I remember meeting Sourav Ganguly one evening in Mumbai some time in March, 2007. During the course of a long chat, I asked him whether he could recall the decisions that he took as captain of the national team and point out one of them as the best. He thought for a few seconds and replied “As a captain one keeps taking decisions all the time; some may yield immediate results while others may not be so successful and some may backfire; but if you ask for one decision I would say promoting Lax (V.V.S. Laxman) in the batting order to No. 3 in the second innings of the Test match against Australia at Kolkata in 2001 would rank as my best one”.
This answer made sense as Laxman, who had batted at No. 6 in the first innings, turned the match around with a brilliant innings of 281 in the second, where he batted at No. 3. India managed to win that Test and halt the Australian juggernaut who were poised for their 17th successive Test match victory. India won the next Test and thus emerged victorious in the series after losing the first Test by plenty and being in imminent danger of losing the second. The turnaround had happened only on account of that epic innings by Laxman, and Ganguly could feel justifiably proud for promoting him in the batting order when India was asked to follow on by Australian skipper Steve Waugh.
Sometime later, I had the opportunity of reading the book John Wright's Indian Summers which was penned by John Wright, the former New Zealand cricketer and first foreign coach employed by the BCCI. In this book, Wright has claimed that it was he who had informed Laxman, when the latter returned after the first innings knock, that he should not remove his batting leg guards as he was required to bat at No: 3 in second innings. There is no mention about discussing the matter with Ganguly, or the skipper informing that Laxman should move up the batting order. In short, Wright took credit for this decision.
It is to Ganguly’s credit that he didn't choose to give his version of the matter to the media at large. Wright also made it a point to acknowledge the supremacy of the captain in all cricketing matters, especially those taking place on the field. Wright had written in the same book that he would sit and chalk out plans with Ganguly, but would later tear his hair apart in frustration as the captain would throw all plans to the winds and proceed with an entirely new game plan borne out of his intuition on the field. Wright was man enough to admit that in most cases Ganguly’s intuitions worked out well and the change of plans on the field actually clicked for the side.
In his memoirs Wright also mentions about an incident when he got physical with one of the leading Indian players. This had happened in a moment of anger and frustration and understandably created unpleasantness between the coach and the side. Ganguly managed the issue with tact and firmness telling Wright that this was something that could never be allowed to happen, let alone recur. At the same time he ensured that this episode remained a closely guarded secret and no one, outside the dressing room, came to know about this.
This, in essence, sums up the ideal relationship between a captain and a coach in cricket in Indian situation. Wright was a moderately successful New Zealand batsman, who made a bigger name for himself as coach of the Indian side. Ganguly, on the other hand, was one of the superstars of Indian cricket, a brilliant batsman and an iconic captain, who, in his heyday, had the support of the entire cricketing establishment of the country. Wright acknowledged the supremacy of captain on the cricket field while Ganguly abided by the norms laid down by the coach in all matters outside the playing arena. The mutual respect and regard that they had for each other helped Indian cricket.
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Unlike in football, the role of a full fledged coach for national cricketing sides is a fairly recent concept. The first recognized professional coach for an international side was Bob Simpson, who coached the World Cup-winning Australia side under Allan Border in 1987. In India, the idea of having a professional coach for the national side was a slow starter and it was at the turn of the century that BCCI decided to follow the lead of other Test playing countries in this regard. John Wright was appointed as coach of national side in 2000, followed by Greg Chappell (2005-07), Gary Kirsten (2008-11) and Duncan Fletcher (2011-15). Anil Kumble became the first Indian to be chosen for this task when he was appointed as coach in 2016.
Role of a coach
What is the role of a coach in international cricket? This has evolved with the times and varies from one country to another, but broadly it involves preparing the team for the matches by providing off the field support. This would include analysis of performances of members of the opposing sides, finding out their strengths and weaknesses and devising strategies for tackling the bowlers and plotting the dismissal of batsmen. Coach should monitor the performances of members of his side constantly and identify early any defect creeping into the game of a player. A coach should also ensure full and complete physical fitness of all players, which would involve preparing exercise schedules for the team as a whole as well as for the individual players. He should liaise with the ground authorities, ensure proper facilities for practice and training sessions and be in overall charge of all cricketing activities outside the playing arena.
However, the most important job requirement of a coach is that he should be an excellent man manager who knows each player intimately as to be his friend, philosopher and guide. Players should be able to look up at him for words of advice, support and motivation.
He would be needed to make special efforts to handle players going through a bad patch, identify and correct their technical deficiencies and give them confidence that they could surmount the difficulties and emerge stronger. Man management is particularly important in the Indian situation where players hail from diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, speak different languages and tend to be shy, diffident and insecure in alien surroundings.
It is the responsibility of the coach to make a newcomer feel comfortable, draw him out of his cocoon, make him feel as a part of the larger scheme of things and mentor him till he finds his feet. Similarly the coach should be capable of handling the superstars with their bloated yet brittle egos. All these require development of strong bonds of mutual respect and trust between the players and the coach.
It was the loss of trust and mutual respect that caused the breakup between Virat Kohli and Anil Kumble, leading to the resignation of the latter from the position of coach of Indian team last week. Kumble is one of the all-time greats of Indian cricket; a former captain, one of the two bowlers in Test history to take all 10 wickets in an innings and the top wicket-taker for the country in both Tests and One-Day internationals.
Kohli, on the other hand, is, in addition to being a bold and imaginative captain, acknowledged as one of the finest batsmen in international cricket today. Kumble earned a well deserved reputation as a doughty fighter (he once bowled in a Test match with a broken jaw) and a stern disciplinarian who was equally strict with himself. He was also a dignified presence on and off the field. Kohli is a captain who leads from the front by setting a personal example and maintains high levels of fitness and motivation. He is so direct in his dealings with persons and public that he comes close to being considered as aggressive and brash. Both are known to be strong and proud individuals loathe to concede an inch or budge from their respective positions. Given this background it was not surprising that the differences of opinion that arose between them proved to be inextricable and unsolvable.
Where did Kumble go wrong?
In the final analysis, it should be said that two things went against Kumble. The first was his complete lack of experience as a coach as he had not coached any side in the past. Had he done so he would have understood that coaching a side needs a different mindset from playing, which would have helped him to manage the captain and players in a better manner. Like it is said that a captain is only as good as the team he leads, a coach can function only if he has the confidence of the dressing room. Kumble lost the confidence and trust of the captain and players, which made his position untenable, and he took the dignified option of putting in his papers.
The inference that one can draw from this episode is that only a professional with proven credentials in this area of work should be appointed as the coach of the national side. Reputations and past performance as a player do not count for much when it comes to coaching; this is a highly specialized area requiring not only intricate knowledge of the nuances of the game but abundant man management skills as well. Let us hope that the BCCI learns these home truths and emerges wiser from this episode.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)