All through June, the list of probables for the coach of the Indian cricket team has fluctuated—from a short one of two names to a long one with eight. Not one name on the list, however, was Indian. This preference for foreign guidance in cricket has sparked a heated debate: Why do cricket boards in South Asia look abroad for coaches? Are there no capable men to be found at home?
The issues involved here pertain not just to cricket; these are management and board games. Why is the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), the world’s richest cricket board whose total income at the end of the four year period in 2010 will be around Rs4,000 crore, so arbitrary in its selection process? And why is it that in a country not lacking in talent, the board is not able to spot and nurture good coaches? The answers lie in structural and motivational issues that dog Indian cricket.
Individual vs team
The recent stint of Greg Chappel has made it obvious that coaching the Indian team can very easily turn into a battle of will between the team and the individual. Various suggestions have been offered: from a foreign coach who is “pliable” to a home-grown expert who understands “the boys”.
In Indian cricket, however, the cult of the superstar has always had an upper hand, right from the days of imperious captain Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi. The concept of team is relatively new. Harsha Bhogle, cricket writer and commentator, attributes the sad state of coaching in India to an obsession with individuals. “We like messiahs, not systems. That’s why we produce coaches who don’t have a work ethic,” he says.
But in today’s game, the one-man obsession is not productive. Rajeev Gowda, associate professor of economics, Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, says that in the age of professionalism, some teams lag behind because they haven’t put in place the “soft infrastructure”. “There are tournaments, incentives, team spirit, competition, culture—a whole bunch of things that go into motivating players and making a team a success,” says Gowda. “The pressures are immense and you need to get the most out of people—and that’s why you need professional coaches.”
While the search for a coach continues, India has two specialized coaches in place: Robin Singh, a fielding coach, and Venkatesh Prasad, a bowling coach, while Chandu Borde has been appointed interim mangager. As India players, both Singh and Prasad were recognized for their work ethic. But they were not natural choices; they made it to the list only after other options failed. “It is high time India learnt how to nurture coaches,” says Gowda.
Every few years, when it is time to pick a coach, names of famous ex-cricketers come up. Often they have negligible coaching credentials. “We have no home-grown system, so we catch hold of some ex-captain,” says Gowda.
The appointment of John Wright in 2000 was a trendsetter, but it was dictated more by necessity following years of poor performance. Yet there was, and still is, resistance to the idea of a foreign coach. Bhogle says: “I wonder whether our cricketers have any knowledge outside cricket. You need a lot of other skills to get the best out of people. We’re also a talent-driven society. If there’s someone with less talent, we don’t know what to do with him.”
Bhogle isn’t familiar with the coaching styles of some contenders in the fray, but says that as the domestic circuit has become tougher, it has engendered a few potential coaches. These are ex-cricketers who were steady, rather than spectacular: batsman Chandrakant Pandit and bowler Paras Mhambrey.
“There is a misconception in India that only great cricketers can be coaches,” says T.A. Sekar, head coach at the MRF Pace Academy in Chennai. The question a coach is asked is: “How many Tests and one-dayers have you played?” Had John Buchanan—the coach under whom Australia won every trophy in international cricket—been in India, Bhogle says, “he would not have been selected because they’d ask how much cricket he had played.” (Buchanan has had an average record as a player.)
Why foreign coaches
“First of all,” Sekar says, chuckling, “they know how to make good presentations.” These coaches, he believes, bring a new way of thinking. Sekar has been working with Australians in Chennai for more than 20 years, and “they’ve answered a lot of unanswered questions”.
But the Australian coaching manual need not be the right kind for Indians. “It should be adapted for Indians and that is what we’re not doing,” says Sekar. “We’ve copied from the Australian coaching method and given it to all our coaches.”
Apart from the technical differences, a foreign coach may also miss the subtle mood swings and motivation lapses in South Asian teams, where intrigue is part of daily life. “They may not understand the nuances of the team dynamic,” says Gowda. “Apparently, even Madan Lal used to complain years ago when half the team spoke Kannada.”
On the plus side, foreign coaches are seen to be untouched by petty biases, a critical negative in guiding the Indian team. The complex structure of Indian cricket gives rise to zonal chaos and unhealthy affiliations between board members and players. “A foreign coach comes in without this baggage, without being identified with one camp or another,” Gowda points out.
Coaching a cricket team involves a blend of timely advice and allowing space for individual initiative. Sekar recounts an episode about Irfan Pathan, who recently spent a week at his pace academy. “He just swallowed everything.” Pathan had been meeting the best bowlers in every country he visited, and their advice, well-meaning as it was, was often conflicting. The result: one of India’s best pace bowler lost his steam.
A coach’s job is no longer just about correcting techniques, but also man management and strategy. He has to play the role of a mentor and a cricketing guide, says Gowda. “The issue is will players respect him? That’s where a good track record helps, but it is not vital.” If the team is convinced that the coach is making an effective contribution, he will command respect.
So, who can fill the post from the Indian ranks? Bhogle’s choice is Anil Kumble, the leg-spinner with the maximum number of Test wickets (552) to his credit, who announced his retirement from one-day cricket in April. “I think Kumble would make a great coach. Not only because of his stature, but also because he is a great human being. It is his work ethic, humility and education. He has come up the tough way and he understands what it’s like to hit a wall. People will look up to him. That’s just my gut feeling.”
Bhogle puts a lot of value on humility, something “modern Indian cricketers lack”. He says: “I’d make it an anthem. It is important for a coach to have humility. If you are obsessed with yourself, you will not have it within you to make other people better. That’s why star sportsmen make poor coaches.”
The Indian cricket board, however, does not seem to follow these pointers. The nomination of ex-England player John Emburey as India’s coach was so far out that even Emburey was surprised. What’s more, the previous frontrunner was reportedly dropped as punishment for a mistake he made as Bangladesh coach. Then Graham Ford, who the board had its heart set on, decided against taking up the post. Such a reaction was hardly what the board had anticipated. “They (he board) thought they’d just have to say, ‘Listen guys, we want a coach’, and people would come running,” says Bhogle. But that did not happen.
There is a lesson in this debacle for the sport’s administrators. Coaches who have guided the Indian team have written about the difficulties they faced in dealing with the board. And now, good candidates resist the lure of Indian money. It appears there may soon be no choice but to choose a coach from within the country.