A good time to draw up a succession plan

If we listened carefully, we will have realied that succession planning has been the catch phrase for a while. From Ratan Tata to Steve Jobs, Narayan Murthy to KK Modi, from Dalai Lama to the Chinese Government, we have heard them all espouse, if not entirely implement, succession planning.

Somehow, the catch phrase seemed to have escaped the attention of those who matter in Indian cricket. Else, we would not have been left dealing with a situation that with so little positive peer-pressure on the team now. Such pressure would have been among the factors motivating the team to higher levels of adaptation and self-confidence.

When it comes to the Indian cricket team, perhaps the succession plan remains focussed solely on leadership rather than every spot in the XI. It has led to the team losing seven overseas Tests and with no hint of who the next great Indian Test batsman would be. It is hard to imagine the line-up when Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman – and Sachin Tendulkar bow out in quick succession.

And this for a squad that is struggling to find a replacement for Sourav Ganguly more than three years after his retirement. For one reason or the other, the likes of Yuvraj Singh, S Badrinath, Suresh Raina and Virat Kohil have not been able to offer the assurance that they can hold their place for some time to come.

Now is a time as good as any for India to draw up a succession plan if India is to regain pride of place in Test cricket. For any succession plan for the Indian cricket team to succeed, it would entail developing a more aggressive and confident demeanour among the fringe and the emerging players. The playing standard of the fringe players is an essential ingredient.

The key people who have to define the goals of the succession-planning process are the selectors and the team management. While it is important to focus on the present and do well in the battle on hand, it is also critical that this bunch does not embrace only a status quo approach and indulges in some forward planning.

They must have the vision to identify and prepare cricketers to succeed in different position or to have ‘ready now’ players who can be inducted when the stars lose form or retire. If for some reason the selectors and the team management are unable to do that, an alternative succession-planning mechanism must be put in place.

Selection criteria and implementation, talent identification and player welfare and support are of critical importance to the system’s success. It would result in the emergence of a highly-competitive, stimulating and creative environment. Critically, the ‘middle’ group of players would be elevated to becoming consistent ‘top level’ performers in this dynamic structure.

It also calls for patience with the younger players coming in to the Test side. Obviously the selectors and the team management believe that anyone who is awarded an India cap is worthy of a spot in the XI. However, that belief has to be backed consistently over a period of time rather than employ an approach that makes the young feel that they are trapped in a revolving door.

We must also remember that there are no guarantees for a succession plan to succeed. Remember the West Indies has found it hard to replace the likes of Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes, Michael Holding and Joel Garner, Curtly Ambrose and even Courtney Walsh – to name only a few – and Australia has found it hard to secure replacements for the top guns.

The closest Indian cricket came to defining such thoughts and act upon this was during Greg Chappell’s tenure as coach of the Indian team. In May 2005, he made a winning presentation titled ‘Theories and Ideas’ before key personnel of the Board of Control for Cricket in India and included his suggestion of a succession plan.

The Greg Chappell-Rahul Dravid-Kiran More combine kept the players informed about their plans. Of course, not always were the affected players ecstatic about their role or about being left out from time to time but they knew that the brains trust was trying to build depth and flexibility to cover any eventuality. It was slowly getting through and building some confidence and trust on one other

I remember talking to More, who was then Chairman of Selectors, about this planning.  “We made some tough decisions along the way – like dropping Sourav Ganguly and Zaheer Khan – but only with the intention of forging a solid team. It was not the easiest of things to do in this country and some players asked me hard questions. But it was really up to them to pull up their socks and come back with better fitness and an attitude that works for the team,” he said.

Greg Chappell had identified Sourav Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh and VVS Laxman as the core group and sought to entrust this group with a role in the development of players in the learning-to-compete stage.  Of course, his succession plan came unhinged in the West Indies at the ICC Cricket World Cup 2007.

Somewhere down the line, since India rejected all that he preached, the men who matter haven’t paid heed to his idea of drawing up a succession plan that is so vital for the health of the national team.  Come to think of it, Greg Chappell was drawing on his experience of being a part of a similar decision-making process in the mid-’80s to raise standards in key areas that led to Australia’s current success.

Back in the early 80s when Greg Chappell, Rodney Marsh and Dennis Lillee quit international cricket at the same time, Australia’s stock in world cricket plunged.  It needed the likes of coach Bobby Simpson and Greg Chappell to come together to develop a vision and a strategic plan that brought together a group of cricketers who wouldn’t only challenge the existing West Indies dominance but also take world cricket to a new level. The results were there for all to see from the time Allan Border assumed captaincy of the team.

Yet, Australia paid the price for not having a succession plan in 2008-09 when it lost the Ashes to England. After dominating cricket for nearly a decade and a half under leaders like Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting, Australia slid from its pre-eminent position to be ranked fourth in the world.

The retirement of legends like Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Damien Martyn and Justin Langer first and then of Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden left the Australian team short of experience and talent to the point that it lost Test series at home for the first time in 17 years. So it is not as if Australia has been consistent with its planning.