Sunday, June 27, 2010

Only a Question of Intent

Professional athletes the world over do what most of us wouldn't even dream of. They look extraordinarily good when the going is good but perhaps the greatest indicator of their commitment to excellence is how they react to being exposed of their shortcomings. On a macro level, it shows how far a team or an establishment is willing to do to achieve the desired goal. Indeed, it also shows how high they have set the bar for themselves.

The Germany v England match in the Round of 16 of the FIFA World Cup got me thinking about it. In many ways, the Indian cricket is similar to the England football. Both are under constant scrutiny, the players are among the most handsomely paid professionals of their sport, they have a rabid following, and both fall short on the big stage every single time. You could make a recent addition to the list - The Indian Premier League is supposedly the best cricket league in the world just as the Barclays Premier League is supposedly the best football league. I don't know how you define the best in this case but it seems people are increasingly going by the level of interest and the money involved. However, that's a discussion for another time.

The English have traditionally favoured a direct approach to football. There isn't as much focus on the technical aspects or encouragement for players to show their creativity. They have only one major international title to show for it and the team gets exposed at the world stage every two years. They have tried different coaches - English and Continental - for their international team and yet the best they have managed in the last 20 years is a semi-final appearance at the 1990 World Cup and another one at Euro 96. The players who shine so brightly in the uber-competitive Premiership always seem to stutter at the international stage.

A parallel could be drawn with Indian cricket. Those who have watched the side over the years will tell you it suffers from the same problems now as it did 20 years ago. There aren't enough quality fast bowlers, the fielding is abysmal, and there is a general lack of fitness awareness. It's fallacious to say current Indian cricketers are fitter and play better out-cricket than their their predecessors because the comparison has to be drawn with their present-day counterparts. Since the final of the 2003 World Cup, India has failed to progress to the knockout stage in 6 of the 7 ICC tournaments. The lone success came at the first ever Twenty20 World Cup in 2007. They are now under their third foreign coach and each of them has highlighted the need for a proper system that needs to be built from the grassroots level. To use a cliche, they have advocated the need for a bottoms-up approach rather than a top-down one.

Yet, nothing has been done about it. The batsmen who are coming through look hopeless on a wicket which has something for the bowlers. The fast bowlers lose their pace, control and fitness after a season or two. They all talk about the distractions that come with this life and yet none of them have been able to cope with it. The same excuses are brought out time and again - Our grounds aren't in good condition, we don't produce good pitches, selection is biased, and so on. The list is endless and you will hear former cricketers pay lip service to it everytime the team is exposed at the international level.

And yet, if you look around you can see establishments change their culture because they admit their follies and recognise the need to set things right if they are to be competitive. Germany crashed out of Euro 2000 and Euro 2004 at the group stage and while they made the finals of the 2002 World Cup, it seemed more like a case of them being there by default and they got found out by an inspired Brazil.

The Germans decided to set things right after exit from Euro 2004. What had always been a strong, efficient, meticulous German side was now being turned into one with flair and creativity. They embraced the possibility of being slightly vulnerable at the back by adding the threat of their players going forward. It can be seen from the fact that Germany are European Champions at every age-group and the average age of national squad is just 24. The early signs were seen in 2006 when Jurgen Klinsmann led them to a memorable performance at home where his team played attacking football throughout the tournament. Perhaps it was too early for them to go all the way and the Italians played a tactically brilliant game to eliminate them in the semifinal. 2008 saw the Germans go a step further only to be beaten by a Spain side that had been trying to win with the very approach Germany had embraced. Now the Germans have taken their customary place in the quarterfinal of the World Cup and should provide us a memorable contest when they take on the Maradona-inspired Argentina on Saturday.

There is a very obvious lesson that can be learnt from this German team. You could probably say the same about the England cricket team. These two have said goodbye to their past and embraced a different system simply because they have set their sights on being the best and are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their goal. It's difficult to let go of something you have believed in for generations but it can be slightly easier if you are clear about your goal. The results may not come immediately either but if you have the right people in place they will stay focused on the path they have chosen.

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