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How a team of underdogs proved everyone wrong in a cricket tournament: 12 lessons I took away

At the onset, let me start by mentioning that this is going to be a long personal post. I am going regale you with a tale of cricket (probably my only tryst with the game) and share the lessons I carried away from it.

I believe sports is one of the the best platforms for team building. It brings out the adrenaline, it unites people, helps understand one another and inspires to work together for a common goal.

For most Indians, cricket is the only game that is akin to a religion. Knowing that, our company initiated an intra-company cricket league about 12 years ago. It is called the Tolaram Premier League (TPL). Over the last 12 years or so, it has evolved into a gala event.

For the last few years, I have mostly acted as a photographer for the event, documenting the matches through pics and, of course, getting better at my job over time. Below are a couple of my pics that I bothered to upload.

This year, it was a bit different. This year, I was not only taking photos, but for the second time after a few years, I was the owner of one of the teams that was competing. Therefore this year, I looked forward to the responsibility of getting the team together and giving a go at winning the coveted cup.

And the reason I am writing this post here is because this has been the most memorable sports quest of my life in which I experienced a sea full of success and joy and in the process, also learned waves of lessons.

The journey started about a month and a half ago when the tournament was declared open. Here is how the thing goes:

  • There were 12 teams competing (various brands and companies owned by the group)
  • Each team would have 10 male players + 2 female players in the playing 12 (The sex ratio is improving, considering that a few years ago it was an all male event)
  • The owners would have to rally people to his/her brand/company and select 4 male players and 2 female players to play, out of the applicants (applications were done online)
  • Rest applicants would be put into a common pool and selected through a draw of lots

Looks simple right? You get yourself 6 good players (male + female), and rest is luck. Fair enough.

Putting the Dano team together

The CFO for the TG-Arla JV, Siddhartha Khandelwal, was my partner in crime initially and he suggested that we pick only young members who are athletic and fresh. Due to his experience on the field in the previous years playing for Dano, I agreed with him.

So, Siddhartha and I started off together by calling up a few people who we thought would be happy to join. He called a few members he trusted and I called a few others. Many people committed and he and I were sort of satisfied that we would have good players in the team.

I looked at all the possible players and then kept the list at a bare minimum of 4 males and 2 females and candidly denied other members, asking them to join other teams as I had fulfilled my quota of the 6 players (as per commitments that Siddhartha and I had received).

That was my first mistake.

When the organizing committee released the list of candidates for me to choose from, I was on the highway on the way to Ilorin in South west Nigeria on a sales trip. I was surprised to find that many of the names I was looking for were missing. In fact, I was baffled. Those were people who had committed to us verbally to apply for the team. But they decided to back out on the last day, without informing me or Siddhartha. This left me in a lurch, I didn’t have the key players I needed in the team.

I called up Siddhartha and shared the list with him. His first reaction was, “Who are these applicants? I don’t seem to know most of them”.

I said I knew a few of them from our Dano sales team, but I wasn’t sure how good they were at the game. And then, I offered Siddhartha a spot (since he had also applied). But understandably, after having played for 10 years in TPL, Siddhartha said, “If you have nobody else, then I will play, otherwise, lets give younger players a chance. That might work better for us”.

That’s swell, I said. He had a point. So, I still had to make a team and I really needed to make the right decisions now.

I decided to look at it in another way. My team was Dano, and sure enough, many of my Dano colleagues in sales had applied. I said, fine, even if we don’t have the top players from the company, at least, we will have a great time together as a team because we work together so closely. The team that works together and also plays together is bound to have the most fun.

So, I put together a mix of what I perceived to be the most analytical minds and the best possible young players from the sales team who would be proud and committed to be a part of team Dano: those who could think on their feet and not yield under pressure.

Puns from Pundits

Apart from this, I was hopeful that the Goddess of luck would bestow her love on us and deliver us 6 other extraordinary players from the lottery.

So, the lottery happened, and I received the rest of my players list. I was excited. But since I didn’t really know any of the players’ caliber from the list, I had to share it to some of the so-called pundits in order to get an opinion.

The pundits looked at the list and then looked at me with a Sorry-for-you-bro-face. There were one or two members who they had seen in earlier TPLs and they said they were ok. Rest were, lets say, “not players anyone would wager money on.”

At this point, I was a bit lost. But then I studied other teams and talked to the pundits about them. I realized that except for the star-studded brands like Indomie, Kellogg’s, Dufil, BCJ (Best Choice, Corporate and Juice team), rest were all okay-ish teams, maybe better than Dano according to the pundits, but not unbeatable. In fact, nobody was unbeatable.

Forming the ragtag Dano band

I said to myself that we didn’t need to think about the finals or playing against big guys. We just needed to think about the first match. We just needed to win one match at a time. Dano had had the history of never winning a single match in TPL in the previous 3 years it had participated.

So, there, we don’t need to climb the mountain on the first day. But we can start one step at a time and eventually conquer it some day. At least, that’s what I thought to myself back then.

Thus, we formed our whatsapp group of the ragtag band. I was happy to have each member in the team and I was determined that I would do whatever necessary to make sure this team feels at home during this short stint.

At this juncture, it would be worthwhile to mention that I was extremely lucky to have 3 members with me who played very crucial roles in the initial days:

  • Deepak Srivastava, who was the captain, and the brainchild behind most of the moves in the game
  • Mignonne De Souza, who took the initiative to bring every member together, and made sure every team information required was gathered
  • Amit Agrawal, who pounced on every opportunity to get the players together to practice. His enthusiasm was contagious and probably the sole source of my inspiration in the early days, while I was caught up chasing sales numbers and preparing review presentations

So far, so good, I said. We were ready to take on the world.

Lady Luck Shines like a Star – Literally!

Sometimes, it pays to be patient and you might get really lucky. But you have to be patient, be positive, and do positive things meanwhile.

Remember when I said pundits made that “Sorry bro” face in the earlier lottery draw?

It so happened that there was another draw for people who had just joined a few days earlier, freshly from B-schools. For whatever reason, we received just one player from the lot, while others got upto 3.

But as fate had it, that one guy was enough for us. The pundits went gaga over him. The guy by the name of Dhruv joined the Dano team and the first thing he had to say was, “Hi guys, Thanks for the add, Lets win TPL!!”

Such spirit. Such enthusiasm. It was hard for anyone to look at anything but winning.

TPL commences

With that spirit, we went into the battlefield called TPL. Our first match was against the formidable Hypo team. Hypo is the number 1 bleach brand in Nigeria and it was led by the fiery Hypo GM Praveen Katarki. There is a reason why he is nicknamed “Tiger” in the group, and his team was no less fierce.

We had a nervous start. We were all anxious. It was the first proper match together as a team and we were still not very confident of what we could achieve together.

We had a chalked out a strategy of how we would bowl, where we would bowl and how we would field. Everything went according to plan while we were bowling and fielding, and we restricted the Hypo team to a respectable 50-55 odd runs. It was a satisfactory start for us.

But things started crumbling when we went down to bat. We were really shaky. It was not easy being on the spotlight as batsmen. You know that people are watching you. You know that every ball you face might be your last. For many of our players it was the first time there. The stress plays on your mind and we lost 3 quick wickets in succession within 1 over. (The mighty “Tiger” claimed them with smart bowling).

Well, the target wasn’t much as the bowlers had done superbly, but with the best 3 batsmen down, we were really worried. We still had our ace batsman Dhruv standing out there though, but if we lost wickets like that then he would be left alone and we would lose.

Yeah, we were worried sick. But it didn’t last long. I mean, Dhruv unleashed such a whirlwind of sixes and fours once he came to the striking end, that the match was wrapped up well within the next 3-4 overs and Dhruv had a personal score of 49 runs. Hypo didn’t know what hit them.

In fact, we didn’t know what hit Hypo, either. We just blinked and the match was over.

The rules stated that out of the 12 teams, the top 2 teams based on Net Run Rate would be placed straightaway in the Semi-finals. And with that stellar performance, Dano was through to the semis with the second best Net run rate. We couldn’t believe it, but we were thankful and we were happy about it.

Pressure in the Semis

We were the talk of the town as the dark horses of the Semis. We had stormed into the semis skipping a good 2 rounds of games, which the other 10 teams still had to fight out. But still nobody knew our team and nobody was willing to put money behind Dano in the betting links. All odds were against us.

Once again many of the experts began writing us off. They said that we were a one-man-army. If Dhruv gets out, the game is over.

Sometimes, you feel like speaking out against such judgement meted out to you by people who do not know you well. But let me tell you, actions speak louder than words. There is no greater satisfaction than proving them wrong through actions and results instead of arguing with them on hypothetical scenarios.

We huddled back together as a team and recounted our strategies and how we needed to bowl. We reminded ourselves that each of us has a role to play in the field. Each run saved means getting closer to winning. And we went back into the battlefield.

I felt there was a marked difference in the team body language this time. What Dhruv achieved in the previous match and the way the team had bowled had rubbed off. Each member believed, truly believed and desired to win. Each member was more confident this time.

The bowlers went in with so much firepower that we bowled out the opponents Minimie within 23 runs. Its worth mentioning here that Minimie had previously beaten Indomie. Indomie is the number 1 noodles in Nigeria and they had the best players of Tolaram group. Obviously they were the tournament favourites and Minimie beat them.

And we beat Minimie!

Sameer, Bala, Dhruv and Aditya dazzled everyone who ever doubted their bowling with a tight line and length.

23 runs? Forgive my exaggeration, but I felt even a toddler could make these runs. Our bowlers had proven their mettle and delivered an easy target for the batsmen. We won that round so easily that there were jaws dropping to the floor.

Nobody had ever imagined that the lowest ranked team out of the 12 could make it to the finals. Some probably even felt cheated, because they thought that we would now be easy prey for the final opponents, the team formed with the combination of 3 stalwart companies: Best Choice, Corporate and Juice (BCJ). They were the clear favourites with super popular skilled players.

The hallowed finals

When we walked into the final match, we were still talking basics. Deepak, our captain, never stopped talking about the fundamentals. This was a dream come true for us, all of us. We were there in front of the entire senior management of Tolaram group, putting on a show. We were extremely happy, but we were grounded. We had one final battle and things to prove to our detractors.

The odds were placed heavily against us by the betting committee. There was a common consensus that Dano team is only a few bowlers and Dhruv, no other batsmen. People believed that against a pushover team like Dano, BCJ was going to have a field day.

Well, the Dano Daredevils were not to be messed with. They proved everyone wrong again.

The BCJ team, spearheaded by Manpreet Singh, the beverage GM, hit a steep 85 runs in their innings. They had a strong line up of batsmen and bowlers, which was crucial in kicking Dufil out in the semis. Their batting skills bore us down heavily during our bowling.

When our bowling concluded, the team huddled up once again, and we said to each other that each of us will contribute and we will perform like nobody else ever has. And that’s exactly what happened.

Dhruv went on his usual thrashing routine, but unfortunately he was out earlier than expected. We were still sitting at a small score and 86 runs seemed like an impossible target.

We went back to the basics again of taking it one ball at a time, place the ball and steal singles and doubles and the odd 4 runs. Bala proved to be a solid anchor as he stabilized the innings for us and kept the score board ticking.

But as we inched closer to the target, the overs were getting depleted and the required run rates were climbing.

Praveen, one of our Batsmen, before he went in to bat had said something akin to, “I will play this match and score runs for the team.”

No truer words were ever spoken to me by a guy who I had known only for a few weeks. Praveen, like a possessed Virender Sehwag, spoke through his bat to silence each of his critics with a solo tirade against the bowlers. He was dancing up and down the pitch toying with the bowlers and he went on to score a rapid 29 runs to bring us in the neighborhood of our target.

We were into the last 2 overs of the match and had 19 more runs to go to win. This was when the crowd began sitting at the edge of their seats. They had seen the impossible happen, in the form of the Dano team breaking all norms. Many began believing that maybe this team could win.

And down at the pitch we 2 new guys, Yash and Abhishek. This was their moment. 19 runs is not much for 12 balls in a small ground. But when playing the finals, you need nerves of steel. Abhishek and Yash both hit a six each to bring the scores closer.

By the time the last 2 deliveries were left, we were well within sight of the victory with 2 runs required off 2 balls. This was when the BCJ team experience and skills kicked in and they snatched victory off from our hands with some superb bowling. Well, sad to say, we lost by 1 run.

But in due course, we proved so many people wrong and performed so extraordinarily that people came up to us and said, “Dano Daredevils lost the match but won a lot of hearts”.

What more could we ask for? We came in like a bunch of hilliebillies, absolute underdogs and won against all odds. I felt like we were from the movie Lagaan, where the villagers beat Englishmen at their own game of cricket.

The TPL series took its toll on me and I was dazed for more than a few days. But as the euphoria died down, I looked back at it. I thought about what happened, and how it happened.

Why did Dano team succeed so exceptionally? What made a motley crew of rag tag members come together and take down Goliaths?

The Lessons I carried away in the end

I realized there are many things all the way that led to these beautiful moments and the successes. There were many mistakes I made and some right things we did. We often experience them and but do not care enough to note them, to learn from them and use them in the future.

Let me list it out here the way I saw it, and maybe in future, it will help others and myself in getting back to the basics. A few of them are marketing related whiles others mostly about management in general or otherwise, just life lessons.

1. Reported behavior is usually different from observed

In research we have something called reported vs observed behavior. People often give superficial responses. Consumers don’t mean what they say or commit often. It is not like they want to lie, but they might get influenced by surroundings or by the presence of an interviewer. They might end up giving the interviewer an incorrect response inadvertently.

Beware of this and learn to understand consumer behavior better. Understand what motivates them or makes them do things and not just rely on what they say. What they say and what they actually do might have a vast difference.

When Siddhartha and I were approaching members, we should have understood those people better, on what are the likely factors that could influence their decision to join the team. If they had any affiliations like friends or bosses in rival teams, it was obvious that they would hesitate playing in an opposition team. Many committed to us because they were being nice, but when the moment came for delivering, they went back to where they were supposed to be loyal.

2. Always prepare a good sales pitch

Looking back at how I approached different people, my pitch was lame. I was pitching to people to come and play for the team but I had no strategy in place as to

  • Why they should play with Dano
  • Who else would be there to play beside them
  • How they will be crucial and given respect in the team
  • How others would add value to them

People don’t just want to buy whatever you are selling because you are telling them it is good. You need to step into their shoes and enable them to see how their lives will be better with your product or service.

People like being associated with things that give them a good status symbol. People like being given respect and importance. And most of all, they buy it if they see the value proposition very clearly.

3. Never give up

I know this is a bit clichĂ©d. But I also think we tend to forget this and give up too early too often. You never can be sure when things turn better around that bend beyond which you can’t see. For us as a team, I believe we were not bonding too well initially and it took repeated efforts from Amit and me to get everyone to get down to practice and to really start believing in winning.

To add to that, if we had given up, I would not have repeatedly asked the organizing committee to give us a go at the new employees who had joined after the application deadlines were over, in order to choose again from the new lot. That was when we got lucky and got Dhruv in the lucky draw.

Its not to my credit alone, but I think it is the result of everyone, including other teams and the organizing committee, working relentlessly towards getting better.

4. Hope is not a strategy

I overheard another team talking and one particular member stood out with his strategic statement.

He said, “We have 5 good batsmen who alone can hit 50-60 runs among themselves and our bowlers are also good. Its all sorted, we will win.”

In my honest opinion this is not a strategy. This is hope. And hope is not a strategy. What the guy did was just count the number of star members in his team. This is a common fallacy and I was a victim of this too about 3 and half years ago when I had my first expat team at work.

We often desire for stars in our teams, whether at work or at sports or anywhere. We want those excellent performers who we believe will deliver and we won’t have to do anything. Over the years I have understood that this is not exactly the right approach.

Having stars is good, but not all members can be stars as per your expectations. It is a team of people of all shapes and sizes. They might be stars in parameters that you probably have failed to see. So, you, as a leader or a manager, have a job of understanding them better, finding the star in the person and getting the best out of the team.

Also, instead of hoping that the stars will deliver, get into details, break down the nitty-gritties , look at numbers, look at things analytically. Understand what works and what doesn’t. Understand the strengths and weaknesses of your team members. Make a plan considering all the upsides and the downsides.

We had three basic points in our strategy:

  1. Bowl tightly – as little extras as possible, maintain line and length as planned
  2. Field well – Focus on catching the ball, and resist the temptation to throw wildly, thus giving no overthrows
  3. Don’t throw away your wickets – Grounded shots, well placed shots, and no run-outs at all

That is exactly what we did. As Dano team, we discussed every little detail of who is good at what, who will field where, who will bowl where and when, when will we bat, how will we bat and in what order. We at least gave a thought to all scenarios, including our plans if it were a night match under the floodlights. Even though, we didn’t have all the answers, but we did consider the possibilities and our actions and reactions. I think it paid off very well for us.

In all the matches we played, it felt like a play on stage: we wrote the script and acted it out to the T.

5. Stronger together – Do team building for better team cohesion

A team that fights together is always stronger than a gathering of superstars who want to hog the spotlight. As managers, we need to accept all members of the team in all shapes and sizes, from different backgrounds, with varying capabilities and ensure they work together. It is our job to bring about team cohesion.

Team cohesion happens when members feel a connection to the rest of the team. In an event like TPL, members brought together from a random draw of lots do not usually feel that connection and you see it missing in most teams.

It was the same for us in Dano, although we did try to have a round of introduction at the start. I believe that was a failure on my part. We should have had more interactions to build better cohesion. We were lucky that common detraction did bring us together to a certain extent. But there was more to be done.

After all, all members should be like the spokes of a wheel. The wheel works only if all members bear feel a part of the wheel and bear the burden equally.

6. Set long term targets; break it down with simpler goals

We often set big targets for ourselves. Big targets take a lot of complicated and long winded steps towards completion. In the course, the human mind gets daunted with the steep tasks. But if you break it down to simpler, short term steps, you can stay motivated and make progress steadily.

Winning the TPL was on our minds, but what we saw initially was a lot of strong teams, a lot of good players in other teams. But we followed a clear thought process of taking it one ball at a time.

We had an overall strategy. But we broke it down to each delivery. We refused to get bogged down by previous deliveries that were hit to the boundary, and kept pushing ball by ball. We focused on what we needed to do at that particular moment and put all our energy behind that moment and repeated it every delivery.

In the end, things seemed so simple after every victory. I think it was due to the fact that we kept it so simple by breaking it down.

7. Have a common purpose and a reason to believe

There is nothing stronger than a team which believes in one goal. Initially, when we did not get the players we desired, my idea was to get all Dano related players on board, because that would unite us all a common pride of making our own brand win.

But when the rest of team was put together by fate, we didn’t have much in common. However, in some weird manner, I think what affected quite a few of us individually was that Dano team was written off very early as the weak ones. Many of us out there wanted to prove them wrong.

This became our common goal: to prove ourselves, to believe in ourselves that we are as good as anyone else, and that we can win.

In every team, there has to be a binding factor. Whenever we work with teams, it is very important for us to ensure every member is able to believe in the common goal.

8. Communication must be clear

When in war, the troops at the front lines depend on clear communication at every point. If we stop communicating at any point, the team could possibly lose its way. Thankfully for us, Deepak and Amit maintained very clear communication with all the members and it paid off as none of them were lost.

All practices were well coordinated, all team member arrivals and whereabouts were accounted for and during the match, each member was talked to all the time to keep them on their toes.

Communication serves as not only a transfer of messages, but also as a motivation for the team by keeping them engaged and involved.

9. Entrust and empower people

Each member in the team must be aware of the responsibility that he or she bears. Believe in them and let them know that you believe in them and depend on them.

There is no proof that magic exists, but what we experienced during the tournament felt nothing less than magical. Each member was important to us. Spokes of the wheel, like I said before. And people valued that trust and empowerment.

The results spoke for itself in the field.

10. Focus on what you have instead of counting the have-not’s

From the word go, we always looked at what our strengths were and attempted to maneuver the game according to our rules.

There is sometimes a tendency to lookout for what others are doing, and follow suit. We decided to make decisions looking inwards. We looked at what we could do and made our moves according to what we had.

One of our oldest mentors in the company, Mr. Prem, used to say, set your own goal posts. If you play by the rules others set for you, you will lose. Set your own rules according to your own strengths.

11. Be adaptable and improvise

Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”. We went out there with plans and strategies. But when you get tossed around by superb performance by the opponents, you have to think on your feet and adapt to survive.

Deepak did exactly that. He is very keen observer and noticed the patterns in the batting very early in quite a few instances. He changed fielder positions frequently according to the batsmen and voila! That resulted in us getting a couple of crucial run-outs and saved a lot of runs, especially in the semi-finals. It was beautiful to see it happen actually: very pleasing.

12. Have fun, it’s not about the end but the means to the end

When you are under the spotlight, the pressure is immense. At work, we face a lot of stress. There is only one way to beat this: have fun, no matter what happens.

It should not be about the end, but the means to the end. We should learn to enjoy the process. We will be much happier that way and the energy levels stay maintained.

This was the philosophy we followed during TPL. We took every opportunity to celebrate each victory, however small it was. We didn’t worry about winning or losing, but focused on enjoying every moment and giving a 100% each time.

The result was that when our batsmen went down to bat, they were probably more relaxed than others. There were no run-outs, and very few of them got out to wayward shots. When you enjoy every moment, you beat stress then and there.

In the end, this event gave us so much glee that I was still smiling on the inside after a week of the event. This was a well orchestrated game for me, a game where we all used our smarts and to our good luck, most things went our way.

I believe we get better with time because of what we learn from our mistakes and successes. So, next time, I believe I will be even better prepared; be it cricket, or any work project. When the basics are right, you can take on anything.

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