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A Sport Few Americans Know Anything About Can Teach Plenty About Leadership

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Cricket, a very American sport? It certainly was up until the start of the 20th century.

George Washington played it with his troops in 1777. At the founding of the nation, John Adams famously said that if leaders of cricket clubs could be called "presidents," the leader of the new nation surely could be called the same. The first-ever international cricket match was played between the USA and Canada in 1844 in New York. It was watched by 10,000 spectators and is the world's oldest international sporting event. Abraham Lincoln watched a cricket match between Chicago and Milwaukee in 1849.

There is much one can learn from cricket leadership and bring it to bear in the world of entrepreneurship.

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A little more history

The current American pastime, baseball, is intricately tied to cricket. Some of its early innovations were by a cricketer-turned-baseballer and Hall-of-Famer Harry Wright. The Civil War led to the ascent of baseball at the expense of cricket for it was possible for the troops to play baseball in the country-side without needing a pitch (a 22' by 10' strip of turf in the center of the field) that cricket fundamentally requires.

Baseball took over as the national sporting obsession from the late 19th century and is still very much in the hearts and minds of millions. Cricket's growth, albeit outside America, has been so much that it is now the second most popular world sport after soccer, with over 2 billion fans and growing. Cricket in America is experiencing an unprecedented resurgence, thanks to the influx of cricket-mad immigrant population from South Asia, where cricket rivalries between nations often influence territorial ones.

In America, it is not uncommon to see a cricket match break out anywhere there is a semblance of a pitch – a baseball diamond, a basketball court, even a side street. Recent estimates put the number of cricket players at over 100,000 in the U.S. and that includes those who play traditional hard-ball cricket and the less traditional tennis-ball and tape-ball cricket.

Like baseball, cricket is a bat-and-ball sport. Cricket not only requires physical skill, it requires mental fortitude. Captains of opposing sides, who are also players, manage the tactics and strategy employed by their respective sides in a cricket match. They first decide who the playing eleven are for a given match, with the decision based on the opposition, the pitch and the weather for the duration of a match. The playing eleven consists of specialist batsmen, bowlers and fielders whose relative skills are determined by the opposition and the match condition.

Tactically the captain has to decide on who to bat when, who to bowl when and for how long, where the fielders are to be placed for each bowler, when the ball should be changed and when an appeal for an out needs to be withdrawn to uphold the "spirit of the game."

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Strategically, the captain has to decide whether to bat first or bowl when winning the toss, when to declare, when to enforce follow-on, when to go for a win, and when to salvage a draw. Winning, losing and drawing a match often comes down to strategic and tactical decisions made by the captains over the course of the match. Matches can last for up to five days, although shorter forms are now in vogue. Needless to say, matches are scrutinized ad nauseum after every cricket match by fans and media. Careers are made and destroyed as a consequence.

Mirroring pitch strategy with business strategy

So, what has cricket got to do with startup leadership? A lot, actually. The CEO of a startup is like a captain who often builds his team by selecting the right people for the different open positions. This is the team that the CEO essentially "goes to war with."

The CEO has to decide which business strategy to employ to attack the market, when to be aggressive and deploy more resources, when to cut one's losses and conserve cash. On a daily or weekly basis, the CEO has to decide how to manage the specialized resources, much like a cricket captain has to decide on how and when to use the specialist batsmen, bowlers and fielders during a match.

When decisions are made, other options are forsaken and, just like a cricket captain, the CEO has to live with the decisions that are made often in front of the board. When things go badly, the CEO, like a cricket captain, has to hold the team together and inspire them on the field of play. In cricket, there is another day in a five day match. In a startup's life, there is another quarter, at least until the cash runs out. Nothing lasts forever, not even cricket matches.

The CEO is responsible for the startup culture, just like a captain is responsible for what kind of team shows up to play and how they support and motivate each other. The CEO has to deal with egos and ambition of the team members, just like a cricket captain has to deal with prima donnas and self-interests. Finally, the CEO is responsible for doing business the "right way," just like a cricket captain has to ensure that the "spirit of cricket" is not violated by player actions or inactions.

America today is ripe for embracing cricket wholeheartedly, as the infusions of cricket-obsessed immigrants become part of the main stream. In the world of business, one can already point to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and his reference to how cricket captaincy in his youth helped him in managing business. Cricket can certainly teach any of us in business on how to be part of a team that has to perform in all conditions, with all the ups and downs that we can't always control, yet carry on without compromising our integrity and while continuing to honor our team and respect the competition.

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