Cricket Legend Sunil Gavaskar: ‘The Biggest Challenge Is to Get the Team to Believe in Itself’

According to Sunil Gavaskar, former cricket captain for Team India, success in any vocation requires Three Ds: discipline, which is more mental than physical; dedication to hours of practice; and determination — because, as Gavaskar says, during the time when he was playing the game, “cricket wasn’t a career option.” Today, of course, that last part has changed, with top players earning millions of dollars and corporate sponsors lining up to pay them. At the recent Wharton India Economic Forum in Philadelphia, Gavaskar spoke with India Knowledge@Wharton about his career, how the business side of cricket has changed, and what he has learned about teamwork and leadership along the way.

India Knowledge@Wharton: Well, let us start with a very basic question. How did you get interested in cricket? Was it because of your uncle, Madhav Mantri?

Sunil Gavaskar: Yes, that was a factor, all right. Obviously, when you have somebody in your family playing cricket at the highest level, then automatically you do get interested, but I would imagine that a lot of boys in Mumbai would take to cricket simply because cricket is the sport in Mumbai — like hockey in Punjab and maybe football, or soccer, in Kolkata, Goa and Kerala. Cricket was the main game in Mumbai, so it was easy to take to that, but of course having an uncle who was an India player was a big factor.

India Knowledge@Wharton: I know that in India and in many cricket-playing nations, your track record is well known, but in the U.S. and some other places, people are not as familiar with the kind of achievements you have had. Could you just take us through some of the records that you set over the years?

Gavaskar: I do not look back at all; it is gone. As far as I am concerned, that was a part of my life where I was fortunate to be able to represent India for 16, 17 years and to be part of some great experiences, great moments in the history of Indian cricket. So, you know, I really consider myself very, very fortunate to have been able to represent my country.

India Knowledge@Wharton: Well, that is a very nice and very modest answer. I do remember one of your records was that you scored 34 centuries in test cricket, and that record was not broken for more than 20 years, if I remember right. The question I would like to ask is, in order to have those kinds of achievements, what kind of qualities and attributes do you need to cultivate within yourself?

Gavaskar: I think focus, determination and a fair amount of discipline — which is not the kind of discipline that is normally associated with having an early night, going to sleep at 10 o’clock and waking up at six. That kind of discipline is important as well, but the discipline to mold your game according to the needs of the situation — you need that kind of discipline. So, these are the elements that are necessary. I would imagine that any vocation, any profession [involves] the three Ds that I believed in — discipline, dedication and determination — and I think those have to be part of you to be able to [go] further.

India Knowledge@Wharton: So, explain how you did that in the case of developing your own ability in the cricket?

Gavaskar: Well, for example, as far as dedication was concerned, I would say that I would practice a lot. I would practice in the morning. I would practice in the afternoon — say, three hours in the morning, then go to school, then after school again practice for another two and a half, three hours. You needed to balance your studies, your education, along with the practice hours, simply because at the time during which I played, cricket was not a career option. It has become a very, very good career option now with the kind of money that has come into the sport, and that is terrific — but it was not a career option then.

So, you had to balance your studies as well as your cricket, your love for the game, which meant that you had to show dedication to practice [and] the discipline to be able to go back to your books and to study. And I suppose that to be able to do that at an early age, to be able to balance it out, certainly went a long way in helping me in my cricketing career.

India Knowledge@Wharton: And how do those attributes translate over from cricket to, say, business life?

Gavaskar: It is pretty much the same, in the sense that in business, you have to try and study what the situation is, study the opponent…. I would imagine that there has to be a bit of study, there has to be a lot of hard work involved, and you have to do a lot of [preparation].

In cricket, for example, when you are batting and you know what the opposition bowling is going to be like, and you know what the pitch is likely to be, then you want to say to yourself [that] maybe you do not play this shot earlier on, maybe you do not play that shot earlier on; maybe you just try and play in a certain manner until the bowler is tired or until the new ball becomes old, until the shine wears off the ball, and then you can expand the range of your shots.

And I would imagine that is the same thing that you would want to [do in] business: have ambitions — definitely have ambitions — start slowly, and as you settle in, as you start to get the hang of business, then you try and expand….

India Knowledge@Wharton: Did you take a lot of risks in the way you played cricket?

Gavaskar: No, I do not think so because I was an opening batsman and we were brought up to eschew all risks to be able to play a risk-free cricket [game] as much as possible and tire the bowlers out, so then the batsman coming down, say the number 3, 4, 5 or 4, 5, 6 — the glamour boys, as they call it.

We were the plodders, you know, who did all the hard work — paved the road, as you can say, for the guys. We walked the road so that the others could drive a car on it. That is the way we were brought up to play cricket.

India Knowledge@Wharton: But I would imagine that your attitude towards risk in the game would also translate to risk in business?

Gavaskar: I would imagine so, yes … because the upbringing was to be careful to ensure that there was not any risk involved. I would imagine that today it would be totally different, because today — with the T20, where risks are taken in the game right from ball one — if anybody wants to get into business, it would probably be a different kind of atmosphere that he would go into.

India Knowledge@Wharton: The other thing that fascinates me about cricket is the fact that it’s a team sport. What kind of lessons in teamwork did your years in cricket teach you?

Gavaskar: Well, first and foremost, as a batsman you cannot score runs, or cannot score a century, unless you have somebody batting at the other end for you, unless you have somebody who is taking the runs for you. Unless you have the confidence of somebody staying with you at the other end, you cannot get to a century. So, that is number one.

The other thing is that there will come a time, even during that innings when you are batting well, when the bowler is bowling so well that you might actually be better off being at the non-striker’s end; and if you have a striker who is good enough to take on the load at that stage, then it helps you to tire that bowler out and maybe go on to get a 100. So, you need somebody at the other end to be able to [do that], whether it is the number two batsman, number three, number 11 — you need somebody to stay with you so that you get a 100.

Also, if you are a bowler, then you need the fielders to be able to take the catches, to be able to stop the runs being taken for you to take the wickets. So, it is in a sense a lot of teamwork. It also, in a way, reflects on how [well] you can possibly do in society, in the sense that the more talented batsman always looks after the lesser talented batsman in terms of trying to take more of the strike from a dangerous bowler. He is trying to take more of the strike, and maybe he will bat five balls out of the six-ball over, and maybe just give one ball to the lesser talented batsman.

So, you are looking after somebody slightly less talented, and I think that is probably what you want to do in society — that if you are [doing] well enough, you are trying to look after the less fortunate. It is a bit of teamwork.

India Knowledge@Wharton: Having seen you play, I think you have exemplified that style of playing. I especially remember your ability to deal with very fast bowling; I have seen you play against the West Indies fast bowlers and I do not think there were too many cricket players at that time who were very comfortable with that kind of bowling.

Gavaskar: Well, let me tell you, not a single batsman in the history of the game has been entirely comfortable against fast bowlers.

India Knowledge@Wharton: So, how did you do it?

Gavaskar: I suppose I closed my eyes and played.

India Knowledge@Wharton: As a result of your success as a player, you also became the captain of the team. What kind of leadership lessons did that teach you?

Gavaskar: Well, I was fortunate to have been playing under some very, very fine captains from the Ranji Trophy level — the state level to the international level — and you tended to sort of observe them, to pick [up] points from them.

During the time that you are just a player on the team and looking at the various captains, there are aspects of their captaincy that you like, there are aspects of their captaincy that you do not like, and so you try and keep that in mind when eventually the captaincy comes your way. [For example:] this guy brought the best out of the team doing it this way — while when he said this or when he did that, the team was not very happy, so you try to avoid that. So learning from your seniors was a big lesson. It taught you how to get the best out of juniors, and maybe how not to treat certain players.

India Knowledge@Wharton: Can you give me any examples of the kind of qualities that you liked to emulate, and those you thought weren’t good?

Gavaskar: Ajit Wadekar was my captain at the state level as well as the international level when I made my debut for India. He had a unique way of trying to get everybody together. If, for example, he wanted to pass a message across — a stern message — he would pass it on to his Mumbai guys, not to the whole team, because [in India], with different languages, different cultures and different way of looking at things, it was important not to hurt anybody’s sentiments.

So, he would pass the message on by scolding the Mumbai guys, even if the Mumbai guys had done nothing. But it was his way of passing on a message to the others “to not do this; as a captain, I do not want that.”

On the other hand, you had somebody like Tiger Pataudi, who was captain who pretty much let you do what you wanted. He believed in your abilities. So, he was not a guy with a hand on your shoulder. He would sort of let you run … and if you made a mistake and if you came to him, then he was very happy to talk to you [about it].

Over a period of time, you tended to sort of see that is how it works — and to try and do it this way.

India Knowledge@Wharton: Have you used any of these leadership attributes in a business context?

Gavaskar: Yes, plenty of times. I think there are people who need a bit of guidance, in which case you call them in and you tell them, “Look, this is maybe the way to do it rather than that way.” And there are guys who are better left alone, because they might stumble a little here and there, but at the end of the day they have the ability to get up and to do what you want them to do.

India Knowledge@Wharton: Last year at the Wharton India Economic Forum, we were fortunate to interview President APJ Abdul Kalam, and he mentioned that one of the most important qualities of a leader is to learn how to manage failure. But managing failure is very, very hard. I remember there was a time when under your captaincy, there were a series of test matches where India lost, and I was wondering whether you learned any lessons from that time period which have stayed with you over the years?

Gavaskar: Yes, I think the main thing that you learn is never to lose heart — that it is a cycle. Sometimes, the opposition is simply better than you, and you have to give credit to the fact that they might have just played better than you. Then you try and analyze how you could have improved or bettered your performance, [how] you could have been more competitive, and when you do that, you tend to be able to find out where you went wrong.

One of the best [pieces of] advice that I ever received was from a former captain, who said to me that you must keep a diary of the days when you do well, when you bat well. His reasoning was very simple…. He said if you scored a 100 that day, then when you go back to your room, try and think of what you did right from the time you woke up in the morning — how you felt in the morning, what breakfast you had, where you sat on the team bus…. Then, when you went to the ground, into the dressing room, what happened? Did you have coffee? Did you have tea? Did you have toast? When you went in for your warm ups, what did you do? When you went into the nets, when you played, when you walked out to bat, did you walk on the right side of your partner or the left side of your partner? …Little, little things [like that], he said, but write down that diary.

When you, for example, took stance to bat, how did you feel? Obviously, it was not always easy to remember every little thing or every single thing, but the fact that he made you want to write that was terrific. He said when you are going through a bad patch, when the ball is not hitting the middle of your bat, when you are being bowled, or whatever, that is the time read back on the day that you had scored well, and on the day that you had batted well, because that will then give you a fair comparison as to what you had been doing then, and maybe you should try and replicate that.

[Also,] when you are reading [about] when you have batted well, you start believing in yourself. You might not be getting any runs at all, but just reading about the good days when you did that will boost your confidence, and I thought that was fantastic advice…. It absolutely works.

India Knowledge@Wharton: You mentioned the fact that today, cricket is a career option, especially with the 20-20 and the formation of the IPL. How has the business side of the game changed, and do you think it has changed for the better or are there things that bother you?

Gavaskar: I think there are more pluses than minuses. Obviously, in any sport there will always be certain minuses, but I believe that [with] the advent of the Indian Premier League, the kind of money that is in the game now certainly is a big plus, because it has encouraged parents who were all the time pushing their talented kids only into education simply because they wanted a degree behind them so they would be able to get a decent job. Now, if they see that their kid has talent, they will say, “Okay, go and play, because there is no age limit for education, but there is age limit for sports.”

That is what I told my son, Rohan, as well — that when he was starting to play, you play as much as you want; do not worry about anything else, because you can always study once you have finished with the game….

 I think that is one of the biggest pluses that has happened [in cricket], because I do believe that Indian cricket lost out on many a talented player simply because the parents said, “No, we want you to get into a different field, which guarantees you an income.”

I know when I played at Bombay University, we had two or three talented players who could have had the ability to don national colors, but midway through they opted to go to medical school because that is where they believed that their future was. Today, the parents and the children do believe that there is a possibility to make a living playing the game of cricket.

India Knowledge@Wharton: Do you think India is doing enough to promote cricket in the rural areas?

Gavaskar: Yes. I think India perhaps has got the best junior system in the entire cricketing world. The [number of] opportunities that the junior cricketers get to showcase their talent, because of the various tournaments that [exist], is absolutely incredible.

We also have a talent research development scheme, whereby we are sending scouts into various cities and, therefore, trying to see if there is talent there. The primary aim of these talent scouts is not to state the obvious, in the sense that if a junior cricketer has scored a 100 or he has taken five wickets — well, it is obvious he has got ability, but there could come a situation in the same match where somebody has scored a very good 30 or somebody has come in and taken two wickets at a crucial time…. We wanted to make sure that these guys were not lost simply because they didn’t have the numbers to show; we knew that they had the ability and the temperament, and that is what the talent scouts were supposed to look at, and I think it has worked very well.

[On] the Indian team today, look at the number of guys from the non-metros, and that actually tells you how cricket has spread throughout the country: Maybe 10 or 15 years ago, most of the players were from the metros. Today, I think from the metros you get maybe a handful.

India Knowledge@Wharton: But could the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) be doing more to develop cricket in a more scientific manner in the villages?

Gavaskar: I think we need more academies in all parts of the country. We need to emphasize to the up-and-coming youngsters the importance of physical fitness — though I do not believe that physical fitness is the be-all and end-all — but train them in such a way that they are prepared, once they go on to the national level and then at the international level, to cope with it.

India Knowledge@Wharton: What is the biggest leadership challenge you have faced?

Gavaskar: Well, the biggest challenge is to be able to get the rest of the team to believe in itself, and I think it probably has something to do with the fact that we have had a system in our country — call it the caste system or the class system — whereby some people believe that they are not as good as others. To be able to make them believe in their ability — that their ability is what matters, not the class, not the caste that they come from. I think that has been the biggest challenge.

India Knowledge@Wharton: One last question. How do you define success?

Gavaskar: I wish I could define it. I would imagine that it is a feeling of satisfaction when you have done your job and the feeling of giving it your best, giving it everything, and to be able to put your head on the pillow and sleep peacefully, knowing that you have given it everything. At the end of the day, then, success and failure — as the world terms it — is in the hands of God, but the effort is in your hands.

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