Letters & Opinion

Exit Field Left: Lessons from West Indies Cricket’s Strategic Failure

By Lyndell Halliday, MBA, PMP Award-winning Business Leader | Certified Executive Coach

The shocking early exit of the once storied West Indies cricket team from the Men’s T20 World Cup continues to reverberate across the Caribbean. The prompt dual resignations of both Head Coach Phil Simmons and Captain Nicholas Pooran have done little to quell the growing storm and deafening demands from commentators, former players and fans that something be done—preferably something drastic—to once and for all reverse the precipitous descent of West Indies cricket. To many, the embarrassing failure at the T20 World Cup—losing to minnows like Scotland and Ireland on the way out—seals the proverbial nail in the coffin of the long decline of what was once unquestionably the greatest international team in all forms of the world’s second most popular sport.

Caribbean cricket fans who have already long, lost face due to the paltry performance of West Indies cricket in the longer forms of the game over the last two decades had— to this point at least—been able to salvage some consolation pride from the West Indies’ admirable performance in the newer more exciting iteration of the game. Notably a significant number of the best T20 players in the world are West Indian; our players are in demand in the growing number of lucrative professional leagues around the world, and the West Indies had, until now, been the only team to have won the T20 World Cup twice. T20 cricket seemed to have been the last bastion of hope that allowed us to at least somewhat hold our head high. Alas, if even this is taken away, then what do we have left?

In the Caribbean, cricket is indelibly engraved in our psyche. It is personal for us. Particularly for us fans of Generation X and older. I am one of those fans. I was once late for an afternoon CXC exam because I couldn’t turn my attention away from the gripping media coverage of a devastating spell by Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh that turned around the game on the final morning of an England-West Indies test match at the Kensington Oval. (I paid the price, scraping by with a Grade 2 in that subject, but it felt worth it!). Us West Indians all have an opinion of what it will take to turn around the fortunes of our team. Debates rage in rum bars, office lunchrooms, newspaper columns and call-in radio shows. To his credit, Board President Ricky Skerritt has announced a three-man committee to conduct an independent review and fans are hopeful that perhaps this one won’t merely gather dust on a shelf like many others before.

In his seminal 1996 Harvard Business Review article, “What is Strategy?”, celebrated professor Michael Porter wrote that many organizations suffer from a “failure to distinguish between operational effectiveness and strategy”. Most of the solutions being offered to the West Indies cricket debacle are about operational effectiveness when the core problem of West Indies cricket is strategic failure. Until the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) starts to tackle the big picture strategic issues, the continued poor performance will not abate. I won’t attempt here to give a comprehensive plan as to what the West Indies needs to turn the ship around. No, that would take a thesis. Instead, I will discuss three key lessons that we as organizational leaders can learn from the failure of West Indies cricket strategy.

Lesson # 1 – Adapt or Die

As leaders, we must continually be attuned to the changes that are occurring within and without our organization and how those changes impact our competitive position. West Indies reigned supreme from the late 70’s to early 90’s in an era when a rare combination of unbridled talent, leadership, passion and purpose propelled the West Indies team to an endless circle of victory after victory. However, the environment that West Indies cricket once thrived in is fundamentally different today. University of the West Indies (UWI) Pro-Vice Chancellor Professor Hillary Beckles has written about the fading away of the post-colonial motivations that once ignited fire in the belly of a generation of players. Times have changed. The sport has changed. The rules have changed. Performance science, technology and money are now more important than ever. And yes—money! Money is not anathema; it is integral to professional sports. WICB administrators took it for granted that our ascendency was inevitable and our dominance would be never-ending. They failed to grasp the significance and scale of the changes as they were occurring and thus failed to adapt.

Leaders of high performing organizations must first have a clear understanding of the internal factors that make their organization successful as well as the issues in the external environment that have been favourable to their success. With a clear understanding of these factors, leaders must adapt accordingly and quickly when changes occur. And sometimes adapting means making radical and hard decisions. Examples abound amongst some of the world’s most successful companies. Netflix started out as a DVD rental company. IBM transformed from a hardware manufacturer to a services provider. The Walt Disney Company is now better known for the Marvel Universe and Stars Wars franchise than for Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. In the words of renowned executive coach, Marshall Goldsmith, “What got you here, won’t get you there.” Adapt or die.

Lesson # 2 Focus

One of the most fundamental tenets of modern strategy is choice. The days of behemoth super diversified corporations with a hand in every market segment are long over. The most successful companies today are highly focused. Founder Steve Jobs was famously fired from Apple in 1985. On his return to Apple in 1997, Steve Jobs inherited a desperate, struggling company. Water Isaacson in his fascinating Steve Jobs’ biography noted that one of Jobs’ most consequential decisions was to immediately kill off 70% of Apple’s products. By narrowing the focus of the company’s management and engineers to four core products, the team was now able to focus its finite time and financial resources on making those core products great. In the years that followed, Apple would go on to release some of its most transformational products, including the iPhone—its most successful product ever. Today, in spite of being one of the world’s largest companies with an over two trillion-dollar market capitalization and vast resources, Apple remains narrowly focused. Surely, there is a valuable lesson here for much smaller organizations with far less resources.

The combined gross domestic product (GDP) of the constituent countries and territories of the West Indies cricket team is approximately six million – one of the lowest among the full members of the International Cricket Council. This is higher only than New Zealand and Ireland. However, the GDP of these two countries are 250 billion and 500 billion USD respectively. In contrast, the GDP of the constituent countries and territories of the West Indies cricket team is less than 100 million USD. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) reaps an astounding $500 million in income, Cricket Australia reaps in over $300 million and the England Cricket Board is not far below $300 million. Contrast this all to the WICB’s paltry $15 million annual revenue. Even New Zealand Cricket which has a similarly sized population base to the West Indies earns over $28 million in revenue—almost double what the WICB earns.

Money matters in professional sports. Fans and former players routinely criticize players as caring too much about money, but the lifetime of a professional athlete is short; these players have families, responsibilities, and aspirations. And just as significantly, they have choices—far more choices than the players of latter-day whom we idolized. You simply can’t attract, motivate and retain top talent without money. Furthermore, technology, training camps, development programmes, playing venues all cost money—which by now should be clear that the WICB has little of. If the West Indies cricket team is to perform at a world class level, it must make hard decisions regarding how to allocate its scarce resources. It must focus. Organizational leaders too need to focus and not extend themselves or their organizations too vastly.

Lesson #3 – Play to your Strengths

Instinctively, we know that each of us are better at some tasks than others. I play chess at close to master level, but I am terrible at basketball. Organizations are similar. The most successful organizations understand their own strengths and weaknesses and they choose to compete in the way that is best supported by their internal capabilities. For instance, Starbucks, known for its excellent coffee, once tried selling magazines and failed spectacularly.

Test Cricket, One Day International (ODI) and T20 are three fundamentally different games. While many skills transfer from one to the other, there are still distinctly different enough that many players excel in one form of the game but are ordinary in another. Given the West Indies’ limited resources, we must make the hard choice that we can no longer continue to compete in these three distinct forms of the game. We must choose. And we should choose to play to our strengths.

Fortunately, it is an easy choice. It is abundantly clear that T20 is the form of the game that we remain the most competitive in. In addition, it is the one form of the game with the largest earning potential. In fact, revenue from T20 subsides the other forms of the game. It is clear that T20 is the future. Traditionalists will argue that test cricket and first-class cricket are vital to develop the core fundamental skills needed for the other forms of the game. I disagree. The skills needed for T20 can be honed and developed independent of competing in other forms of the game. Contrary to what some purists and sceptics posit, T20 is not just about swiping. There are distinct skills and strategies needed to excel. It is a beautiful, highly skilled and demanding form of the game in its own right. Cricket classicists loathe to hear this, but Test Cricket and ODI cricket are dying….and will eventually become obsolete. What if we chose now to focus our scarce resources on fully mastering and advancing the strategies and tactics for this form of the game that will eventually reign supreme?

Start with youth programmes and school competitions specifically focused on T20. Let UWI use our performance scientists and veteran players to study the T20 game closely and find ways to optimise our performance in this form of the game in every way. And most importantly, let us do it now before other countries also abandon the other forms of the game so we can get the first mover advantage. We certainly need it.

As a leader, what are your strengths? What do you really do well? Take stock and make a choice whenever possible to play the game that allows you to best leverage those capabilities.

Exit Stage Field Left

The demise of West Indies cricket is a story of strategic failure. As a passionate West Indian, I am rooting for West Indies cricket, and as a Kittitian, I am rooting for the president Ricky Skerritt to turn things around. Sadly, the old glory days are over. Let’s face it. They are not coming back. We will never again dominate across all forms of the game as we once did. But we can have new glory days if we act, and act fast. We must adapt to the radically changing environment, focus our scarce resources, and play to our strengths. To do that, we must make the brave decision to focus solely on T20 cricket. As for Test Cricket and ODI’s, it is time to bow gracefully and exit stage left…. or rather exit field left.

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