Sunday, 29 August 2021

Kohli's team needs more players who are NOT like Kohli

Virat Kohli clearly sets the tone for the Indian Cricket Team
He needs more leaders around him, who are NOT like him

Should members of a team be tightly-knit?

Should a team be a band of brothers, so close that they can live each other’s lives, complete each other’s sentences, and even sense each other’s unspoken thoughts? Should they foster this sense of brotherhood by living every waking minute of their lives together, eating the same meals, listening to the same music, wearing the same clothes, sloping their shoulders at the same angle, sporting the same scruffy beards?

This is a Goldilocks problem. Some unity is clearly good. Too much of this good stuff is counter-productive. It creates group think (or more precisely, group feel). The hard part is to get the balance just right.

What we just saw from the Indian cricket team in England is both the good and the bad side of this Goldilocks problem.

In the Lord’s test, it was thrilling to see the passion, commitment, and belief in this Indian team. The energy India created was so thick that I could have cut it with a knife 5,000 miles away. They created this magic by feeding off and amplifying each other’s intensity.

Two weeks later, at Headingley, the same team were flatter than a dosa (or a pancake). They reminded me of Woody Allen’s truism: that eighty percent of success is just showing up. Our boys didn’t show up. Sure, there was technique involved – the optimal Headlingley length is about a yard and a half fuller than a Lord’s length – but this team has enough resources to have learnt and acted on that technical difference. We didn’t learn quickly enough. We weren’t unlucky. We were uninspired.

England feed off each other's energy
At Headingley, day 4

How can a team go from magical to uninspired in one match? When they’re too close to each other. When their moods, thoughts and feelings are too contagious. Or, when their moods, thoughts and feelings are being orchestrated by one individual. When that happens, the team starts to act like a single organism rather than a set of individuals with distinct minds and roles. When that happens a team, in any walk of like, the team's performance see-saws or yo-yos. They lack the resilience and stability a team should have. 

I think that is happening to Virat's Indian team. When a couple of members get inspired, several others lift their game. When a couple of them get into a funk, several others also get into a funk. This team is too united.

In the long sweep of history, this unity is an excellent thing.

My generation of cricket fans remember the long painful years when the Indian cricket team was anything but united. We remember the time of Gavaskar vs. Kapil Dev regional politics, of the East Zone quota (Barun Burman? Pranob Roy?), of the time when Raj Singh Dungarpur appointed Azharuddin captain to clip the wings of players asking for their fair share of the economic value they were creating, and – the lowest point in our history - the way Azharuddin went on to make money in his own way by throwing matches for bookies. After all those horrors, the unity, continuity, ambition and therefore excellence we’ve seen in the age of Ganguly, Dhoni and Kohli has been a delight.

This unity can’t be taken for granted. We need only look around at the West Indies, Sri Lanka or Pakistan to know the cost of disunity. These countries continue to produce talented individuals. They haven’t had a decent team since Brian Lara, Arjuna Ranatunga or Imran Khan because they haven’t found strong leadership and therefore unity. India has been the only third-world/ emerging-market team consistently challenging the traditional superpowers of England and Australia in the twenty-first century, because we’ve consistently found leadership and unity, because we’ve learnt to play as a team rather than as individuals.

But in the short sweep of history, a couple of “outsiders” – players who haven’t been in the India-bubble for a long time, who break up the (comfortable) unity of the team – will surely help. 

The team can be united without the players thinking and sounding alike. What Khalil Gibran's Prophet said about marriage, "let there be spaces in your togetherness", applies to teamwork as well.

Virat's team needs more independent characters, fresh voices, contrarian thoughts, un-synced emotions. The team needs more mood-makers who can pick up the baton when Kohli is just exhausted, who can balance him out, who can zig when the rest of the team are zagging. 

I don’t think this is going to happen. All the signals from the dressing room are that Virat Kohli will double down on the guys, especially the batters, already in the playing eleven. Which means no "outsiders". Faith easily hardens into stubbornness.

If it’s any consolation, even the best Indian companies - Infosys, Tata Sons, HDFC Bank - have all had their share of difficulties in renewing their executive teams. Its not easy, but it is worth it. 

MSD: Bill Gates :: VK : Steve Jobs
Did Steve Jobs have strong voices around him?

PS: Yes, I could use this thought for a corporate workshop on building an executive team with resilience and bench-strength...

Saturday, 14 August 2021

The Power of Shiva's Third Eye. Now Known to Science as "Anthro-Vision"

Lord Shiva 
Also known as Triambakesh - the God with the third eye

Why does Shiva have a third eye?

To see the most important things.

And what are these most important things?

The things which cannot otherwise be seen.


This interpretation of Shiva’s third eye – that it is for the most important things, the things which cannot otherwise be seen – has long been a personal favourite. This interpretation just received scientific validation from Gillian Tett, Ph.D.

In her recent book Anthro-Vision, Gillian Tett, a Cambridge-trained anthropologist. explains that this Shivite thought – that the most important things are the things that cannot be seen – is right at the heart of Anthropology. She explains that Anthropology “enables you to see around corners, spot what is hidden in plain sight” by listening to “social silences”, by hearing what is left unsaid. Or, by observing the world through Shiva’s third eye.

Now that the provenance of Gillian Tett’s good ideas are clear, her exhortations to use Anthro-Vision in all walks of life take on an added urgency. Anthro-Vision is God’s will!

So let us open our third eyes, see the most important things, hear the sounds of silence, and therefore gain the empathy, insight and sense of humour needed to make the world a better place. 

Gillian Tett, Ph.D.
wants us to use our third eye

Saturday, 10 July 2021

Shapovalov vs. Djokovic :: Flamboyance vs. Economy of motion

Denis Shapolavov: the romantic's hero

Denis Shapovalov: airborne

I was cheering for Denis Shapovalov in the Wimbledon semi-finals last night. Shapovalov was the underdog. He is Rohan Bopanna’s doubles partner. He was also great to watch, hitting inside out lefty forehands into crazy angles and ripping backhand down-the-line winners while running full tilt.

Unfortunately, Shapovalov lost. He wasn’t outplayed. He hit more winners than the defending champion (40-32). He lost because he made twice as many unforced errors (36-15).

Why did Shapovalov make so many mistakes? It could have been nerves. But, watching the game, I got the feeling that Shapovalov’s higher error rate was something intrinsic to his style of play. The big backswing, flamboyant follow through, ball-contact while both feet are still in the air – great to watch, but error prone.

By contrast, Djokovic’s movements were never exaggerated. They were as economical as possible while still getting to the ball and generating that prodigious power. Roger Federer’s and Andy Murray’s styles are also similarly classical and therefore economical. They don’t just conserve energy. Minimizing the number of moving pieces reduces the error rate.

Should Shapavolov change his style?

Well, this style got him as far as the Wimbledon semis. It isn’t not working. 

Brian Lara, another stylish lefty, had an exaggerated back lift. He did all right.

Brian Lara's high back lift
(spot the ball!)

The right approach for Shapavolov is probably to reduce his error rate while retaining his natural style, rather than trying out any substantial technique reconstruction. Changing technique or playing style has high risk of unintended consquences.

Regardless, here’s a bet I’d be happy to lose: Dominic Thiem, Daniil Medvedev and Stephanos Tsitsipas will all win more career Grand Slam titles than Denis Shapovalov. They make fewer mistakes.


Note: Are Infosys smart stats on tennis available to the public? I spent some time surfing the net looking for an analysis of unforced error rate by tennis player. Google didn’t manage to find anything.

Novak Djokovic: doing what it take to win

Sunday, 27 June 2021

The Cerne Giant drinks beer! Ganpati drinks milk!

The Cerne Giant on his Dorset hillside

The Cerne Giant (pictured above) is one of England’s most cherished icons. He is a chalk figure etched into the lush Dorset countryside, just above the village of Cerne Abbas.

The Cerne Giant stands tall. At one hundred and eighty feet, he is about as tall as a twenty-story apartment block. His erect penis also stands tall; at twenty-six feet it is a big as the Giant’s head. He wields a big knobbly club with which he could clearly do some damage.

While the Giant’s origins are not well known, (this New Yorker article is the source of my fundas about Cerne Abbas and is guaranteed to improve your weekend) what is abundantly clear is that the Giant is relevant today.

Volunteers maintaining the Giant's chalk markings
The villagers of Cerne Abbas take take care of their Giant. He is in such good shape because hundreds of local volunteers, fortified by tea and cakes, turn out every year to keep the Giant’s chalk outline clear of weeds. The Giant reciprocates with good karma. Cerne Abbas was recently voted “Britain’s Most Desirable Village.”

Cerne Abbas has a local brewery, as a desirable village should. When the Cerne Abbas Brewery develops a new beer, the owner Vic Irvine, and his business partner Jodie Moore, climb the hill at night – often with friends – and hop the fence surrounding the Giant. Then they pour some of the beer into the Giant’s mouth “as a libation”.

Jonathan Still, the vicar of St. Mary’s Church, Cerne Abbas, also serves as the Spiritual Director of the Cerne Abbas brewery. He joined the brewers on one night-time climb to the hilltop. Irvine and Moore had brought plastic jugs filled with their latest brews—an offering for the giant. “It was a clear night, about half past twelve, and we could see the whole valley in the blue moonlight,” Still recalled. “It was freezing cold, with the smoke curling up from the chimneys below. We sat up around the giant’s head—which is totally illegal—and we tasted this one, and that one, and we poured some into the giant’s mouth.” After about an hour of sitting and drinking, Still said, an extraordinary thing happened: “We poured this beer into the giant’s mouth, and we saw his Adam’s apple go up and down as he swallowed it.”

I’ve heard this story before. 

I remember hearing it on 21 September 1995, when India came to a standstill to observe "Ganpati drinking milk”.
Neivedhyam in front of Lord Ganesha

Actually, I’ve heard it hundreds of times before. It’s the same thought as neivaidhyam, of pausing before a meal or celebration to offer one’s food to the Gods in thanksgiving.

Actually, it’s the same thought as leaving carrots and cookies out for Rudolph and Santa on Christmas night. The carrots and cookies we left out for Rudolph and Santa always got consumed. That proved that Rudolph and Santa actually, really brought our presents home.

I hope Santa takes some cookies for the Cerne Giant this Christmas. Or some crackers. To bring out the flavour of the new Cerne Abbas brews. The Giant behind Britain’s Most Desirable Village surely deserves some Christmas cheer. 

And I hope the vicar of St. Mary's Church leaves some carrots and cookies out for Rudolph and Santa on the hillside on Christmas night, for when they bring presents for the Cerne Giant.

Cerne Abbas Brew
As Preferred by the Giant

Sunday, 20 June 2021

Is The Umbrella Academy a remake of The Sound of Music?

The Umbrella Academy - Now on Netflix

The Sound of Music - circa 1965
Spoiler Alert

Season 1 of The Umbrella Academy is great. It features seven gifted children growing up in an exquisitely beautiful house. The children don’t have a mother. They’re being raised by an emotionally distant tyrant of a father who addresses them by serial number rather than by name.

The father is obsessed with the coming apocalypse. He has foreseen this terrible event by virtue of his unique insight. His only agenda is to forge his children into instruments of war who can prevent this apocalypse.

Through many adventures the children discover themselves, each other, and even learn to understand their father. They realise that their destiny is to prevent the apocalypse.

At the end of Season 1, they don’t quite succeed. They can’t stop the apocalypse. But they do escape from it. They live to fight another apocalypse on another day. Which, doubtless, will be the story of Season 2.

I was haunted by a sense of déjà vu through Season 1. I’d seen this story before. Until finally the penny popped – The Umbrella Academy is The Sound of Music, with the children rather than Maria as the central characters.

- Seven gifted children, check.
- Super-wealthy background, check.
- Distant tyrannical father, check.
- Looming apocalypse (the rise of Nazi Germany), check.
- Betrayal from within (Rolf the Nazi Postman), check
- Narrow but defiant escape from the apocalypse (Climb every mountain…), check.

The parallel is not perfect. By its logic, Maria would be a programmable robot, which is a bit harsh.

But the parallel also throws in relief what The Sound of Music didn’t show. Were the children really supposed to be pretty props singing along with Maria? What was it like to be Louisa? Or Brigitta? Did Friedrich ever hate his emotionally absent father? There is room for some creative reinterpretation...

The Von Trapp Family Singers

The Hargreeves Family Crimefighters

Sunday, 23 May 2021

Can writers actually write together? Evidence from Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and the Aussies called Alice.

Can writers actually write together? Can writers jam together the way members of a rock or jazz band might, to create something better than any of them could have produced working alone? 

One very good writer, Anthony Lane of the New Yorker magazine, doesn't think so. I discovered this while flipping through a back issue of the New Yorker where I found his review of The President is Missing, a thriller co-authored by Bill Clinton and James Patterson. In his assessment:

“Writing, like dying, is one of those things that should be done alone or not at all. In each case, loved ones may hover around and tender their support, but, in the end, it’s up to you.”

Anthony Lane’s snarky and thoroughly enjoyable review (available here outside the paywall) has no doubt that the mediocrity of The President is Missing is further evidence that writing is, ultimately, an intensely personal and private craft. All this stuff about "creative collaboration" is nothing more than marketing fluff.

Yet further on into the same New Yorker issue I encountered Ben Rhodes, Barack Obama’s speechwriter. Rhodes' story offers a counterpoint, an example of one man elegantly and effectively channeling another’s thoughts:

“The journalistic cliché of a “mind meld” doesn’t capture the totality of Rhodes’s identification with the President.”

And how was this mind meld achieved?

"(Rhodes) came to Obama with an M.F.A. in fiction writing from New York University and a few years on the staff of a Washington think-tank…

he joined the campaign as a foreign-policy speechwriter in mid-2007, when he was twenty-nine…

he was sixteen years younger and six inches shorter than Obama…

he became so adept at anticipating Obama’s thoughts and finding Obamaesque words for them that the President made him a top foreign-policy adviser, with a say on every major issue…

he rose to become a deputy national-security adviser; accompanied Obama on every trip overseas but one; stayed to the last day of the Presidency; and even joined the Obamas on the flight to their first post-Presidential vacation, in Palm Springs, wanting to ease the loneliness of their sudden return to private life….”

This mind meld doesn’t seem like a creative collaboration, which suggests some sort of parity between the collaborators. Ben Rhodes has intentionally muted his own voice to amplify that of his master. This can’t have been entirely easy for a smart and ambitious young man like Ben Rhodes, however much he admired President Obama.

“(Rhodes’) decade with Obama blurred his own identity to the vanishing point, and he was sensitive enough—unusually so for a political operative—to fear losing himself entirely in the larger story. Meeting Obama was a fantastic career opportunity and an existential threat.”

Tversky and Kahneman in the 70s
A more successful model for a creative partnership between equals may be Dan Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the founders of Behavioural Economics.

They were close friends. They had sharply contrasting attitudes and styles, there was never any question of a mind meld. Tversky was extroverted, optimistic, hyper-organized, a wise-cracking military hero before becoming an academic. Kahneman was a worrying, bespectacled, introverted pessimist who couldn’t find his way around his own office. But their differences made their work better. Tversky’s optimism gave them resilience and Kahneman’s worrying gave them rigour.

Their partnership worked, but at a cost. Here is what Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein had to say:

“The low rate of output was one of their strengths, and is a direct result of their joint personality traits. Kahneman’s constant worry about how they might be wrong combined perfectly with Tversky’s mantra: “Let’s get it right.” And it takes a long time to write a paper when both authors have to agree on every word, one by one.”

But the eight papers they published between 1971 and 1979, working in harness in a period of extraordinary creativity, won Kahneman the Nobel Prize, and would change their field, and perhaps the world, forever. (Amos Tversky tragically died of cancer at the age of fifty-nine before he could share the Nobel).

BTW…I’m reading The Undoing Project, Micheal Lewis’ book on Kahneman and Tversky. It’s going well. Right up there along with Money Ball, Liar’s Poker, Boomerang or The Big Short.

The most successful creative collaboration I came across while Google-researching this post is someone I’m much less likely to have read than Micheal Lewis, Dan Kahneman, Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. This is Alice Campion. Her widely acclaimed bestseller is called The Painted Sky.

Alice Campion is actually a group of Sydney housewives called Jenny Crocker, Madeline Oliver, Jane Richards, Jane St Vincent Welch and Denise Tart. 

Their writing adventure started when their book club (Booksluts: We’ll Read Anything) went on a weekend away. After much vodka had been consumed, they made a pact to fund the Booksluts' tenth anniversary celebrations by writing a novel about a city girl who inherits her father’s farm in the outback, meets her rugged, handsome cattle-farmer neighbour, and sparks fly! 

To their own surprise, the Booksluts did come home to Sydney, wrote their novel, sent it to a publisher, got it published and watched it climb to the top of the bestseller charts.

They describe their creative process as a genuine collaboration, without any one Bookslut doing the heavy lifting. They actually experienced mind meld. 
The Booksluts behind Alice Campion

This mind meld happened partly because of how well the knew each other; e.g. their initial plan to write the sex scenes individually and mail them into the group anonymously didn’t work because everyone instantly knew who had written each passage. They knew each other too well for anonymity. 

And in the process they seem to have a had more fun collaborating than the Clinton-Patterson, Obama-Rhodes or even the Kahneman-Tversky duos. Cheers to the Booksluts!

I might just get out of my comfort zone and pay Rs 1,967.69 to download The Painted Sky onto my Kindle.

Sunday, 16 May 2021

Monty Python's The Life of Brian. (Almost) Starring Jiddu Krishnamurthy

Jiddu Krishnamurthy was the chosen one. He was the messiah.

He had been anointed as the messiah, as the World Teacher, the new Maitreya, by his adoptive mother the very powerful by Dr Annie Besant. He was fourteen at the time. He had no say in the matter.

Jiddu Krishnamurthy tried very hard to stop being the messiah.

As an adult, he repeatedly declared that he was no messiah, that the only guidance he could offer was for us to find our individuality, to strike out on our own, to find our unique paths to the truth. He dissolved the large organization that he helmed, that was dedicated to celebrating him.

Yet, despite Krishnamurthy’s clear and consistent denial of his divinity, to his dying day he couldn’t avoid people treating him as if he were the messiah.

When I was telling my daughter Jiddu Krishnamurthy’s story, I couldn’t help noticing that it perfectly parallels the narrative arc of Monty Python's The Life of Brian (available on Netflix).

Monty Python fans will recall that this is the story of Brian Cohen of Nazareth, now living with his Mum in Jerusalem circa 32 AD, who is mistaken for a prophet when he descends from the heavens (because the rickety balcony he is standing on to escape from the police breaks).
Brian of Nazareth,
at his Mum's window

His simple words are understood as divine revelations:

BRIAN: Good morning.

FOLLOWERS: A blessing! A blessing! A blessing!...

BRIAN: No. No, please! Please! Please listen. I've got one or two things to say.

FOLLOWERS: Tell us. Tell us both of them.

BRIAN: Look. You've got it all wrong. You don't need to follow me. You don't need to follow anybody! You've got to think for yourselves. You're all individuals!

FOLLOWERS: Yes, we're all individuals!

BRIAN: You've all got to work it out for yourselves!

FOLLOWERS: Yes! We've got to work it out for ourselves!

BRIAN: Exactly!

FOLLOWERS: Tell us more!

BRIAN: No! That's the point! Don't let anyone tell you what to do!

But, no. Brian’s denials don’t work. The devout, the crowd, the mob, is having none of it. They continue to deify him until he is crucified.

Was J Krishnamurthy crucified? Well, I found this online article describing him as “Indira Gandhi’s guru”, and therefore bracketing JK with Dhirendra Brahmachari…