"I think playing cricket taught me more about working in teams and leadership that has stayed with me throughout my career."
By Venu Palaparthi [Picture Credit: Microsoft]
Very rarely has an American author made cricket a central theme of his or her book. No surprises then that I have very rarely written a book review on these pages. My last book review was in 2008, when I reviewed Netherland
by Joseph O’Neill, a book in which I saw a reflection of myself in the main characters - Hans van den Broek and Chuck Ramkissoon.
Some ten years later, I picked up Satya Nadella’s Hit Refresh
on a long flight to Mexico. Once again, it is the faint similarities with Nadella that I saw in myself that attracted me to this book. Like Nadella, I am from the rock-filled and dusty, yet lovely, city of Hyderabad. I attended a smaller private school at a nearby factory township, not quite the illustrious Hyderabad Public School (HPS) that Nadella went to, but for a brief period during the 80s, my school held its own against HPS in the Pentangular school competition. On my trips to the city on board the APSRTC-125 bus, I used to gaze at the expansive grounds of HPS. Actually, there wasn’t a blade of grass on those fields then, but I didn’t know that an outfield needed any grass until I visited the Fateh Maidan club some years later. Amongst other resemblances, Nadella and I both share the same cricketing idol (ML Jaisimha), speak the same mother tongue (Telugu), and Nadella’s mother Prabhavati-garu, like my mom, was a linguist and a scholar in Sanskrit and Telugu languages. Perhaps the most striking coincidence is that, like Nadella, I too have kept a Kookaburra Turf cricket ball on my desk at work for over 15 years. That said, I will humbly submit that Nadella’s career record has reached Lord’s like proportions while mine remains in the gullies. As the CEO of the world’s most valuable company, the unassuming but stunningly successful Nadella is truly in a league of his own.
But I digress.
In Nadella’s Hit Refresh
, cricket is a merely a sight screen, as Nadella’s amazing innings as a corporate leader unfolds in the middle. In Nadella’s own words, “This is not a book to describe the ins and outs of cricket, but it is a book that cannot avoid the metaphor of cricket and business.” Despite its cameo role, cricket helps us understand Nadella as a person and his sense of fair play as well as empathy.
Cricket was always Nadella’s first love. In his own words, he was “an obsessed cricket fan who long ago dreamed of being a professional player.” Nadella preferred to stay in Hyderabad and continue his cricket at HPS through high school years, instead of heeding to the call of his father and joining an international school in Bangkok. When Nadella was 15, his father brought him a Sinclair ZX Spectrum computer kit from Bangkok. In the event, the computer kit edged out his cricket kit, sparking his love for computers. Cricket’s loss was technology’s gain.
As any coach will tell you, every ball bowled or played is an opportunity to display skill, technique and gamesmanship. When the bowler begins his run-up, the batsman hits refresh
. Whether it was Nadella’s choice of Manipal for electrical engineering, his decision to return his green card and go back to a H1B visa so that his wife could join him in the US, the decision to leave Sun Micro for Microsoft, or his choice of attending the University of Chicago for his MBA while working for Microsoft, he stayed true to the maxim, playing each ball on its own merit, hitting refresh
at each stage.
At Microsoft, Nadella aspired to do important work, not just to climb the corporate ladder. In time, he was named the head of engineering for online search and advertising (now Bing) and cloud technologies (now Azure). Nadella was playing with his Kookaburra ball when John Thompson, then still an independent director at Microsoft, called to inform him about his appointment as CEO.
The best insights into how cricket informed and guided Nadella’s leadership style appear in the second chapter of the book. “The first principle is to compete vigorously and with passion in the face of uncertainty and intimidation.” Noticing how much in awe Nadella’s teammates were when playing a visiting side with a few Australian players, his PE teacher admonished the kids and instilled pride in them, lighting a competitive fire. “It showed me that you must always have respect for your competitor, but don’t be in awe. Go and compete.”
The second lesson that Nadella learned is about putting the team first. Writing about a particularly talented fast bowling teammate who was known for his brilliance but also endowed with a selfish streak, Nadella recounts a match in which this prima donna, unhappy about being replaced by another bowler deliberately dropped a simple catch. “One brilliant character who does not put team first can destroy the entire team,” Nadella notes.
The third lesson on leadership is the most crucial, one that Nadella has highlighted since on the book tour as well. “Looking back, I remember one particular match in which my off-spin bowling was getting hammered by the opponents. I was serving up very ordinary stuff. Our team captain in retrospect showed me what real leadership looks like.” The captain bowled an over, and then returned the ball to Nadella. This incident has stayed with Nadella throughout his life. “Why did he do it? He could have just broken all my confidence and thrown me off the team, but for some reason, he decided to give me the ball back,” Nadella has often asked himself. “I surmised he wanted me to get my confidence back. It was early in the season and he needed me to be effective all year. He was an empathetic leader, and he knew that if I lost my confidence it would be hard to get it back. That is what leadership is about. It’s about bringing out the best in everyone.”
The idea of trusting and persisting with a good team member even if that person has made a mistake is a recurring theme in Nadella’s life. Speaking in an ESPNcricinfo interview, Nadella said: "Sport is one place where I've realized you are, in fact, much more hardcore, and willing to drop anyone who's not in form. But also, you've got to know when to persist in that very crucial time, when it could make all the difference. It's fascinating to watch that. It's like trying to find a new No. 4 batsman - if you don't give someone a long enough run, they'll never make it. Or a spinner, who I have a lot of sympathy with - just because one batsman hits you for a couple of sixes, that means nothing. You've got to get them back."
Nadella puts culture front and center in the transformative journey. “The C in CEO stands for culture,” he has said, adding, “The CEO is the curator of an organization’s culture.” On the subject of culture, Nadella reflects on Netherland
. In that book, Joseph O’Neill describes the fielders converging towards the pitch as the bowler runs in to bowl, and then returning to the starting point, “as if the field breathed through its luminous visitors.” Nadella believes this to be a metaphor for how a company’s employees represent a company.
Following his high school years, cricket is not front and center, and finds a mention in the context of business and leadership. However, even if Nadella may not have actively played the sport, his ‘all-too-brief’ cricketing past has remained a key part of him. Speaking about his shift to technology, Nadella told ESPNcricinfo following the release of the book, ”I went to the United States right when Sachin Tendulkar started to play for India so I look at it and say, wow, I missed the entire Sachin era of Indian cricket. But luckily enough, thanks to streaming, and video on demand, and sites like Cricinfo, I was able to follow his career. It was as if I was in India all through. I guess that's the power of modern technology.” Elsewhere in the interview, Nadella drops another clue - that he plays a lot of Bradman 360 on XBox.
The book is a great read for all young readers who play cricket in America. They all dream, as Nadella did, of playing professional cricket. Whether or not those dreams are realized, American youth cricketers should rest assured that cricket will make them better human beings and leaders, both on the field and off it. In a country where there are few professional cricketers to emulate, Nadella is an outstanding role model for every aspiring cricketer. As such, I am making this book mandatory reading at the DreamCricket Academy.
As I read the book, I tried to search for clues on what USA Cricket must do to reconnect with the American sporting psyche. Nadella’s Hit Refresh
did not fail me in my quest for answers. After a period of spectacular growth and immense popularity in the 1800s, cricket in America ground to a standstill some 100 years ago. In recent years, the number of consumers and players has grown tremendously, but the sport failed to find ways to grow the market beyond the core of die-hards.
The ICC has finally hit refresh
this week with its decision to reinstate USA Cricket as its 105th member. USA Cricket must now follow Nadella’s mantra ‘to reenergize, renew, reframe, and rethink their purpose.’ The leadership of USA Cricket “must see the external opportunities and the internal capability and culture - and all the connections among them - and respond to them before they become obvious parts of the conventional wisdom.” They should “imagine what’s possible” and “find new energy, new ideas, relevance, and renewal.”
Another issue that has plagued cricket’s governing bodies is their inability to take their membership into confidence. When USACA governed cricket, decisions surrounding strategy, commercial pathways and development were made at the top and rarely communicated downwards. We know what came of that.
USA Cricket’s leadership should pay heed to Nadella’s words of wisdom: “Leadership means making choices and then rallying the team around those choices. The choice of leading through consensus versus fiat is a false one. Any institutional building comes from having a clear vision and culture that works to motivate progress both top-down and bottom-up.” It has been three months since USA Cricket’s new board assumed the mantle. Perhaps they should spare an hour to outline their overall vision to the membership that elected them.
In the interview with ESPNcricinfo, Nadella offers up several ideas for improving the sporting experience through the use of technology, while also imploring the ICC to figure out ways to preserve Test cricket. Nadella also wonders about opportunities for Microsoft to partner with the ICC. I am thinking wishfully, but given Microsoft’s American roots, USA Cricket would not be a bad place to start.