How to sustain winning streaks

The Indian cricket team’s brilliant run at South Africa holds lessons for how to build the foundation for lasting success

Indrajit Gupta

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Like many other avid cricket fans, I’ve been closely watching the Indian cricket team’s run in South Africa. And I believe their stand-out performance offers some useful insights to any business enterprise that’s looking to create well-knit, high-performance teams that are able to sustain their performance over a long period.

After losing the first two Tests, the side has risen like a phoenix from the ashes to dominate the rest of the tour, starting with its famous win in the third Test. The one-day series was completely one-sided—and the nail-biting final T-20 match on Saturday was proof that this side, even without Virat Kohli, was one step ahead of the South Africans. Despite having had very little time to prepare for the tour, there’s no denying that this side not just acquitted themselves well to the conditions. They haven’t let the early reversals pull them down—and then gone on to dominate the series in a manner which very few visiting sides have done. Sure, the fact that South Africa lost some of its old pros to injury—Dale Steyn, AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis—at critical junctures of the tour, made it much harder for them to recover. But there’s no taking away from the fact that Kohli’s team has done exceptionally well and created the momentum to extend their winning streak.

So if you’re looking to create the conditions for such a winning streak inside your enterprise, what could you learn from Kohli’s side? I’d pick a few.

Hunger to win: I haven’t seen too many Indian sides that have the same relentless intensity as this team. It flows mainly from Kohli’s aggressive in-your-face leadership style, whether it is on the field or at the pre- and post-match conferences—here is a leader who is never willing to relax. Even when the side was on top, Kohli wouldn’t even once be willing to take his foot off the pedal—and made sure that the South Africans knew it.

Such aggression makes lots of Indians iffy. As a kid, I grew up in an era of gentle sporting giants—Vijay Amritraj, Prakash Padukone, among others. They achieved success at the highest level, but never really dominated the game over a long stretch. And so far, no Indian cricket side has been feared and respected like Clive Lloyd’s side or even Steve Waugh’s Australians. If this side retains its mojo, India has the opportunity to dominate world cricket for the next few years. I’d argue that Kohli represents a new generation of young Indians who are willing to play hard, win every match and dominate the rivals. Make no mistake, this infectious zeal to win is already rubbing off on future generations as well, as we saw in the case of the under-19 side. They simply clobbered their opposition in every match.

Stepping up to lead: Sometimes, it’s easy to get swayed by leadership style alone. Kohli’s aggressive brand of leadership wouldn’t amount to much, if it didn't help channelise that aggression into real, impactful on-field performance. And for that, every player must know his role—and how he can contribute to the side.

For me, the big revelation of this tour was the contribution of the old war horse MS Dhoni. The stump microphone provided enough clues of how the astute former captain helped the two young spinners—Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal—bag a tonne of wickets. Dhoni has also helped Kohli set the close-in fields. None of this would be possible if Kohli was insecure about having a former captain issuing instructions to the side. And this concept of distributed leadership allows him to tap into every pocket of wisdom that exists within the team. Listening to valuable advice and creating space for other leaders to step up helps build ownership. It also builds a sharing culture that enables players to learn from each other.

Besides, the best teams hunt in packs. The battery of West Indian fast bowlers knew how to throttle batting sides with their intimidating, relentless pressure. Between ‘Bhuvi', Shami and Bumrah, they’ve operated as a unit to put pressure, as have Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal. Enjoying each other’s company on long tours is an important part of remaining focused and not allowing boredom and fatigue to set in.

At one level, there is healthy competition for places in the final eleven. At the other, it is good to see the bowling unit exchange notes among themselves on the field and help each other figure out what to do.

Sharpening the axe: Bhuvi’s knuckle ball, Bumrah’s toe-crushing yorkers and the South African batsmen’s inability to pick wrist-spinners like Kuldeep have been much-talked about on this tour. The consistency with which our bowlers have executed their plans have come in for special praise from the South African commentators.

Being able to spring new surprises on the batsmen is now an important part of the modern game. But it takes considerable time to perfect them at the nets and in actual match practice.

What’s more, such success at the international level tends to be transient. With slow motion replays, it is usually a matter of weeks—if you’re lucky, a few months—before teams and the coaching staff are able to decipher the secret formula—and figure out a way to deal with it.

Consider what happened to R Ashwin. He quickly went from being a world-class spinning sensation to a bowler that suddenly looked predictable in a space of a few years. Like any good workmen, Ashwin realised the need to sharpen his tools—and find new ways to out-think batsmen.

There are reports that the off-spinner is now trying to add leg spin to his repertoire. The upcoming IPL season will offer clues of what the wily spinner has up his sleeve to extend his career and bounce back into the reckoning.

It’s a case of horses for courses. This year, Cheteshwar Pujara went unsold at the IPL auctions. And instead of sitting it out, he’s opted to play for Yorkshire at the English County cricket circuit from April onwards, so that he gets enough match practice and is ready to be considered for India’s tour of England, starting in July.

A formidable talent pipeline: There’s one thing that stands out at the moment: the sheer quality of talent that is springing up at all levels. This augurs well for India and will help sustain the performance of Indian cricket. No other country quite has this same groundswell of talent. There was a time when the Australian cricket academies like the one set up by Rodney Marsh would churn out talent on a regular basis. Thanks to the money that’s supporting the game, more families are now willing to allow their wards to follow their heart and opt for a career in cricket.

Yet, in the past, many young talented U-19 Indian players have been unable to make the transition to the senior side. It isn’t always about the difference in standards in first class cricket to international cricket. More often than not, they didn’t have the mental tenacity to step up at the highest level. The resilience, the ability to deal with failure—and success—and not allowing it to get to your head, have sometimes consumed many a rising star. Like Unmukt Chand. Two years ago, I had written about Chand—and why his career never took off despite a brilliant start in a piece in Founding Fuel that dealt with Virat Kohli.

That’s where a coach like Rahul Dravid is already making a huge difference to ensure that raw talent like Shubman Gill and Prithvi Shaw don’t flame out after a couple of years. And it is about building good habits: staying grounded, the hunger to learn, building self-confidence and loads of hard work.

(A shorter version first appeared in Business Standard).

About the author

Indrajit Gupta
Indrajit Gupta

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Indrajit Gupta is a business journalist and editor with over two decades of experience. He was the Founding Editor of the Indian edition of Forbes magazine. Within four years of its launch, Forbes India became the most influential magazine in its space.

He is the co-founder and director at Founding Fuel.

He has served in leadership positions at many of the leading media brands in the country. Before taking up the assignment to start up the India edition of Forbes magazine, Gupta was the Resident Editor of The Economic Times in Mumbai and before that, the National Business Editor of The Times of India.

Over the years, Gupta has built a reputation for grooming talent and creating highly energised and purposeful newsrooms. He has interviewed several leading global thought-leaders and business leaders including CK Prahalad, Ram Charan, Wayne Brockbank, Sumantra Ghoshal, Carlos Ghosn and Nitin Nohria, and also led cutting-edge joint research-based projects with McKinsey & Co, The Great Place to Work Institute, Boston Consulting Group, KMPG and Coopers & Lybrand.

He won the Polestar journalism award in 2010 and was awarded the Chevening fellowship by the British Foreign office in 1999. Gupta is an alumnus of the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research, Mumbai and a B.Com (Hons) graduate from St Xavier's College, Calcutta.

Gupta teaches a course on Business Problem Solving at his alma mater. He writes a column named Strategic Intent in Business Standard’s edit page. He lives in Mumbai with his wife and two young daughters.