Safety first, A hazard

As I watched the last day of the Irani Trophy unfold, completely inconsequential, totally devoid of a challenge, I wondered what it was about our cricket system that encouraged so many teams to play safe, to believe that getting the first innings lead was all that mattered in the game of cricket. It bothered me, and I hope it bothers a lot of people, that a higher sporting goal, that of winning the game outright, seems to be so low down the priority list of most teams.

Among the many responses I got on Twitter, one came from one of India's foremost marketing analysts, Anand Halve. "Do you think "it's ok if you don't win but don't lose" is a reflection of a national mindset that goes beyond cricket?" he asked and being the analytical sort promptly followed it with another "The Minimax vs Maximin criterion as a motto for living?"

The second was the more appropriate illustration of what Rest of India did because they would have won on first innings lead anyway. It took me back to the definition of Minimax in game theory which, very simplified, says (courtesy Wikipedia) : The name minimax arises because each player minimizes the maximum payoff possible for the other-since the game is zero-sum, he also minimizes his own maximum loss (i.e. maximize his minimum payoff).

Now look at what Rest of India did. At the start of day 5, they were 413 ahead with 90 overs left. Remember it was a last day pitch and except on Day One a run-rate of 4/over hadn't been reached. You would have thought 4.5 per over would have been a safe enough challenge but also one which would have given their bowlers the best opportunity to take ten wickets. Instead they batted on and set Mumbai 517 to get from a maximum of 67 overs. Pertinently too they scored at 2.96 runs per over in the third innings.

When I asked Harbhajan Singh, Rest of India captain, if he had contemplated a declaration overnight he suggested that on a track like this they didn't want to offer the opposition a chance (remember: 413 from 90 overs on the last day). Now by the minimax theory he was minimising the maximum payoff possible for the opposition (which was to win the game by chasing 413 on the last day) but in doing so he was also maximising his minimum payoff (which was to win on first innings lead). In this case, his maximum pay-off, winning outright, would have been excellent for cricket, would have given his bowlers something to play for on the last day and would have thrown the gauntlet at the Mumbai batsmen who would have had no choice but to go for it since otherwise the game was lost on first innings lead anyway.

And so we had another day of low pressure/low challenge cricket which, as it turns out, is ingrained in our domestic structure. The idea of placing a challenge on yourself to discover how good you can be is considered either outdated, unfashionable or just stupid. Which is such a pity.

So to go back to Anand Halve's question. Is this a national trait where we, effectively, do just enough to get a favourable but enormously sub-optimal result? And is this reluctance to take pressure reflected in a fragility that is manifest when pressure is inevitable? Maybe it is for the social scientists to examine whether this is a national trait but on the evidence of a little bit of research I have to conclude that it is an overwhelming feature of Indian cricket.

Negativity at all levels

Let's start at the top and the now infamous Test at Dominica in 2011. India, leading 1-0, had to make 180 from 47 overs to win the test. The worst case scenario, a defeat, was remote, but by the time India moved to a target of 86 from 15 overs with seven wickets still in hand, that scenario had disappeared. India could either draw or win. India chose to draw rather than challenge themselves to win; the result was favourable (a series win) but sub-optimal (1-0 instead of 2-0). It suggested India didn't want to be pushed.

One level lower and we have seen the mindset at the Irani Trophy. Even more unfortunate was Mumbai's approach in their Ranji Trophy match against Gujarat. Needing 135 from a minimum of 41 overs to seal an outright win, Mumbai opted to dawdle to 65-1 from 27 overs with opener Kaustubh Pawar scoring 15 not out from 88 balls. If you love bright, attacking cricket, you would have been particularly pained by the statement from the Mumbai coach "It wasn't really going to matter eventually — whether we went for the target or not. The fact is we have achieved the objective of qualifying" And so Mumbai allowed themselves to play dull, purposeless cricket instead of challenging themselves for a superior cause.

Go deeper and at the Under-16 level you have a similar attitude. It is inevitable for youngsters are going to be looking at what senior cricketers do. Sample this from Mumbai vs Jharkhand in the Under-16 quarter-final. Mumbai made 360 and bowled Jharkhand out for 46. An innings defeat, seemingly inevitable, Jharkhand found themselves fielding again while Mumbai made 440-9, a lead of 754. They then left Jharkhand around 33 overs of batting. The moment Mumbai's lead went beyond 450 or 500 there was no competitive interest left in the match and the only issue was generating numbers, statistics that would look good on paper, batting averages. What you didn't get was a contest that would make those numbers more relevant.

Worse still by batting on, you are looking at generating batting numbers rather than allowing bowlers to win the match in the fourth innings. And by the time the bowlers are given their role, there is no competitive element left in the game. So how do you produce attacking bowlers who can win you a game in a 50-50 situation on the last day if they don't get the practice to do so? And so by minimising the maximum pay-off possible for the opposition, teams, and therefore Indian cricket, lose out much more in the long run.

The Technical Committee of the BCCI has searched for means to overcome this from time to time, to try and make winning more attractive rather than merely achieving a first innings lead. But technical committees cannot change mindsets that have been ingrained over generations. And till that mindset changes to one that rewards winning it seems we will have to live with batsman-dominated but largely uncompetitive cricket. Minimax might be a good concept in some business situations, even in some sport, but it is harming Indian cricket.

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