Paddy Upton

The epitome of team spirit

People talk of ‘care-factor’ in a team, this is what it looks like!

Rajasthan Royals beat Chennai Super Kings two days ago to progress to their first ever Champions League T20 cricket final, scheduled for tonight. On that same semi-final night the Royals demonstrated something quite extraordinary, something that had me unexpectedly choked up with emotion when I spoke about it at the following day’s team meeting.

The extraordinary thing was not the comprehensive and clinical manner in which the Royals defeated the superstar-laden and champion Chennai team. It was not that the win secured their first ever CLT20 final placing nor that it recorded the Royals’ 13th consecutive win at their home Sawai Man Singh Stadium.

For me (as the team’s Head Coach) it was something more remarkable. In the 17th over of Chennai’s second-innings chase, and as the game was heading towards a nerve-wracking finish, two Rajasthan Royals’ fielders collided in an attempt to save one run. (The team had already agreed to put their bodies on the line to save a run). The one run was saved, but it left Shane Watson dazed from a nasty collision with Brad Hodge’s knee. Brad did not get up. He was carried off the field wincing in pain, clearly suffering from more than just a bruise.

Three overs later the Royals’ fighting spirit prevailed over the Super Kings to win their place in the 2013 CLT20 final. The on-field celebration was… hardly a celebration, but a rather muted, ‘ok cool, we won’. After every game the Royals have a deliberate ‘humble-in-the-result’ attitude, not getting over-excited by victory nor depressed by failure. But this stifled celebration was not normal.

In the privacy of our change room, the Royals were visibly more depressed than after any defeat since my involvement with the team. There was not one whoop of celebration, no high fives, no music turned on. This somewhat bizarre situation saw players sitting in silence and others quietly staring into their post-match plates of food. Off to the side Brad Hodge lay on his back, ice-pack strapped to his knee, still writhing in pain. We were later to learn that he had badly torn knee ligaments.

Each player made their way past Brad, some offering quiet words, others just putting a sympathetic hand on his leg, chest or head. Shane Watson sat in his usual chair and seemed to be fighting back tears. It was a pure accident, but he felt somehow responsible. It was his head that had hit Brad’s knee.

Attempts to lift his spirits were fruitless. At the time I was not surprised by this response. Watto epitomises the Royals’ team spirit – he places the team’s needs ahead of his own, and he was hurting for Brad.

After an hour in the change room and not one single beer or glass of champagne later, the team headed onto the team bus. Brad left much earlier for an MRI scan at the local hospital. We drove back to the hotel in the silence characteristic of a defeated team – the bus driver must have thought he was transporting the Chennai team.

En route to the hotel I got a phone call. It was Brad Hodge. He had already returned to the hotel from hospital. His call was to request the team to meet in the team room immediately upon our arrival, which would be about 1am. This was a bit strange because at the Royals we steer away from team meetings after a game. Win or lose, we discuss the game the next day when emotions are settled and thinking is clear.

Back in the team room we waited while Brad slowly made his way to join us. He would have had no idea that the mood in the team was still somewhat subdued. He hobbled into the room to what I could only describe as a hero’s welcome. He pulled us into a huddle and then proceeded to deliver a powerful and moving off-the-cuff speech. He enthusiastically congratulated the team on a ‘tremendous win’ and went on to tell us how excited he was about our ‘truly magnificent performance’. He congratulated the match-winning efforts of particularly Rahul Shukla (to remove Dhoni early in his innings) and (man-of-the-match) PravinTambe and hailed the Royals’ campaign in the Champions League as a ‘lion’s effort’. To conclude, he invited the whole team to enjoy the celebrations of an ‘awesome victory’ – a celebration that had been stifled since victory was sealed. Brad’s chat gave permission for, and lifted the lid on, the celebration that was so richly deserved.

As I walked back to my room at 1.30am, I was filled with emotion, with pure pride. The Rajasthan Royals is a team that spends only seven weeks of the year together. A team that consists of players from senior international cricketers from different countries to lesser-known and uncapped Indian players, with ages ranging from 18 to 42. It is a team that only months earlier had their hearts ripped out by three teammates being accused of spot-fixing.

In the past two hours I had witnessed a cricket team find the sadness of a teammate being injured in battle to be more important than winning the second biggest game in its six-year existence.

This was the epitome of ‘team’ spirit. When people talk of a care-factor in a team, this is was what it looks like! I was choked up with pride as I praised the team in the next day’s post-match meeting. You can’t buy that level of team spirit and care-factor at the local supermarket!

Regardless of what happens in tonight’s Champions League final against Mumbai Indians; in my books the Rajasthan Royals are already a champion ‘team’.

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