Paddy Upton wrote a sumptuous blog on coaching last year. The Delhi Daredevils coach, who looked after the mental conditioning of the cricketers in the Indian team as Gary Kirsten’s support staff, described the shortcomings of the old-school ‘my-way-or-the-highway’ style of coaching and explained the benefits and a growing acceptance of the ‘new-school’ type, where a coach becomes the ‘learning partner’. The old process was stubborn and dictatorial, while the new approach allows players to remove hesitation and express themselves without fear. Anil Kumble made his international debut as a cricketer in April 1990 when VP Singh was the prime minister. He hung up his boots in November 2008. Little wonder then that the great leg-spinner was found to be more old-school than modern as a coach. His exit in acrimonious circumstances despite a hugely successful 12-month stint (results-wise) was perhaps inevitable. Kumble reportedly came short of the most important aspect of modern coaching: man management.
Kumble’s performance as the Indian team’s head coach—five Test series wins on the bounce, three limited-overs series victories, guiding the side to the Champions Trophy final—is well documented. Then again, modern-day coaching is not only about the on-field exploits or helping players improve their skill set. A happy dressing-room is the pre-requisite. Turn of events suggested that Kumble failed. Kumble came to top-flight coaching without any prior experience at the international level. He wasn’t shortlisted by the BCCI secretary’s office because of his lack of experience. Still, the Indian cricket board’s Cricket Advisory Committee (CAC) picked him ahead of Ravi Shastri, who did a stellar job as the team director for two years. The CAC also chose to overlook a seasoned and highly respected coach like Tom Moody, who impressed every panel member with a superb presentation. More, importantly, as then BCCI secretary Ajay Shirke revealed to The Indian Express, Kumble was appointed against Kohli’s wishes. It was a mistake.
The CAC, comprising Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman, is gold standard. But the absence of a certified and experienced coach in the committee remains the missing piece of the jigsaw. “Knowledge of cricket and knowledge of coaching are two totally different gifts,” Upton wrote. It would be appropriate to draw some football analogies in this context. Manchester United, for example, has Sir Alex Ferguson as a director, who provides inputs and suggestions before any coaching appointment. At Manchester City, director of football Txiki Begiristain takes the final call, doesn’t matter if the candidate is someone of Pep Guardiola’s pedigree or stature. The structure and methods are very much the same in Bundesliga, La Liga and Serie A.
It was surprising that the CAC wanted to extend Kumble’s contract till the 2019 World Cup despite knowing Virat Kohli’s displeasure against the coach. The whole drama could have been avoided by whispering a word in Kumble’s ear. It’s very likely that the former India captain would have quietly packed his bag then without filing a fresh application. As soon as Kumble came to know about Kohli’s reservations, he made a dignified departure.
Kohli leading a dressing-room revolt is another example of player power and you might scoff at it. Ramachandra Guha tore into this, while stepping down from the Supreme Court-appointed Committee of Administrators (COA). “Surely, giving senior players the impression that they may have a veto power over the coach is another example of the superstar culture gone berserk? Such a veto power is not permitted to any other top-level professional team in any other sport in any other country,” he wrote in his letter to COA chief Vinod Rai. With all due respect, player power is not only Indian cricket’s problem. This has now become the norm—Arsenal, and Arsene Wenger, remain a glorious exception—everywhere in every high-profile teamsport.
Claudio Ranieri had taken 5,000-1 outsiders Leicester City to the Premier League glory in the 2015-16 season. Nine months down the line, the Italian was sacked because Jamie Vardy and company reportedly walked up to the team owner and expressed their refusal to play under the boss. The season before Jose Mourinho had to leave Chelsea, a Premier League title-winning campaign notwithstanding, because he had lost the dressing room. Even Manchester United of all clubs terminated Louis van Gaal’s contract after winning the FA Cup, as David de Gea had reportedly given an ultimatum to the club hierarchy that it would be either him or the veteran Dutch manager at Old Trafford. After achieving outstanding success for two consecutive terms, Luis Enrique had to quit because Lionel Messi became frustrated with his playing style.
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Unlike cricket, coaches/managers enjoy enormous power in football. Still, they become the fall guys, for you can’t sack the captain or players. As far as Indian cricket is concerned, top stars always had a big say in coaches’ appointments, from John Wright to Duncan Fletcher.
It’s easy to criticise Kohli. But to put things in perspective, he has stuck his neck out for his team and showed immense courage as a young captain. As per a BCCI official, at least seven-eight players were uncomfortable with Kumble’s coaching style. Kohli fronted up, taking huge pressure upon himself. It would be wrong to compare this with the Greg Chappell saga. The Australian is a giant of the game in his own right, but his sterling record mattered very little to Indian fans. Chappell was an outsider. Kumble is one of India’s most cherished cricketers; revered for his 956 international wickets and the courage and grit he showed on the field. It’s no surprise that Kohli is being flayed in some quarters. But the skipper’s stature could increase manifold in the changing room.