Play for the Country: The Noble Intentions of our Cricketers

My South Indian friend Swami had just returned from Australia, and joined us directly over the weekend coffee, straight from the airport. My broker friend and I were discussing what’s in store for the markets, specially after this mass downgrade done by S&P to European nations, when Swami barged in. After a long time, Jigneshbhai was not in a good mood, and was telling me how Friday the 13th was turning out to be a bad omen for him. “First that S&P downgraded European nations and I don’t know what the impact on markets will be, and Second, look at what our cricket team is doing in Australia” he mused.

“They are playing for the country” said Swami.

“But that does not seem to work out. They are not winning anything. They are finishing test matches much before the five days end”, said Jigneshbhai in a caustic mood.

“Winning does not have anything to do with playing for the country”, Swami said.  Looking at our stunned faces, Swami went ahead explaining that his respect for India’s cricket team had gone up a few notches after he met them in Australia.

“I met the team at Perth just after the match got over, and passed on condolences for the defeat. But some of the players got angry at it. In fact, one of the newcomers – you know newcomers tend to be a bit raw in their reactions, I don’t remember his name now – told me that the entire country does not understand that each and every member of the Indian cricket team always puts the country before anything else, even more than the game itself.”

Continuing, Swami explained, “Apparently one of the seniors had told him that as a team, they are aware of the problems our country is currently facing, so they had decided as a team that stretching tests beyond Sundays back home does not make sense. Already we need our youth to keep working hard to get our economy back in shape, to generate employment and maintain growth rates. And if we make them bunk work in the hope of our wins on weekdays, wouldn’t it be harmful for the nation’s long-term economic story?”

“Also, our country faces such a major problem in the area of infrastructure and power. We already have power shortages back home. With so many TVs constantly on looking at our team, wouldn’t it add to the problem? People get on to our already choked roads to watch us and celebrate when we win. The team thought our country’s best interests would be served if lesser people watched them, and fewer people got an opportunity to come on the roads to celebrate. At least they will go down in history as the team that really helped the nation, albeit a little bit, in solving its power and infrastructure problems.”

“So look at it, employment, growth, power, infrastructure – the Indian cricket team is playing its part, giving a helping hand, really playing for the country. But you know what really raised my respect for them?” Swami asked, really inspired this time.

Having got no answer from any of us, he continued. “The biggest issue our country is currently facing is the problem of corruption. And the Indian cricket team has decided to join hands in that fight too.”

Looking at the surprised look on our faces, Swami continued, “They told me that they have decided not to win a single test, till Anna Hazare’s Jan Lokpal bill is passed. If that is not playing for the country, tell me what is? Is winning more important than the country?”

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A Cryptic Cocktail: Mixing Cricket Commentary with Stock Markets and Investing

The wealthy man living in the sprawling bungalow near my house with his BMW and Mercedes speaks very sparingly. And whenever he speaks, it is quite cryptic. So one has to really concentrate when he is speaking, and think hard after he is done. So the other day when my South Indian friend Swami and I were just walking across from my house to get a coffee, we saw the wealthy man taking a walk with his dog. He knows Swami, who by now has had a number of ‘question-mark’ conversations with him in the past. So he wished me good evening, and this time before Swami could ask him anything, he just told him with a wry smile, “The situation is tense but under control.”

I first heard this term being used by the Mumbai police during the Mumbai riots in the early 1990’s. It was so conveniently cryptic and became so popular that the Home Ministry started using it. Now I think it has become the de-facto phrase used by government officials, specially Home Ministry ones, to describe, in an imprecise way, what is happening whenever there are riots, earthquakes, floods, strikes, accidents or anything remotely like those.

So I was a bit surprised when the wealthy man used it, not quite clear what he was referring to. So I took the liberty of asking him if he had some time for a quick coffee. The wealthy man does not easily say yes, but this time, he surprisingly did – so in a few minutes, we found ourselves chatting with him over a coffee.

After an awkward silence for a few minutes, my South Indian friend Swami had to ask something. He tends to lose his patience with Jigneshbhai, but with the wealthy man living in the sprawling bungalow, you cannot do that. So in polite language, he asked him for advice on the current state of the markets.

The wealthy man replied, “This match is very much in the balance now”. And added in his baritone voice, “It is not going to be easy for the batsman to get bat on to ball on this pitch.” Further, neglecting our confused looks, he continued, “It will provide assistance to the bowlers, but if the batsmen apply themselves, one can play a long innings.” I knew he spoke sparingly, and was cryptic most of the time, but this seemed out of context. So we thought he probably misunderstood the question – perhaps he heard matches instead of markets.

So Swami tried to explain – “Yes sir, but I was referring to the markets, not to the Champions league matches. I have already lost so much, would be great if you could throw some light on what to do next.”

This time, we thought we will hear some gems of wisdom. But the wealthy man continued. “Well, given the conditions, it should be good toss to lose”. This was getting a bit out of hand. Even I was starting to wonder what was happening here. But Swami was now getting a bit aggressive. He clarified, “Sir, I am losing money everyday in these volatile markets. You have been playing the markets for so many years. Should I sell and get out now?” Again with eager eyes, we were looking for some pearls of wisdom this time. And the wealthy man said, “We had a cracker of a game today, but at the end of it all, one will have to say that the team that kept its nerve better prevailed”.

This was getting too much to handle now, even for me. We were starting to fear if the wealthy man had lost it – maybe growing age and the stress of his wealth getting eroded at this stage in life was getting to him. Or perhaps he was watching too much of TV, and business and sports channels were getting mixed up in his head. Swami gave me a strong stare, almost warning me that he is going to stop having coffee with me. As if handling my broker friend Jigneshbhai was not enough, now he had this wealthy man from the sprawling bungalow to make sense out of.

So we started wrapping up with our coffee, and hoped that this was it. It did not seem to make sense to press the point now. Not wanting to take the discussion further, I asked for the bill, and while waiting for it, asked the wealthy man which team he was supporting in the Champions League. I casually added, “The Royal Challengers seem to be up to it this time, but you never know with them. The Mumbai Indians could spring up a surprise.”

I thought this conversation was now making sense. We were both talking about the same topic. At least we will leave on a sober note. No more mixing cryptic cocktails of cricket and markets, I thought. So as we left, we were stumped when the wealthy man threw another cryptic one. “Indeed, in these conditions, I am in support of investing in wonderful companies with good long term potential. For the true fan, this pitch is just what the doctor ordered.”

I discovered what our cricketers drink

I don’t know about you, but I must tell you how sad I felt for the Indian cricket team yesterday. The world champions in one day cricket and the world’s number one test side were put on the mat by the English team. So I decided to drown myself in some beer along with my south Indian friend Swami who drinks as long as it is not Thursday.

So there we went to the Manchester United restaurant and bar, and lo behold, the Indian cricket team – I think most of it  – was there. The captain was telling everyone to drown their sorrows in McDowell’s No.1 soda, while most of the team said no – we will have Kingfisher. These were not really the best of times, so how can we have the King of Good times, protested someone.  Bhajji and Gambhir (nursing his elbow) argued the next two tests are really the time to make it large, so insisted it has got to be Seagram’s. In all this confusion, I saw the team was unable to decide what to have.

Just then, Sehwag who had flown down for the third test joined, along with Sachin. The team asked them to decide what to have. “Boost is the secret of my energy”, said Sehwag. Sachin joined him, held Viru’s hand and said, “Our energy.”

Of Skill, Temperament and The Wall: Investing Lessons from Rahul Dravid’s batting

A couple of days back I was privileged to watch one of the best recent displays of classical Test Match batting by Rahul Dravid. That day (as so many times in the past too), Dravid secured a painstaking century on a minefield of a pitch to get India into a position of victory. He has done so earlier on similar pitches against much lethal bowling and in worse team situations. What is amazing is he was never directly focused on getting the runs. Runs seemed to be incidental outputs. His singular focus was to handle each ball as it comes, survive and score when possible – which in turn led to the century and eventually set up India’s victory. Dravid has been following that approach for the past 15 years, ball after ball, match after match, year after year – and it is no surprise that he is India’s second highest run getter in Tests.

dravid1Well – this note is not about his achievements or why he remains my favorite Test batsman. This is about the approach he brings to batting. There is so much to learn for individual investors from the way Dravid bats. If only one thinks of oneself as Dravid, and everything around him as the markets – the pitch, the bowls coming down, the excitement,  the team situation, one will realize the value of his approach and its application in the area of investing.

Dravid’s approach to batting is akin to Graham’s or perhaps even Buffett’s approach to investing . The first rule is never lose your wicket i.e. never lose money. The second rule is always follow the first rule. His expertise and experience in handling pitches like Sabina Park is tremendous, but he is still a student. He still does not know what exactly it has in store – i.e. which ball will seam and which will bounce, and does not try to pre-judge. Very much akin to the vagaries of the market which are futile to predict. His mind is almost trained with a plan for every over that sounds like – leave, leave, defend, leave, score, defend. His patience wears off the bowlers, so that they start bowling to where he wants them to.  dravid2

They try out-swingers which he leaves even if slightly off line, bouncers which he ducks without any ado, inswingers and short pitched balls which he gets behind and defends solidly. And finally he gets a wayward delivery on his legs which he flicks, or one that is wide outside the off stump which he drives. The entire process and journey by which he collects his runs and builds his innings is amazing, and more or less guaranteed to provide success if anyone could follow it well.  Wickets keep falling and other batsmen score faster with boundaries from the other end, but when Dravid is at the crease, he is still thinking – leave, defend as his natural choices by default, and only if the ball is in his zone, he scores. And those opportunities surely come more often than not. When everyone around him is struggling – including the bowlers unable to comprehend what the ball will do next on this pitch, fielders bored with nothing seemingly happening, and non-strikers flashing their bats in a bid to do something – Dravid is patiently batting – in his zone.

dravid3Isn’t the experience that normal individual investors have in the market similar to what batsmen face at pitches like Sabina Park most of the time? Sometimes you do have belters in big bull runs where you just get bat to ball, and it flies to the boundary. Investors that invest the way Dravid bats may temporarily look like fools on such belters. But most of the time, the markets are pitches like Sabina Park. You never know which way it will go. Defend or Leave is perhaps the best option for most individual investors on most deliveries thrown at them. Patience is then the biggest virtue, specially when you have a long innings to play. And when the market wears out and throws you a sitter, you grab it and accumulate your runs. If you do this ball after ball, match after match, year after year, through multiple economic cycles, good form or bad, a couple of things are sure. It is very unlikely that you will get out on a bad ball i.e. you are unlikely to suffer huge losses due to making bad investments. Most investors never recover or get back to markets after that. And finally, it is very likely that you will end up with a tally like Dravid’s by the time you are done.

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