And now this book 'Beyond the Blues' written by Aakash Chopra before he wrote 'Out of the blue'. It is probably the first account of an Indian cricketer on a deep and honest level, on his innermost feelings and emotions as he goes through an entire season of domestic cricket. More important, as it comes from Aakash Chopra, who is hoping to get a recall after being dropped perhaps before his time from the Test side. Aakash was dropped from the Indian team in 2004 and was looking to make a comeback when he staretd writing the diary - and in this season (2007) he ended up being the highest run getter (0ver 1000 runs) and also was an integral part of the Delhi team that won the Ranji Trophy after a 14 year lapse. And many more other trophies too. From the season opener to the Ranji Trophy, the Duleep Trophy, the Deodhar Trophy, the Challenger Trophy, the Mohammed Nissar Trophy and finally the IPL - the book covers his journey through it all.
Written as a diary spanning a period of eight months, from September 2007 to May 2008, Aakash Chopra takes us through what is going on in his mind in - a season like no other - as the book cover says. (It is no joke amassing over 1000 runs in the domestic format.) Aakash writes with alarming honesty about the state of affairs in the domestic circuit, offering suggestions and improvements at every level - from dressing rooms, hotels, transport, ground conditions, pitches, curators, selections, itineraries, IPL, travel, umpires, coaches, cricketers, media, politics, administrators, airport security - and spares no one. (I only wonder how he missed out on fans though there is one mention of a knowledgeable fan he encountered while practising with a light bat.) So candid is he that in a rather vindictive and unaccountable world of Indian cricket, one wonders if such candour also came with a feeling that he might never be considered to play for Indian again after bringing up many shortcomings in the system. But he is a better man for that and I am glad he did not mince words. And today he is the one man who knows how to crack the Ranji Trophy code with three wins in 5 years, once with a top team like Delhi and twice with a team that rose from the bottom of the championship list, Rajasthan.No one can take that away from Aakash Chopra, the one man, perhaps the only one, who can show how to be a champion. As the one who did it, the one with all the knowledge and experience, Aakash automatically becomes the top man for the job of mentoring any Association in India towards excellence. Aakash Chopra has certainly enough on his plate for the rest of his life apart from his writing.
How self-belief and the habit of winning
I will not dwell much on the matches and all the attendant factors. But I will dwell in detail on some wonderful insights that struck me. For starters he talks of how the Delhi team had always had some brilliant cricketers but rarely played together as a team. It is also known for thinking negatively. 'Why don't we have self belief?' he rues. (Something that many teams in the Ranji Trophy feel at the beginning of the season with many unsettled players who are uncertain of the process and of their role.) Aakash feels that it is because Delhi have not succeeded as a team and don't have a habit of winning. When you don't win a lot together, he says, you tend to slip up before the finishing line. It is something I believe in too. Winning creates belief in the individual and the team. Any association looking to worm their way up must notch up as many wins as possible under their belt as they can.
On champion teams
On champion teams Aakash writes - 'We're playing good cricket, yes, but we're still far from becoming a champion team with everyone's role defined and followed to perfection. Champion teams generally run on autopilot with that extra reserve within that helps life themselves, individually and collectively, when needed.' So true. It can only happen with experience. With matches won as a team.
Key to winning longer versions of the game
And - 'The key to wining the longer version of the game lies in a team's ability to keep going consistently session after session. In the course of making winning a habit, they master the art of winning sessions. But habits need to be formed, so does an an inherent belief.' Wise words. And words any aspiring captain or coach needs to imbibe.
Mentoring the youth
He writes at length on the current obsession with youth in cricket. He mentions how he interviewed internationals on the structure in other countries - New Zealand, England and Sri Lanka. He was told that the chances of a good performer at the Under 19 level playing for the country were one in a million - and did not even guarantee a place in the first class side. He mentions very rightly and sensitively (shows how good a mentor he can become to young sides) how young players have growing up pains when exposed to the rigours of a higher grade when they are not ready. Most suffer the trauma - the shattering of their belief about how good they are - and some cannot pick themselves up especially if they are written off by callous administrators.
Aakash mentions that if they are picked and not supported enough (which normally happens), they generally fall off the radar and a career is lost. Ideally if youngsters are picked they should be allowed to mature, even when they fail, to become match winners. Else their careers and the careers of those that have been by passed are compromised making it a double loss for the Association.
Aakash writes - 'Dreams die young they say. A young mind, if scarred, takes a long time to heal and sometimes, it might not heal at all. And the experienced players who have done their best at the state level feel left out and rightly so. It takes only a few selections like these to affect the morale, enthusiasm and hopes of the men who have been doing so well for years at the first classs level. The younger ones who are picked to play for the country will take time to win matches not because they are not good enough but simply because they are not ready and those who are probably ready aren't even considered beyond a certain age.'
A tremendous loss of talent both ways simply because there is no vision, no personal counseling. In the Karnataka State Cricket Association, managed by honest and hard working cricketers like Kumble, Srinath, Dravid, Sunil Joshi, Jeshwanth, Abhiram and many others, the Association counsels parents and explains the process to them. I wish all Associations would take a leaf out of their book. Players and parents must believe in the process and focus on being fully prepared for the next level - something that requires hard work and something that normally shows in their performance.
I am of the view that cricketers mature late with rare exceptions like Tendulkar. The best teams in the longer versions have an average age of around 27-30 years. Several English professionals played well into their thirties. The best performances of any cricketer come typically in their thirties - including Aakash's. To drive home the point, the late Prof Deodhar, scored two hundreds in a Ranji match at 53 years of age!
On Gautam Gambhir's captaincy he writes how Gautam (the shrewdest captain he has played under) 'attacks when needed with a lot of close-in fielders literally at the batsman's throat and then resorts to in-out fields (saving boundaries while having close catching fielders in place - neither an attacking field nor a defensive one) as soon as the batsman gets to double figures. 'He is miserly as does not give away easy runs and gets the best out of inexperienced bowlers.' Any captains listening?
Two magic mantras from Gautam Gambhir
On the eve of the final against Uttar Pradesh Aakash mentions Gautam's words where he asks the team to remember two things for the next five days (of the Ranji final) - One, you dont win a silver but lose a gold. Second - if not me, then who, and if not now, then when." (The second mantra was credited to Rahul Sanghvi.)
Aakash writes of the professionalism of Dravid, who is one of his heroes, on an inning where he got a double hundred against Mumbai despite high fever. How players like him are a positive influence on many. Aakash also mentions VVS Laxman many times, on his kind and encouraging words, and one expects nothing else from the gentle and well-meaning Laxman.
Never show your emotions to the opposition
A small observation by Aakash on how Praveen Kumar reacted at the start of the second innings of the Ranji final after Delhi got the first innings lead makes us aware of how sportsmen must keep their emotions to themselves, or at least hidden from the opposition. Praveen wrecked the Delhi innings in the first and a good start was necessary for Delhi in the second. But as they start, the two openers, Gautam Gambhir and Aakash Chopra, hear Praveen voice his unhappiness at how the UP batsmen went about chasing the Delhi total. That bit of negativity, of assigning blame to the batsmen, gives them a glimmer of a psychological advantage, a key that the opposition's star bowler will not be the same this time around. It's a huge psychological gift and the two capitalised on it. (Much the same way that the Rajasthan team capitalised on Dinesh Karthik's candid words that he misread the wicket and was in damage control mode in the year they won the Ranji Trophy first.) I liked Aakash's take on how playing first class cricket is an education where work ethics, team bonding, and discipline are instilled.
Loss of belief - Beaten in the mind
Aakash makes an important point when he menions how after listening to Ajay Jadeja's well meaning advise on his one day career (or the non-existence of one), Aakash gave up. He believed in what Jadeja said that he was only good for the long format and stopped harbouring thoguhts of playing for India in one days. A belief that he said spelt his downfall in his thinking. "Once you think you are beaten, you truly are. And I was beaten by my own thoughts.'
Dr. Parikh's sound advise
On his interactions with the psychiatrist Dr.Sameer Parikh after his disllusionment on non-selection. The good doctor told Aakash to treat that as a separate entity and focus on doing well among the opportunities he gets instead of thinking about a place in the indian team. To do his job, to score runs and prolong his playing career was his only job. I cannot agree more with Dr. Parikh. Focus on the act as Lord Krishna would have told a doubtful Arjuna before the war.
John Buchanan and his 240 moment theory
Aakash's descriptions of John Buchanan's theories are interesting. John explained to the KKR team about how the T 20 game is one made up of 240 moments (one moment per delivery). The team that controls more moments than the opposition generally wins. That is 240 moments where everyone can make a contribution and can make a difference. It is the job of the players to remain in the moment and not get carried away by the importance of the occasion. Players were asked to identify key areas while batting and bowling and to try and maximise returns on their effort by targeting those areas more often. All eleven were told to be fully aware for the length of the game - to expect every ball to come to them and be on their toes and react when it does.
Another insight into KKR's team meetings was the use of in-house expertise. In one session, instead of John, all the senior batsmen spoke. Ponting spoke about how he prepares for his batting, how he handles lean phases (gets away from the game or practices a lot less so he is more cautious). Ponting also talks of the importance of "..volume - how one needs to play thousands of balls to master any stroke and function on auto mode in any situation. This practice to perfection is all about consistent delivery, under pressure. "It's one thing to bowl a yorker when the opposition needs fifty off five overs but quite another when three runs are needed off the last ball and that's where volume comes in handy." Reminds one of Malcom Gladwell's 10, 000 hour theory! Hussey says that even in T20 batsmen must get their eye in and then take calculated risks.
Always the learner Aakash did ask Ponting how to transform his consistency at first class level to the highest level. The advise is simple - first and foremost, believe that whatever worked at the domestic level will work at the highest level too, but one must add a few things to suit the higher standard. Ponting asks if there is a pattern in the dismissals, and that the pattern or mistake must be rectified. Ponting cites Steve Waugh's example. Waugh played all shots early on in his career but discovered it was not working if he played too many shots. He went back to domestic cricket and reconstructed and developed his game in a way that would suit the international level!
KKR's assistant caoach Mathew Mott advised Aakash who was playing too many shots in the net without much result to maximise the return. He told him to identify two boundary hitting area and look for singles, run hard and rotate the strike. Use the two shots when opporunities arise.
Taibu's advise and checklist
Then there is fine advise from Taibu who says to Aakash what is obvious to the reader by now - 'You think too much mate!. Why think of things beyond your control? Only think about your game and how you could improve. By spending too much time on why the team isn't doing too well and what needs to be done, you get caught up and your game suffers. Do not think about things that are beyond your control.'
Taibu's three point checklist to assess one's game is brilliant:
Are you working hard enough?
Are you afraid of failing?
Is everything alright in yyour personal life?
Taibu does not read nor watch the news.
I loved all these wonderful insights that Aakash shared honestly. Ever the perfectionist, Aakash has a work ethic that would have been appreciated a lot more in more professional places. But his desire to learn and think constantly, probably also messed up his head a bit at times, though it will stand him in good stead in the long run. One can see his mindset seep through the pages as he expects perfection in the same measure that he takes his game. To expect such a high level of professionalism is tough in a place like India where sports bodies still have not evolved as ideal examples and I am sure that Aakash has also learned that over the years. (He is more forgiving in his next book 'Out of the blue'.) I have one small grouse with the editorial team though. Depite it being an honest account of Aakash's diary and a wonderful insight into dressing rooms that we are not privy to, the tone could have been presented differently by sticking to merely stating or 'showing' the lacunae and leaving it at that. That takes away a bit from the book and this wonderful season he has had - and I feel that it could have been a much better book since it has the content and the promise.
The Importance of writing in a sportsman's career
More than anything else it struck me that perhaps as he wrote the diary, Aakash also willed himself to do better that season, to set targets for himself though his self analysis on the paper daily - in the form of his diary. I am thinking it might be a good idea for any player to write a diary as it helps self-analysis, clears the head and sets targets. Perhaps the first of its kind by an Indian player on a comeback trail, Aakash's 'Beyond the Blues' demystifies many theories and illusions people have about a cricketers life. Those inside know that the system needs a drastic overhaul to be inclusive, fair and systematic. Many can already see the difference that many Associations are making and the KSCA is a shining example. But all said and done I have benefited from his many honest insights in the book, on captaincy, team management, on the thoughts and methods of some acknowledged experts in the game and certainly from Aakash's great willingness to learn and improve. For sharing all of that and writing a fine book, thank you Aakash.