What is it that makes a successful coach?
The prerequisite in a sport like cricket is obviously a good team. And few can deny that India has one of the very best.
Seldom in the land’s cricket history has there been such uniform strength across all departments. Batting has always been the major positive of an Indian line-up, and the current team rests on a firm base fitted with glittering jewels and a sheen of rare class in that department. Besides, for all the rich tales of spin bowling that makes round in history and fables, the country has never had two tweakers operating with sub-25 averages. Finally, there is pace and swing, both potent, both incisive, with multiple exponents. Never, I repeat never, has the Indian bowling attack been at once this sharp and well-rounded.
There is talent unlimited in the squad.
Yet, this talent has to function in an atmosphere of unparalleled heat and pressure, that goes beyond any concept of normality. They represent a country of teeming millions, each and every one a ‘cricket expert’, where no one agrees to accept defeat in any single game in any format.
Coaching such a team can be tricky. Legendary names have been tried and, almost invariably, fallen short.
In fact, let me rephrase that. Generally, the more legendary the name has been, the more disastrous the results.
Let us go back to Bishan Singh Bedi. A man told the entire team to jump into the Pacific because they had lost a low scoring ODI to Australia at Lancaster Park.
Or Kapil Dev, whose stint saw the end of India’s 13-year undefeated run in home Test series with a shambolic defeat to South Africa.
We have had imported superstars too. Or at least one. Greg Chappell, along with Viv Richards, was the greatest batsman of his era. His stretch as the Indian coach was not uniformly bad. During the Chappell era, India managed a mixed bag of results, with at least some memorable highlights. In Tests, they won seven and lost four, including a series win in West Indies after a wait of 35 years, and the first ever win on South African soil. But they crashed out early in the 2007 World Cup. Besides, there was that awful feud with Sourav Ganguly, the confusion induced on the all-round skills of Irfan Pathan and all that. It was not a very palatable period.
Of course, Anil Kumble’s brief spell as the coach has hardly been a disaster. India have had an enormously satisfying time in Test matches and they did make it to the final of the Champions Trophy. However, it is out in the open now that captain Virat Kohli was hardly on talking terms with the legendary leg-spinner for quite a while. That is hardly the ideal environment for a team.
In between, there have been others. Able stalwarts of the game, but quieter, lime-light shunning men. They were like sturdy utilitarian structures that allowed the team to function within, not swanky architectural marvels that took the attention away from the inhabitants and attracted press and critics like flies.
Not all have been uniformly successful. John Wright was, to a great extent, shepherding the team through a difficult period. Gary Kirsten remains perhaps the greatest unsung hero of Indian cricket. Duncan Fletcher enjoyed a mixed record.
Among the home-grown men, Ajit Wadekar remained sufficiently in the background, and the side enjoyed incredible success at home during the four years of his service. Let us remember that in spite of his back to back series victories in West Indies and England, a feat considered impossible in those days, Wadekar was never a superstar of Indian cricket. That status was always reserved for men like Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, who had the necessary charisma to become legends and create auras as captains, although the results did not always reflect their stature.
Superstars and tenets
Perhaps all this can be tied up into a few hypotheses.
One, the coach need not be a fantastic cricketer to be able to guide a very good side to success.
Two, being a major superstar has generally been correlated to problems and disaster.
Three, which is an extension of the second point, a coach of the Indian team functions best from the background.
Forget Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and Louis Van Gaal. EPL may be telecast live in countries ranked in the 100s in football, but cricket remains a different sport. Leading from the sidelines is not quite an option. The captain’s job is extremely important during the course of the game. He is the leader of the pack and has to function as one. The coach’s job is different in cricket.
So, what is the coach’s role?
Perhaps not what Ian Chappell suggests, that of driving the team to and from the ground. Indeed, Kirsten and Wright have shown us how important the role is. In a bunch as talented as the Indian side, the role is that of fine tuning, ironing out the problems and optimising performance.
Coaching is a full-time job. And to coach players, it is necessary to know how to do so. It is a specialist job diverse from playing the game and needs a completely different approach. There is a proper science behind it, there are curriculums and degrees for coaches. Has been so for years, decades.
That is perhaps one of the reasons superstar cricketers do not make excellent coaches. They tend to ignore the theoretical basics of coaching and approach the job following their instincts and experience.
Several great cricketers tend to think a coaching degree beneath their dignity. After all, they have played the game at the highest level, and who can teach them any more about the game? Forget degrees, some believe a two-line CV should suffice for them.
They tend to equate what they have done with what the team members should do. That is a recipe for disaster, especially if the coach had been a phenomenal cricketer. A mortal cannot be expected to follow the methods of a genius and succeed. Hence it is of rather paramount importance that the coach would be a down to earth mortal himself.
One of the tenets for a good coach, voiced by sports psychologist Alan Goldberg, is to understand the differences in their wards. Every cricketer is different. A Pujara cannot bat like a Kohli, and vice versa. A coach needs to understand that. Superstar coaches often make the mistake of asking both a Pujara and a Kohli to bat like himself. That simply does not work.
What else are the tenets of a good coach?
Here are some.
A really effective coach does not use embarrassment and humiliation as teaching tools. One can go back in time and find out what was wrong with Bedi and the early 1990s.
A really effective coach does not let their egos and self-worth get tied up in the outcome. Well, ego is omnipresent in the Indian context. Ego clashes are huge in every Indian endeavour, let alone cricket. This is specifically that makes me apprehensive about the idea of icons landing the role.
Thus, the Zen concept of “’Follow me’ said the wise man and he walked behind” is of necessity in the post of the coach. Thus, the necessity of men like Wright, Kirsten, even Fletcher.
So, given all this, who seems the best candidate for the job?
Among the applicants, Virender Sehwag fails the superstar test. It is clear from his two-line CV that he does not think coaching is a specialisation, he tends to trivialise it. What is more, given his tweeter handle and equating it with the two-line CV, it is apparent that he has become caught in his image of nonchalant irreverence, pseudo-cool swag and knee jerk sensationalism.
He has never coached any team in his life, the closest he has come is while managing the Kings XI Punjab side during the 2015 and 2016 IPL. There too he lashed out at the foreign recruits for not pulling their weight when the team did not do well in their last encounter. Thus, he fails the ‘embarrassment and humiliation’ test as well.
Besides, Kumble’s example has shown us that a recent cricketing icon may not be the best fit in the dressing room of a team he is no longer part of. There are some habits that are difficult to get rid of, certain things that one is used to which may no longer be in vogue, and a sudden change in status and environment that the icon may find extremely unsettling.
All the other candidates do have coaching backgrounds.
In the case of Dodda Ganesh, the wildcard, it is certainly limited. He has coached Goa and then Under-16 and Under-19 sides of the National Cricket Academy. But, limited or not, the CV runs more than a couple of lines.
Lalchand Rajput has had long experience of coaching and has been involved with the Indian T20 World Cup winning side of 2007, the under-19 and A teams as well as the Mumbai Ranji side and the Mumbai Indians. We should also remember that he has been coaching the Afghanistan with more than considerable success. I would say he has rather good credentials.
Among the applicants, Richard Pybus is the only one who had taken up coaching as his profession very early in his career. He has achieved success with the Titans and Cape Cobras in South Africa and also took Pakistan to the final in the 1999 World Cup. His stints with West Indies and Bangladesh were not so fruitful though, and neither was his second collaboration with the Pakistanis.
And finally, we come to Tom Moody, no stranger to being an applicant for this coveted role. He was in contention for the job when a replacement for John Wright was being sought in 2005, but the selectors had decided in favour of Greg Chappell.
Not remotely comparable to Chappell as a cricketer, it is perhaps his comparative mediocrity as a player that has served Moody superbly in his coaching career. He guided Sri Lanka to the final of the 2007 World Cup, spent a period coaching Western Australia, following which took charge of Sunrisers Hyderabad and it was under him that the side won the IPL in 2016. Last year Moody had applied for the role of the Indian coach again, only to be ousted by Kumble.
It will be presumptuous to take a call on who should be the coach among these candidates, but it does seem to me that Rajput and Moody have the best qualifications for the job. Neither is a man I would not like to see as the coach.
To pick a favourite, let me phrase it this way. We may definitely be guilty of succumbing to small sample here, but Kirsten and Wright are definite examples of success stories. Moody fits the bill of being a low-profile foreign coach who can stay out of the maneuverings of the media-fan circus that is Indian cricket. Perhaps he can do it more ably than Rajput, who being Indian may not be as equipped to ignore the largely parochial sound and fury of it all. Moody can perhaps concentrate better on the job, away from all the shenanigans.
But, then, this is Indian cricket. Predictions are perilous.