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Business Lessons From An Unlikely Sport: Cricket

The “true team sport,” though less known in the U.S., is uniquely suited to the business mind, says eClinicalWorks CEO Girish Navani.

Business Lessons From An Unlikely Sport: Cricket
[Photo: Flickr user Stuart Dallas]

Girish Navani, the CEO of eClinicalWorks, a major electronic health records company, first started playing cricket when he was six years old. His father had played cricket at the national level in India, and Navani remembers poring over old photo albums of his father’s glory days: competing all over the country; being decorated by a senior government official. The players all wore crisp white uniforms back then, not the multi-colored uniforms he says you see today.

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Girish Navani

Navani fils played cricket competitively in high school, and remembers pulling a star turn in a semi-final match, playing for five “overs” and bowling three “wickets” or “outs.” (“I helped the game significantly,” he explains to a cricket-challenged reporter, adding that to bowl for five overs in such a match was to “do the maximum share you can do”). But then he went to college, and then got a masters degree in the U.S., and his cricket passion fell by the wayside. He grew just as interested in the NFL (and remains so).

But about 10 years ago, Navani finally took up cricket again—eClinicalWorks began a team to play in the New England Cricket Association. “We’re pretty serious” by now, he explains. “We’ve won two of the past four years.” And even if you were born in America, and haven’t spent time in one of the nations such as the U.K., India, Pakistan, or Australia, where cricket is popular, you might want to start paying attention to the sport, suggests Navani. (U.S.-born employees have come out to eClinicalWorks games and enjoyed them, he adds.)

Because playing and admiring the sport of cricket can offer a few lessons for anyone who wants to succeed in business. There are the usual lessons of athletics, of course: the value of competition, the importance of practicing. But Navani outlines three ways in which cricket, more than other sports he has known and loved, is a pastime particularly suited to the business mind.

1. It’s a team sport like no other

“Cricket doesn’t have specialized players,” says Navani. He points out that unlike in American League baseball, where pitchers don’t take up the bat, “in cricket, the pitchers have to bat and the hitters have to pitch.” It compels a versatility in the athlete (or what some businesses have called “T-shaped people”). “All 11 people have to be good at something,” says Navani, “but they have to be at least average at other skill sets, too. Everybody has to play every position of the game.”

Cricket’s focus on the team, and on the interchangeability of its members, directly inspired one curious feature of eClinicalWorks. In a company of several thousand employees, eClinicalWorks only has three employees with titles. His company, then, is structured something like a cricket team: “In business, a company’s agility is made possible by this same proficiency to working cross-functionally,” he says.

2. It has a strong culture

Though Navani admits that contemporary cricket is tending in the direction of other sports—increasingly commercial, glamorized, and dominated by marketing—cricket is a sport steeped in history and tradition. In the sport’s early days, and to some extent today, there was a decorum about it. “It was always ceremonial,” says Navani, circling back to those neat white uniforms and sweaters his father wore in every game. Spectators came out in suits and hats. The fields were manicured. “There was a code.”

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To the extent that good sportsmanship is a component of a best business practices, suggests Navani, you could do well to grow to love cricket, and to study its rich history.

3. Legacies are hard earned

“To be a legend of that game is hard,” says Navani, “because it’s a game played over a long duration.” Games can last eight hours, demanding great endurance. “Both on the field and in business, winners are not always decided quickly, but by who can perform better long-term,” says Navani, adding that eClinicalWorks will “never go public out of respect for its long-term goals of maintaining a focus on customers and employees rather than outside investors.”

To sustain a long career in a hard-charging, eight-hours-at-a-time sport demands incredible fortitude. Navani singles out Sachin Tendulkar as one of the game’s greats. He played from 1989 to 2013—an almost unheard-of feat, making him the only cricket player to achieve “100 centuries” (a century is 100 runs) in his career. It earned him India’s highest civilian award.

A long-lasting cricket player, like a long-lasting company, is relatively rare. But when all the right decisions are made, and it happens, the rewards are great. “Players like Tendulkar leave a legacy in the game,” says Navani. And so it is for anyone who is serious about business: “You hope that when your career comes to a close, you’ve left an impression on an industry.”

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.

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