01 August 2011

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 India had reconsidered over a mug of Tetley’s and withdrawn their appeal.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?


A quite brilliant post. I agree with all of this. It might also be worth thinking about other elements of the process, from which politicians could learn:

- The fact that Ian Bell and Eoin Morgan 'fist-bumped' to celebrate the four, unaware that the ball had not crossed the boundary. How much of our current political and economic malaise is a result of 'fist-bumps' (metaphorically speaking)?

- The fact that Ian Bell was only batting at number three because Jonathan Trott had dislocated his shoulder while fielding. Maybe 'dislocation' can sometimes be a benefit, as well as a hindrance. For example, the offshoring of manufacturing feels painful (like Jonathan Trott's shoulder!!!) but has unexpected benefits.

- The fact that a 'third umpire' was needed to confirm that the ball had not crossed the rope, and that Ian Bell was therefore out. In all the discussions of FSA reform and the introduction of macro-prudential regulatory powers for the Bank of England, I haven't once heard anyone suggest the value of a <i>third</i> financial regulator. A video replay of the financial crisis, made available to such a regulator, could prove crucial in preventing a repeat.

Anwar: many thanks -- really great comments (I thought the interesting thing was that England could have run four or five while Kumar was rlling on the ground). The warning against premature fist pumping is very well placed -- and the thrid umpire external watchdog also v interesting (though did the 4th umpire/match referee contribute to the solution -- or was this an example of the protagonists coming together to solve a problem wihtout the intervention of regulators?)

Interesting too if Tendulkar did play the role on the value of elder statesment with wider perspectives -- another possible lesson.

Anwar: you might also be interested in an earler piece I did (but which didn't get published as I was in Australia) on lessons for politicians from England's Ashes victory. Might make good reading for Duncan Fletcher (after all the man behind England's awful 2006-7 tour) and MSD.

" Test Match Special
As the England cricket team head back from their Ashes winning tour of Australia, what lessons might England captain, Andrew Strauss, give David Cameron over the promised tea and buns at No.10?
The signs in Australian cities exhorting the public to "watch history be made" as England took on Australia for cricket's Ashes disappeared very rapidly as the sponsors realised that this was the wrong sort of history - the first England series win in Australia for 24 years. But before the dust settles completely , it is worth looking to see whether there are any general lessons that might be learnt from England's success.
Lesson 1: prepare well
The 2005-6 Ashes debacle (when England surrendered 5-0¬) was partly caused by a totally inadequate preparation. This time the team went out early; warmed up and was ready for playing in Australian conditions by the time of the first test.
Lesson 2 : have a strategy based on analysis
England had a plan for every Australian player – for example where usually every Australian beats their average in an Ashes series, this time they collectively underperformed. Their backroom staff had developed their strategy based on an in depth analysis of the weakness of each player.
Lesson 3: don't panic in the face of setbacks
One of the most impressive things about this Ashes victory was the reaction of England's management to their loss at Perth. Rather than panic the reaction was simply to admit that they had played badly - but to recognise that this was a failure to execute rather than a flaw in the underlying strategy. So England stuck to their plan - while the Australians got carried away on the back of a single win.
Lesson 4 : be ruthless when necessary
Man of the series, Alastair Cook, the England opening batsman who was nearly dropped in the summer when he lost form, paid tribute to the way the selectors stuck by him. But England also made one very ruthless decision - to drop their leading wicket taker, Steven Finn, after the Perth test. Finn's problem was that although he was taking wickets he was also conceding loads of runs - undermining the whole England approach of strangling Australia's "get runs fast" batsmen. So Finn was out and Bresnan in - and played brilliantly in Melbourne.
Lesson 5 : manage the egos, build team spirit and make it fun
England's successful captains are those who can manage the big beasts - and turn them into team players. This time Andrew Strauss and coach Andy Flower had to contend with the mega-ego of Kevin Pietersen. Some of the stars, like Graeme Swann, didn’t play quite as big a part as predicted- but claimed that they were happier as supporting players in a successful team than in boosting their personal average in a losing campaign. And finally, after tours when there has clearly been a lot of dressing room dissent and disruption, player after player attested to how good the team atmosphere was – a tribute both to the leadership and the supporting, non-playing, members who all contributed.
Finally: keep focus until the job is done
England's job was done by day four at Melbourne -- the Ashes were retained and the nation celebrated. But captain Strauss made it clear that there was to be no loss of focus and England wanted to win the series - not settle for a dissatisfying draw or loss in the final test in Sydney. And England stuck to their plan in Sydney and delivered a textbook win.

That said, it clearly helped that Australia was far from the team they were only four years ago - and far from clear that these ingredients would have been enough to win against the likes of McGrath, Gilchrist and Warne. But opportunities have to be taken. This series was England's to lose - but this time England planned and delivered a memorable win".

Hi Jill - really cool article. The sad thing is that Sachin ends up getting the plaudits for this stupid act of generosity - apparently he talked the captain into getting MS back.

But getting back to your article and the comparison of cricket to politics - there are other stark similarities: sledging is said to have been invented in Australia; I suggest that it started much earlier with...politics!

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