Does Team India Really Need A Cricket Coach?

The latest buzz in Indian cricket centers on the selection of the national team's cricket coach. How much of this hungama is really justified?

Two events leap out of the Indian cricket calendar for June 2007.


In the last week of the month, India takes on Ireland and South Africa in a tripartite One Day International series in Belfast. The curiosity in that series, funnily enough, is not so much the India v South Africa match-up, but the performance of Ireland against the two more established teams. Ireland, the new kid on the global cricket block, debuted in World Cup 2007 stunning Pakistan with a three-wicket victory with 32 balls to spare, and then tied with Zimbabwe to reach the Super Eight stage where it beat Bangladesh before bowing out against Sri Lanka.

The other event of the month precedes the Ireland tour. On June 4, a 7-member committee headed by Sharad Pawar, president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, is scheduled to begin discussions on India’s next cricket coach. Apart from the BCCI bigwigs, the committee has three former India captains Sunil Gavaskar, Ravi Shastri and S.Venkataraghavan. The final choice is expected to be announced on June 10.

Another related development. In May, the BCCI top brass flew to Chittagong, the venue of the first test between India and Bangladesh. Their stated reason? They were “invited” by the Bangladesh Cricket Board to watch Sachin Tendulkar and Saurav Ganguly score their long-awaited centuries. But they fooled nobody. True, both senior Indian batsmen had gone without a test century for a long time. But then, neither was doing anything close to spectacular – like breaking a world record. Pawar and his lackeys had in fact gone there to interview hopeful and front-runner Dave Whatmore who is concluding his stint as Bangladesh coach.

Soon after the day’s play, Tendulkar, buoyed by his century, spoke to the media on cricketing matters. And what was his prime peeve? That senior team players should be consulted before the coach’s appointment. “We hope that our inputs would be considered,” he said, adding pointedly that he was very happy with the stand-in coach Ravi Shastri. Interestingly, Shastri, a member of the selection committee, is reported to be pushing his name as a dark horse for the post.

How does one react to this web of machination and intrigue accompanying the selection process? And what does one make of the astonishing importance given to the choice and appointment of the Indian cricket coach?

Part of the hype derives from the controversial tenures of the two previous coaches – John Wright of New Zealand and particularly Greg Chappell of Australia. While the former was known to be low-key and is whispered to have silently swallowed abuses from some senior Indian players, the latter had a mind – and a sizable ego – of his own. Insiders spoke of frequent run-ins between him and the team seniors. The cold war between Chappell and Tendulkar was evident during the later part of the Chappell tenure.

Wright described his experiences as coach of the Indian team in his book Indian Summers, a characteristically tactful and well-meaning account that nonetheless betrayed his frustrations at the Indian cricketing system, including his pique at the appointment of Sunil Gavaskar as “consultant” during part of his stint and his physical shaking-up of Virender Sehwag after the mercurial player continued with his wayward batting ways. Greg Chappell, when and if he comes out with his own book on the subject, will be, one reckons, far more scathing.

Some of the media attention on the Indian coach also concerns his background and origin (especially if he is not an Indian), and remuneration. Much was made of Greg Chappell being paid $20,000 per month for close to two years before he quit. Come to think of it, that’s peanuts compared to what several Indian cricket stars make just posing alongside cars and hrefrigerators, and cutting ribbons at boutique launches.

The point about the coach being a foreign national calls for some discussion. After former Indian cricketers Ajit Wadekar, Anshuman Gaekwad, Madan Lal and briefly Sunil Gavaskar as a stand-in coached the Indian team in the mid and late-1990s, the BCCI opted to look beyond the country’s shores for filling the coach’s slot. The reasons were two-fold – one stated, the other implied. The stated reason was, of course, that a foreign coach would be free from the regional pulls and petty political pressures that a local coach has to contend with, and would bring a new and fresh perspective to the coaching drills and strategy sessions. Left unsaid, but roundly resented by aspiring former Indian cricketers, was the implication that a foreign coach would be technically more solid and attitudinally more professional than an Indian coach. And that his very nationality (or un-Indianness) would instill a sense of awe among the boys, making it easier for him to crack the whip when required.

The resentment is valid. After all, Indian coaches – particularly Ajit Wadekar, Mohinder Amarnath and Sandeep Patil – have proved their worth in the international arena. Under Wadekar as coach, India made commendable strides in both tests and One-Dayers. Amarnath and Patil have coached teams in other countries with distinction, and Patil shepherded a relatively callow Kenyan team to the semi-final stage in the 2003 World Cup in South Africa.

Does the BCCI’s ongoing fascination for a firang (foreigner) as cricket coach have something to do with the famous Indian weakness for the gori chamdi (fair skin)? Gavaskar hinted at this chink in our collective national psyche when he wrote in a column in an angry response to a proposal to offer the outgoing coach Greg Chappell the post of consultant at the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore: “It’s never easy sacking somebody, however incapable and inefficient he/she may be … but to give another job and that too one which deals with the future of Indian cricket after the mess the present of Indian cricket has been landed into, makes one wonder if we will ever get out of the inferior complex syndrome.”

The case against foreign coaches – and more so against Chappell – is bolstered by a telling statistic. When the former Aussie great took over as coach, India was ranked second in the International Cricket Council rankings. Currently India has dropped to sixth position. The blame to some extent could be laid at Chappell’s door – his excessive experimentation and his cold demeanor, bordering on arrogance. The argument thus runs: a foreign coach is bad enough, a coach with a star status is worse. Is that why the likes of Chappell, Clive Lloyd and Javed Miandad have fared poorly as coaches in comparison with John Buchanan, Duncan Fletcher, Dave Whatmore and Tom Moody?

There is also the problem of cultural understanding and adjustment. Can a foreign coach truly connect with a bunch of youths brought up in an ethos totally alien to his own? Bob Woolmer is a case in point. Woolmer was born in Kanpur, India. So many, including probably Woolmer himself, believed he was more than halfway home in bonding with teams from the Indian subcontinent, and his initial honeymoon period with the Pakistani team appeared to confirm this notion. But the reports that are now spilling out about his spats with Shoaib Akhtar and Inzamamul Haq over non-cricketing matters like religion tell another story.

One can only hope that the new Indian coach is selected on grounds that are less tenuous. Front-runner Davenell Frederick Whatmore is a 53-year-old Colombo-born who emigrated to Australia in his early years and represented that country in seven Tests without great distinction at a time when the Aussie stars were away playing in Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket. But Whatmore’s record as coach is indeed enviable. After retiring as a player in the late 1980s, he helped steer Sri Lanka to their 1996 World Cup victory. He then moved to the English country Lancashire for a brief, but successful stint. But his most recent laurel is Bangladesh’s gutsy performance in the 2007 World Cup.

On the minus side, is the question-mark on Whatmore’s sense of loyalty and commitment. Even as early as the first round of the recent World Cup, the Bangladesh coach was known to have eyed the greener grass across the border and begun networking quite openly for the job of Indian coach, much to the consternation of the Bangladeshis. Will a careerist foreign coach fit the bill for India?

The real question, I believe, hinges not on whether Team India needs a local or foreign coach, but on whether it really needs a cricket coach at all.

Come to think of it, the exact job description has never been specified. A “coach” by definition and dictionary meaning, is basically a trainer. Training, in turn, implies developing technical skills. By that yardstick, it should be clear as daylight to any lay observer, that by the time cricketers reach the international level they don’t need coaches. Or rather, they’re beyond coaching, being just too set in their playing ways to be hauled back and hreformed at the drawing board. No “coach”, for instance, can now mend Virender Sehwag’s technique or his lack of it. The time for sorting out technical glitches is at the junior level – particularly in countries like India where the game has a long tradition and a system of training and recruitment is already in place. At most, the concept of coach-as-technical-tutor may work in countries where the game has not taken firm systemic root and players are amenable to grooming.

What Team India really needs is a manager. In other words, a man who can manage star-player egos. Till the game got obscenely wealthy and high-tech, this role was usually played without fuss or hype by an Indian ex-cricketer who went by the job-title of “manager.” And his skills were tested largely on foreign tours.

I suspect that this kind of artificial hype routinely attached to the Indian coach’s job has become a convenient escape route for the BCCI to lay blame when the team falters during the coach’s stint at major multi-nation tournaments like the World Cup.

Let’s face the truth. Whether it’s a World Cup match or an NBA playoff game, it’s the players who win it or lose it – not the coach. He is, at best, a facilitator. Remember Coach K.C. Jones of the Boston Celtics, my favorite basketball team of the 1980s, who got the best out of their talent by keeping out of their way as much as possible? The karta of that team was its captain Larry Bird. But not even a master player like Larry Bird – with all his strategic acumen – could later coach the Indiana Pacers into winning the NBA title.

My case rests.

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