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8 January, 2002
Corporate Lessons from the Australian cricket team
By Roshan Paul and Mathew Paul
The world is full of great organisations. Some like the Catholic Church have lasted almost two millennia. Some, such as IBM and Sony and, perhaps, in our own country, TISCO have lasted a number of decades. And some, such as Microsoft and Infosys are merely about two decades old. All have had their ups and downs, but all have also shown a remarkable ability to endure and thrive, to innovate and to constantly reinvent themselves.
Scholars who have studied corporate organisations such as these have come to the conclusion that all great organisations share certain common characteristics. Scholars, being scholars, often differ on what these characteristics actually are but some consensus has emerged that these characteristics include:
A strong belief that the organization has a purpose, a “reason to be” that is independent of making profits; and the transmission of this purpose throughout the organization as a means of energizing the organisations; An explicitly stated set of core organisational values that the organisation lives by; Careful selection of the Board, the CEO and all key members of the organization, based on “traits” seen as crucial to the achievement of the purpose; accompanied by an often stubborn refusal to lose faith in those so selected, even when things are “not going well”; and Carefully designed processes to ensure that the organization purpose is capable of achievement.
This article is based on an outsider’s analysis of the how these characteristics are present in the Australian cricket team. It is not the product of primary research but is based, rather, on information available in the public domain.
First, though, we need to digress into the historical background against which the success of the present team is very much set. The analysis that follows is based on Test cricket performance alone, for one-day cricket is hardly a reliable test of ability. Further, in analyzing Test cricket performance, the key statistic used is the ratio of victories to defeats (the W/L ratio).
The watershed event in recent Australian cricketing history was probably the appointment of Allan Border as captain in 1984. Border followed Ian Chappell (W/L: 3.00), Greg Chappell (W/L: 1.62), Graham Yallop (W/L 0.17) and Kim Hughes (W/L: 0.31). It had, indeed, been a long, hard fall from the glory days of Ian Chappell.
Initially, under Border, things deteriorated further, including a disastrous defeat by New Zealand at home. In this period, from 1984 to 1989 (6 long years), Australia played 39 Tests, winning 7 and losing 13, for a W/L ratio of 0.53. Why wasn’t Border sacked? Why did the Australian selectors continue to show faith in him? One of the themes of this article is that this was part of a long-term strategy.
The Australians then, in 1989, went to England and won the Ashes – for the first time since 1983. Although their newfound self-confidence as One-Day World Champions undoubtedly helped, it was this Ashes series that turned things around for Australia – and they haven’t looked back since, the hiccup – ahem – in India notwithstanding.
Border, after the Ashes triumph, recorded a W/L ratio of 2.77 in 54 Tests. Border was succeeded by Mark Taylor who, in 50 Tests between 1993 and 1999, achieved a W/L ratio of 3.02. Taylor gave way to Steve Waugh who in 32 Tests since then has achieved a W/L ratio of 4.4, including the first Test against the South Africans in December 2001. Among those generally regarded as great captains, Steve Waugh’s record is exceeded only by Don Bradman (24 Tests as captain, W/L ratio: 5.00) and England’s Mike Brearley (31 Tests, W/L ratio: 4.5). Even Clive Lloyd achieved a W/L ratio of just 3.00.
With this statistical backdrop, let’s go back to the characteristics of great organisations listed earlier.
Does the Australian Cricketing Establishment have a sense of purpose? What is this purpose?
Lo and behold, the Australian Cricket Board (ACB) has a formal “mission statement”. Articulated in 1999, it clearly positioned Australian Cricket as a business, competing not just against other sports but also against all performing arts. It reads: “To defend and promote the values of …cricket, ensure that Australian teams excel on the field, and be a formidable and successful competitor in the sport and entertainment industries.”
However, it is the contention of this article that while this mission statement was articulated only in 1999, it was really just a public admission of a strategy that went back to the appointment of Border as captain. And, to some degree, the strategic document that accompanies this mission statement is full of holier-than-thou saws, meant for public consumption. To get at the real picture, one has to dig deeper.
Obviously, any analysis must go beyond just the Test team to look at the entire cricketing establishment – the team is only the public face of the organization. We hypothesize, however, that the ACB has a purpose that is far deeper than this mission statement and that this purpose is understood, accepted and imbibed by all members of the establishment. Conventional organizational theory says that all great organisations have this sense of purpose.
So what is the purpose of Australian cricket? It cannot be victories, just as making profits cannot be a sustainable long-term purpose for a commercial organization. Both victories and profits are by-products of a larger purpose.
Nike’s purpose is reported to be “To experience the emotion of competition, winning and crushing competitors” or, in the abbreviated version, “Crush Adidas”. Likewise, the purpose of Australian cricketing could well just be “Crush the Opposition”. This is certainly in sync with the image of the Ugly Australian. But with this kind of purpose, it is unlikely that the affable Mark Taylor would have been such a successful captain. He strove ceaselessly to enhance the image of the Ugly Australian, and succeeded to some extent.
The purpose, then, may be just a cliché, but a cliché brought to glorious life by the Australian cricketers: playing and winning for Australia. Simple patriotism, in other words. Consider this: currently, Australia are world champions in cricket, rugby and netball. The famous Woodies dominated men’s doubles in tennis for about a decade. They have a host of world class individual champions: Ian Thorpe in swimming, Pat Rafter in tennis, Cathy Freeman in athletics. This from a nation with a population of 19 million, 6% the population of the US and not much more than the population of Mumbai. Thus, the reason why the Australian sportsman seeks victory could well be “winning for Australia” rather than money or fame.
What are the core values of the Australian Cricket Establishment?
From interviews given by various members of the Establishment, usually the team captains, it is possible to hypothesise from some data. We submit that the core values of the Australian Cricket Establishment are:
Competitiveness: Under Steve Waugh, competitiveness has an in-your-face feel, perhaps best exemplified by his famous comment to South African, Herschelle Gibbs, after he dropped Waugh in that crucial qualifying game: “Son, you just dropped the World Cup”. Whether through sledging or just refusing to give up, whether in its “grumpy” manifestation under Border or in its “affable” manifestation under Taylor, the Australian cricket team has, for the last 15 years, been by far the most competitive one in international cricket. Under Steve Waugh, this competitiveness has evolved into sheer ruthlessness as Australia has discarded its earlier habit of losing dead rubbers. Now they want to win every Test of every series, and they’ve been doing it.
Teaming: Glenn McGrath epitomized this value when, on receiving the man-of-the-match award after the second Ashes Test against the English, he said he couldn’t have done it without his bowling colleague, Jason Gillespie. The Australian team members, on victory, are quick – to a man – to deflect credit. And they are equally quick to take blame on themselves for defeat.
Lack of Personal Ego: In his autobiography, Mark Taylor describes his amazement at how much criticism he received from Indians and Pakistanis for declaring when he had scored 334 not out and had the world record of 375 at his feet. In his mind, it was a simple decision: declaring then would have given Australia the best chance of winning that match. The Australian team embodies the motto that the individual is lesser than the team. Thus, while individual performances are celebrated, no one player is permitted to become a superstar. They have no star like Brian Lara or Sachin Tendulkar. And, yet, Sunil Gavaskar has said that Waugh is the best batsman playing today because he is more reliable in tough situations. In Test cricket, while Tendulkar has rarely been a match winner, Waugh has often been one. But where’s the hype surrounding Waugh? In the eyes of the world, Tendulkar is considered the best batsman ever to play Test cricket, after Bradman. Yet their performances in crunch situations tell a different story. It also, of course, helps that in refusing to build stars, you further the cause of the team, allowing the teaming value described above to flower to its fullest potential. In a column soon after the third Ashes Test, Waugh has explicitly stated that his focus is on minimizing individual stardom, thereby giving every single member the feeling that it is his responsibility to win the game for his team.
There may be other core values but, for the purposes of this article, these illustrate the point.
Careful Recruitment and Abiding Faith in Those Recruited
We made the point earlier about how the ACB persevered with Border, despite nearly six years of failure. Similarly, they persevered with Taylor through a prolonged slump in form. Both Border and Taylor were replaced only when they chose to bow out. In fact, there’s an adage in Australia that goes: “If it’s tough to get into the Australian cricket team, it’s even tougher to get out.”
For this kind of strategy to pay off, the rationale has to have been very strong. And the results back it up: Mark Taylor emerged from his abyss of self-doubt with a century that enabled Australia to get back into the 1997 Ashes series in which they were trailing England and later vindicated the selectors’ faith by scoring 334 runs in the heat of Pakistan. Similarly, Mark Waugh, Justin Langer, Ricky Ponting and Shane Warne have at various times rewarded their captain’s faith in them.
A cliché, often heard about Australian cricket, is that the selectors pick the team and then select a captain from this team. (This is diametrically the opposite of what happens in India, Pakistan and England, where the captain is picked first.) If that’s true, then it appears to be quite a remarkable coincidence that Taylor retained his place in the team despite his slump. While it can be argued that the team was winning under Taylor and thus there was no reason to drop him, it also indicates that this ‘policy’ is one more bit of hocus pocus for public consumption or, if you prefer, a bit of folklore about Australian cricket. In reality, the reverse is probably truer – the ACB picks its captains very carefully indeed. These captains are then required to buy – unequivocally – into the core purpose and values of the ACB. But, besides that, they are probably selected for something called “servant leadership”.
Servant leadership is a notion that has, relatively recently, entered management literature. A servant leader is one who leads by example and who has the holistic well being of each of his charges very much at heart. Steve Waugh, simultaneously self-effacing and very much in charge, epitomizes the spirit of servant leadership. Border and Taylor, too, come across as this type of leader.
A tale that illustrates how Waugh is the supreme servant leader goes back to a time when he wasn’t even a leader. It was Steve who first heard of his brother Mark’s initial selection and went home to give him the news. An impromptu family celebration followed and it was only some time into the celebration that someone thought to ask “But whom did they drop?” That’s when Steve Waugh said “They dropped me.”
But, obviously, great captaincy only tells part of the story. It is also likely that Australian cricket administrators have been carefully selected and have long tenures. Without primary research, we have been unable to identify these far-sighted administrators – but we have no doubt that they exist.
What processes ensure that the Australian Cricket Team’s purpose is achieved?
The ACB mission statement quotes an old adage: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail”. It’s obvious that a great deal of thought and planning has gone into making Australian cricket the dominant force it is today – both on and off the field. This article focuses on one on-field process – innovation – and one off-field process – planning. There are, obviously a host of others.
It’s clear that the ACB encourages innovation aggressively. Some examples:
Bowling first on winning the toss, thus contradicting decades of cricketing convention.
By forcing changes in the nature of the game, or in business terms, by influencing the industry so that it puts you in the best position among your competitors, Australia gives itself a competitive advantage as other teams struggle to catch up. The general feeling after the Indian tour was that India beat Australia by defeating them at their own game: scoring heavily yet rapidly, giving the bowlers time to play with, great catching and yes, even sledging.
Business theory tells us that for innovation to thrive, failure must be encouraged. Or, in the words of Porras and Collins in their book “Built to Last”, “Try lots of small things and keep the things that work.” We have no way of knowing which innovative attempts of Australia failed and were discarded, although the promotion of Gilchrist to one-down in the Chennai Test could be one example. We’re confident, though, that players have been encouraged to innovate – and forgiven failures.
Long Term Planning
Any greatly successful team must have adequate bench strength. The Australian domestic competition is easily the most competitive one around, evident from the fact that Australian state teams regularly thrash touring national sides. About 7 years ago, instead of the regular three-nation one-day trophy, the ACB decided to make it a quadrangular tournament by introducing an Australian ‘A’ side along with Australia, England and Zimbabwe. This experiment was subsequently scrapped as the members of the Australian side objected to playing against their own countrymen, further illustrating the core purpose discussed earlier. But the important point is that the Australian A side – led by Damien Martyn and with a batting lineup that included Blewett, Bevan, Hayden and Ponting - made it to the final by easily beating both Zimbabwe and England in the round-robin phase. A fiercely competitive domestic competition thus ensures that places in the national team can never be taken for granted and that there is always high quality in the bench ready to make the step up whenever injury strikes.
Also vital to the success of Australian cricket is its coaching infrastructure. When the Indian team returned from their disastrous tour of Australia in 1999/2000, some of the senior players commented that, in terms of training methods and facilities, Australian cricket was 20 years ahead of Indian cricket. A fine example of this is that the Australian Cricket Academy often has someone of the stature of Ian Chappell come in to give lectures to 13-year-olds on the art of captaincy. Similarly, these boys are taught to handle the media and also to handle the bouquets and brickbats that come with being an international cricketer.
We have talked about how the success of Australian cricket has been carefully planned. For this, one eye must always be fixed firmly on the future. After the match-fixing fiasco, the ACB recently announced a pay scheme that will make Australian cricketers, by far, the most highly paid in the world, thus removing any incentives for providing information. Also, in an ageing batting line-up, Ricky Ponting has clearly been identified as the leader of the next generation of Australian batsmen, and that is a major reason why he has not only been retained after his nightmare in India but also pushed up the order. When Steve Waugh was forced out of an Ashes game through injury, Ponting was made vice-captain over the likes of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Mark Waugh. Australia is investing in its cricketing future, and in a big way. Finally, the strategic document of the ACB minutely details its strategy for the Australian A team, the state teams, and even for club cricket, including media coverage they will strive for and their “revenue models”. Dotcoms could have, profitably, learnt a thing or two from this document.
The genesis of this article was the authors’ stumbling upon the conclusion that the Australian Cricketing Establishment was really being run as a business. And, obviously, it is a very successful business. Therefore, it had to follow that much of current management thinking had been adopted and was being followed dedicatedly. From this, we have attempted to deduce the core purpose and core values of this business as well as some of the key processes used to attain this purpose. We would be surprised if much of this has been made explicit. But we firmly believe that there is a passionate commitment to the core purpose on the part of each and every member of the Australian Cricket Establishment. And everything else follows.
We submit, too, that any organization that aims to build durable success has no choice but to “ape” Australian Cricket or, indeed, any of the other truly great organisations. And if the Board of Control for Cricket in India were to learn from this, we would count it a bonus.
Roshan Paul is a senior at Davidson College, USA, majoring in Political Economy; and Mathew Paul is Managing Director of Cognan Consulting, a management-consulting firm headquartered in Bangalore.
Illustration: Bijoy Venugopal