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The Dhoni example

Indian captain MS Dhoni’s sporting decision to let England batsman Ian Bell bat on after being given out has lessons for our political system.

Indian captain MS Dhoni’s sporting decision yesterday to let England batsman Ian Bell bat on after being given out has lessons for our political system.

India had taken a day’s battering in the field. They had already lost their strike bowler with a pulled hamstring. Their status as the No.1 test nation is hanging in the balance (amazingly England could overtake them). So as Ian Bell “stupidly” (his words, not mine) decided to rush off for tea on 137 not out, not waiting to see if the ball was dead, it is hardly surprising India took the chance to run him out. What then happened surprised everyone. As India was booed back onto the field for unsportsmanlike behaviour, the Sky commentators declared that the England players on the balcony were “sarcastically” applauding the Indians out. But they were wrong. It was not the England No.7 Matt Prior who appeared, but a reinstated Ian Bell. India had reconsidered over a mug of Tetley’s and withdrawn their appeal. The applause was genuine. Now the debate is over whether Dhoni was sporting or failed to exhibit necessary ruthlessness (in the context of the game it might not matter – when Prior finally came in he upped the scoring rate dramatically, but when the incident happened the match was still very much in the balance).

So what might be the lessons for our holidaying politicians? First, keep your eye on the ball and don’t make assumptions. None of this would have happened if Ian Bell had not simply assumed the ball had gone for four (indeed England could have easily taken an extra run or two). He is being widely castigated today by massed pundits for being “dopey or dozy”. Second, immediate reactions under pressure may not always be right. The Indians were asked to reconsider out on the pitch, but stayed with the appeal. Such a run out could only have happened just before a break – so there was always going to be time to reconsider. The tea interval allowed time to reflect. Wise politicians, even when under pressure from media demanding instant reactions need to give themselves time to come up with the right not just an immediate answer. That means taking control of the timetable – something governments too rarely try to do. Third, just as the cover-up is always more fatal than the initial crime, the repentant sinner is always more lauded than the person who did the right thing initially. Dhoni is being widely lauded for his sporting behaviour in withdrawing the Indian appeal. But as our research on policy making showed, our political system makes it difficult for political leaders to admit that an earlier decision may not have been the right one. As one former Secretary of State told us in our policy making research: “one of the difficulties we have in government and it’s to do with our political culture is you see something’s going wrong but there is a great disincentive to sticking your hand up and saying so ... and some of the worst mistakes are when people plough on with what they know to be wrong, for fear of being accused of making a U turn”. But as politicians listening to Test Match Special in Tuscany or Cornwall might reflect there is one thing cricket and politics have in common. Having done the decent thing, preventing the series from being overshadowed by an unpleasant incident, the media – with the luxury of unaccountable punditry and no need for consistency – are now demonising Dhoni for letting himself be bullied by an overassertive England. P.S. India is on the verge of losing. Did it make a difference? Who knows?

Institute for Government

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