“Zimbabwe Cricket would do well to contact Lalchand Sitaram Rajput at his Mumbai residence to discuss the prospect of having him on board not merely for the 2019 World Cup but to help Zimbabwe emerge as a force to reckon with in all forms of cricket in the future”.
The Makhaya Ntini and Zimbabwe Cricket love story was never going to work. Initially working under Dav Whatmore, Ntini was made interim Head Coach for a few months before being replaced by Heath Streak who became Head Coach in October 2016. Ntini took over the Bowling Coach role. Not only was it meaningless having two fast bowlers as Head Coach and Bowling Coach, but Ntini without any meaning coaching experience, and working in an alien environment, was set up to fail. The acrimonious parting that followed should have surprised no one.
Now that the deed is done, instead of getting further mired in a public spat, Zimbabwe Cricket needs to think out of the box about how it can dig itself out of the hole it finds itself in, as far as its place in world cricket is concerned.
Heath Streak is Zimbabwe’s pride, and deservedly so. Along with the Flower brothers, no one has given as much to Zimbabwe cricket as Streak. But notwithstanding his standing with the team, the board and the people, to be competitive in Test cricket and make a mark at the 2019 World Cup, Zimbabwe needs more than just Streak’s experience and dedication.
It needs a man called Lalchand Rajput at the helm, either independently or alongside Streak.
The Beginnings – Indian Team manager Inaugural T20 World Cup 2007
Roll back ten years to September 2007 to a different, almost unrecognisable cricketing world.
The first T20 World Cup is to be held in South Africa, Lalit Modi has not conceived the IPL, Tendulkar, Gangly and Dravid have all declined to play this newfangled format, and young MS Dhoni has been appointed the captain of an inexperienced young team.
Enter Lalchand Sitaram Rajput as manager of the Indian side.
Asked by a journalist before the tournament started how he felt about the Big 3 of Indian cricket not being in the side, Rajput had this to say: “I look at the positive aspect as there will be an opportunity for youngsters to perform. And there cannot be a better platform than the Twenty20 World Cup to make your presence felt. The new captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni is a keen learner which is the key for any captain to succeed and I am sure he won’t let us down.”
The journalist then asked him how he felt about being appointed manager rather than the coach of the side (the side did not have a coach). Rajput’s answer speaks volumes about the attitude of the man: “I have been assigned a job and I am looking forward to that.”
The job could not have been assigned to a better man.
Displaying grit, imagination and tremendous fighting spirit, MS Dhoni’s India would win the inaugural T20 World Cup against all odds, the IPL would be conceived and the cricketing world would never be the same again.
That T20 win would however never have happened but for the way in which Rajput and Dhoni combined off the field to plan the strategies that the young team they lovingly nurtured, executed on the field in South Africa. Rajput would later comment: “It was a challenge for us, we had just exited the 2007 WC in the West Indies, so it was a challenge to get the team together, to get the performance together, and do something worthwhile so that people always remember.”
After the triumphant return from South Africa, Rajput was appointed Head Coach of the glamorous Mumbai Indians side in the inaugural IPL with Sachin Tendulkar as captain. With Tendulkar injured for much of the tournament, Mumbai Indians failed to make the semi-finals by the narrowest of margins, and in the following season, the team chose to appoint Shaun Pollock, who had retired as a player from the same franchise at the end of the previous year.
In an otherwise extraordinarily successful coaching career, The Mumbai Indians stint for Rajput was an aberration.
Head Coach of BCCI Batting Academy 2010-2015
Lalchand Rajput’s strength as a coach had always been the ability to identify and nurture young talent, moulding and shaping them for success.
So in 2010 when BCCI decided to start specialised academies in Chennai, Mumbai and Chandigarh, Rajput was appointed Head Coach of the BCCI batting academy at Mumbai, a position he would hold between 2010 and 2015.
In this period the new young guns of Indian cricket, KL Rahul, Hardik Pandya, Karun Nair, Mayank Agarwal and Deepak Hooda would hone their skills at the academy under Rajput’s tutelage. The staying power of Karun Nair in scoring a maiden triple ton, the self-assurance of KL Rahul at the opening slot of India’s Test side and the fearless explosive stroke play of Hardik Pandya all owe their origins in no small measure to the training imparted by Rajput at the academy.
Head Coach of India A Team 2011 – 2014
While he was still heading the batting academy, BCCI also asked Rajput to take charge of the India A team. Following a now familiar pattern, this coaching stint too was marked by remarkable success.
The crowning glory of the 4-year stint as coach of India A team was the Triangular Series win in 2013 that Rajput and his team engineered against the two most powerful sides in world cricket, Australia and South Africa, whose bench strength is typically far better than most senior sides in the world.
In the finals at Pretoria in South Africa, India A beat an Australia A team comprising Aaron Finch, Glen Maxwell, the Marsh brothers, Moises Henriques, Josh Hazelwood and Nathan Coulter-Nile. Representing the triumphant Indian side were the likes of Rohit Sharma, Shekhar Dhawan, Suresh Raina, Wriddhiman Saha and Mohammed Shami, who form much of the core of the current Indian Test side.
During this coaching period, India A remained unbeaten in New Zealand and South Africa. And when India again won the Triangular Series at home beating Australia in 2015, new coach Rahul Dravid did so with much the same team that Rajput had left in his care a few months before.
Head Coach of Afghanistan 2016-2017
In 2016, when Lalchand Rajput took over the mantle of coaching Afghanistan from Inzamam-ul-Haq, there was no inkling that history was about to be made.
Afghanistan had run through seven coaches in the past nine years, starting with Taj Malik, their first homegrown player and coach, on to Kabir Khan, Rashid Latif and Inzamam-ul-Haq of Pakistan, with England’s Andy Moles, squeezed in between them.
But they found some stability when Rajput brought his experience and tremendous calming influence. He imbibed discipline and taught his charges that the team who stays in the game until the end is the one with the highest probability of going away with the victory.
Against all odds, in 2017 under Rajput’s watch, Afghanistan would attain Test status less than 16-years after cricket was re-introduced to the war-ravaged country.
It is a pity that Rajput, with his family still in distant Mumbai, chose not to renew his contract in 2017 because of security concerns. He says that his specific agreement with the Afghan Cricket Board was that he would be based outside Afghanistan (the team trains and plays in India), but as soon as Afghanistan attained Test status, he was asked to move to Kabul and identify and train the local talent. Given the instability in the country, is not something Rajput’s family back in Mumbai were comfortable with.
While he cannot be given sole credit for Afghanistan attaining Test status, there is no doubt that Rajput played a stellar role over the past couple of seasons in Afghanistan’s meteoric rise.
What’s happening with Zimbabwe Cricket?
1997 to 2002 were the golden years of Zimbabwe cricket with the victories over India and South Africa at the 1999 World Cup being the pinnacle of success the team enjoyed. With players like Andy Flower, Grant Flower, Dave Houghton, Eddo Brandes, Neil Johnson and Alistair Campbell in the side, they looked like a team that would challenge the world’s best on a regular basis.
Unfortunately, after this initial crop retired, accompanied by political isolation thanks to Robert Mugabe’s regime, Zimbabwe cricket never quite reached the same heights. Heath Streak, followed by Brendan Taylor and then Tatendu Taibu enjoyed periods of success captaining the side, but the team never recovered from the nadir of the 2007 World Cup when they went winless even against Ireland.
The Zimbabwe team today continues to falter at the bottom of the elite tier of world cricket. 10th among Test teams, 11th among ODI teams, and 12th among T20 teams is hardly inspiring or encouraging for the players or the fans.
The Case for Lalchand Rajput in Zimbabwe
In the meantime Zimbabwe Cricket has run through a number of coaches with Whatmore being the latest in a long line to be shown the door. The Ntini episode clearly shows that the team is far from being settled even with Streak at the helm.
What the team requires to lift itself up and be taken seriously as a cricket nation is for someone with the training and long term experience as a coach to step in, provide direction to the young players and nurture their talent, and make them believe that they can be what they do not yet dream of. That someone must not only have the training and experience to do this, but also a track record of success that can inspire the team.
Rajput has that and more.
In 2004, when India’s National Cricket Academy conducted its Level 3 Coaching Programme under Frank Tyson, a certification that separates the best coaches from the rest, it was Rajput who topped the Course. Taking the course alongside Rajput were some of India’s current crop of the most successful coaches – Venkatesh Prasad, Chandrakant Pandit, B. Arun, Balwinder Singh Sandhu, Arshad Ayub, Praveen Amre, Sunil Joshi, etc.
Rajput said at the time: “We learnt about game-sense, had an in-depth study of biomechanics and we also began to understand why a player commits an error, we learnt about the root-cause of technical problems. The programme helped us greatly.” These are all skills that a young team needs its coach to understand and help with.
His subsequent stellar record in coaching sides from MS Dhoni’s 2007 T20 World Cup winning team, the highly successful India A sides, nurturing the BCCI batting academy graduates who are dominating Indian cricket today, and helping Afghanistan’s unbelievable rise to Test status, comprise a track record that few coaches in world cricket today can boast of.
Zimbabwe Cricket would do well to contact Lalchand Sitaram Rajput at his Mumbai residence to discuss the prospect of having him on board not merely for the 2019 World Cup, but to help Zimbabwe emerge as a force to reckon with in all forms of cricket in the future.
It could well turn out be the most productive phone call the CEO of Zimbabwe Cricket ever made.