perhaps with reason. It wasn’t attractive and it never will be. Ian Chappell has also criticised India’s tactics. He also wants law-makers to step in and change the law on 8-1 fields!

However, before law makers change anything, these two teams need to sit down and work things out.

In my view, Sydney changed everything between these two teams.

As Roebuck writes, “Unfortunately the mood changed in the last series, with bile and recrimination taking hold. Although the conduct of the teams has improved the bitterness persuaded both parties to go to any legitimate length to stop their opponent gaining ground.”

I agree. I do feel that both teams will go to any legitimate length to gain the ascension. India has acquired a steely edge to its game; an edge that was hitherto absent, but certainly an edge that one could see the foundations of even from a distance. It is my feeling that India does not have this bloody-minded edge when it plays England or South Africa or even Pakistan. After Sydney, there is a teeth-gritting determination to its game when it faces Australia. And this feeling is mutual between these two teams. Sydney had triggered two resignation-thoughts (Gilchrist and Kumble), had already claimed one talented individual (Symonds) and now, it was the basis for cut-throat competition between these two top teams in world cricket.

Interestingly, I did not see Roebuck criticise Australian tactics which were roughly the same at Mohali and Delhi. He has though, today! India implemented the tactics more clinically and in a more bloody-minded manner at Nagpur. Moreover, at Delhi, Gautam Gambhir often walked down the track to reduce the angles and Laxman routinely used his wrists to play balls from outside off to leg! The Australians just could not do so here at Nagpur.

More importantly, I did not see Roebuck and Ian Chappell jump up and down and criticise Nasser Hussain for asking Ashley Giles to bowl a foot outside leg-stump to Sachin Tendulkar and other Indian batsmen. The Indians took it on the chin and moved on.

Finally, I did not read Roebuck and Ian Chappell writing about the sheer arrogance that lay behind this pre-series statement from Ponting (Ironically, the article by Malcolm Conn is titled: “Insults will backfire” in yet another Karma-defined headline!):

“I think we can take them on when they’re in the field and play a new-age type of Test cricket that is going to make some of their older guys look a bit old and a bit slow,” Ponting said.

“This includes running between the wickets and our fielding if a couple of their batsmen like VVS Laxman and the retiring Sourav Ganguly happen to be in together.

“I think we can create an intensity in the field which at certain stages might make their old blokes look like they’re past their use-by date.”

Although Roebuck has criticised the new-age tactic in later articles, he did not call the arrogance that lay behind the FLAWSIs theory at the time it was expounded. Indeed, commentators commended the mean mindedness and the hard edge of the Australians. Wasn’t day-3 just that? A mean-minded and hard-edged Indian team?

So what has changed now for Roebuck and Ian Chappell to chastise it? Is it because they are not used to mean-minded and hard-edged stuff coming from the Indians?

At Sydney, Australia adopted a win-at-all costs attitude. I did not see Nagpur as anything other than that. I do believe that Sydney changed everything between these two teams with a proud history and tradition. It will require something quite extraordinary to repair the damage of Sydney.

— Mohan

9 responses to “Strategists fail at their own strategy

  1. Another nice analysis. As an Aussie I did not like the game yesterday, but India is in front. And that matters to them. It was all within the rules. So no problems. But it was not attractive. But Australia has to take 50% blame for this. Why can’t Huss and Kato walk down the pitch and play on the legside? Haydos would have done that. Gambhir would have. If you are good and you want to be aggressive, negative tactics won’t really matter.

  2. Excellent article Mohan.

    I’m sure no body really wants to repair the damage from the Sydney test.

    Some fans might want to see that happen. But they don’t count.

    Current Players and teams from the two teams won’t like this idea as it would be – Who bends first – kind of an EGO issue.

    Media and hence ICC, BCCI, CA and all these entities will only like to cash in more on this friction. and unfortunately they are the ones who can bring about some change.

  3. Terrific article Mohan. Well made points.

    I do not agree with you that anything needs to happen between these teams. Things will take their own course. Australians did not start it in only in Sydney. They have been doing it for ages. Sydney was the first time Indians said enough was enough.

  4. Good one mate 🙂

  5. Spot on, Mohan. My thoughts exactly too… 🙂

    Let me also add that Australian media is actually right in criticizing India for not going for outright wins more often than they do – unlike the Aussies they have always opted for a safety first approach. This has mainly been because in the past, they have either not had the team to beat the opposition or the confidence to do it. It is changing slowly, but the mindset remains. Hopefully a few more wins will change this attitude.

    Coming back to the points you made, India came out with a defensive (even negative) tactic and it worked only because Australia let it work. Australia of old would have tried something different, broken the shackles and forced India to change its tactic, but they didn’t.

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  8. What a change in 12 months to the Australian Team? As far as strategy goes, the Aussies have failed miserably on this tour:
    1. The collective wisdom of Punter, Nielsen and Merv Hughes has been a colossal failure – they either didn’t take the right decision or took the wrong decision in the composition of the team e.g. Cameron White, Krejza, Stuart Clark, etc.
    2. Completely run out of ideas and no clues/strategies re: how to get wickets – too early on went on the defensive and let things drift waiting for Indian batsmen to make mistakes and throw their wickets away rather than being proactive; employed negative fielding strategy – 7-2 field and bowling 1-2 feet outside the off stump; didn’t marshal the bowling resources given for a match; overuse of White, under utilisation of Clarke and Katich; poor relationship/communication with the bowling spearhead Brett Lee. These pointers reflect extremely poor captaincy skills on Punter’s part
    3. While batting, never bothered to try something different; the run rate never touched 4 for a completed innings; batting is the strength of this team but did not exploit that strength at any time during the series
    4. Normally these are the comments you attribute to any team that plays against Australia but now it’s on the other foot and Punter has been found wanting. So has he really been a good captain or been riding on the coat tails of Warney and McGrath covering his weaknesses? I know what the answer is.
    5. Where is the pride of the Aussies that drives them to go for a win than worry about suspension for the next test?
    6. It is under these dire situations when a poor captain needs the support and strategies from a wise coach – that is where Nielsen has come a cropper. Though Ian Chappell and Warney would say that the role of the coach is to take team to and fro the stadium, the coach has a definite role to play and Nielsen has been found wanting. Nielsen has added to Punter’s poor handling of the media, his poor relationship with own team, his unprofessional and rude on field behaviour with the umpires by coming up with near laughable utterings e.g. Jason was not ready before the 4th test; bowling rate was more important than a win, etc.
    7. With Hussey, Haydos, Punter, Stuart Clark, Brett Lee, Katch all in their 30’s and the bowling stock looking unpromising, it’s time that Cricket Australia started serious planning now.

  9. Mohan: Excellent piece…however, contrary to what you write, when Giles bowled those negative lines, the Indians did not really “take it on the chin”. There was a lot of hullaballo from the Indian media just like there is now from the Aussie media (in fact, I remember Sunil Gavaskar calling England the “most boring” team in test cricket !). Not criticizing the tactics as is…just saying that everybody cribs.

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