On the tour of England in 1996, India’s leading performers in the Test series were Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Kumble, Venkatesh Prasad and Sourav Ganguly, who made a stirring debut with centuries in his first two matches.
V.V.S. Laxman was yet to play international cricket (his debut came in November the same year), but one of his strongest votaries was Ravi Shastri, who had retired just a couple of years earlier and become a commentator.
The coach in England in 1996 was Sandeep Patil. His tenure was brief—barely six months—before he moved on to other assignments, the most significant being with the Kenyan team that reached the semi-finals of the 2003 One Day International World Cup.
Twenty years is a long time, but it is fascinating to see how the lives of these players have intersected again in the ongoing, attention-grabbing process of selecting a coach for the Indian team.
Tendulkar, Ganguly and Laxman now form the committee appointed by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) to advise on sundry matters, including the selection of the coach. Patil, Shastri, Kumble and Prasad were among the 57 applicants for the job. Of these four, only Shastri and Kumble made the cut for the final scrutiny.
Prasad has the most experience as coach in lower grades of cricket, but the more piquant story is surely that of Patil, who took the quirky decision of applying even while holding the post of chief selector. For more than a week, he was considered a front-runner for the job, along with Shastri. But leave aside the fact that he would be assessed by players whom he had coached 20 years ago, Patil did not even get a call for an interview with the three-man panel. Is it just an irony that his name was removed from the shortlist given to Tendulkar, Ganguly and Laxman to consider? Or was the decision based on past knowledge of Patil’s abilities as a coach? It’s difficult to say. But it certainly added a touch of melodrama to the proceedings.
Interestingly, the panel interviewed only seven candidates from the shortlist of 21—Lalchand Rajput, Praveen Amre, Shastri and Kumble, and three from overseas, Tom Moody, Stuart Law and Andy Moles. The names of all the applicants were withheld by the BCCI, adding to the suspense and brouhaha over the selection.
After the advisory panel’s meeting in Kolkata on Tuesday, the picture is a conundrum: far clearer, but still hazy. Consensus is that the race is now between Shastri and Kumble, whose late entry (or, at least, late admission that he had also applied) took not just most candidates, but also fans and the BCCI, by surprise.
Till Kumble’s candidature became known last week, it seemed a cinch that Shastri would get a fresh term as chief coach, if not his earlier designation as team director. Shastri’s record over the past 18 months had been very impressive: two World Cup semi-finals, the Asia Cup title, Test series wins over Sri Lanka (away) and South Africa (at home).
Technically, according to the parameters laid down by the BCCI, Kumble should have been ineligible since he has no past coaching experience at either the domestic or international levels, though he has been mentor for the Bengaluru and Mumbai franchises in the Indian Premier League (IPL).
But his formidable credentials were impossible to ignore, so this technicality was bypassed and he leapfrogged into joint pole position, so to speak. The recent example of Shastri himself, who was made team director without any previous coaching experience, made his case stronger.
Since Kumble spent the better part of his playing career with Tendulkar, Ganguly and Laxman, it is perceived that the advisory panel would have found itself in a dilemma when judging his candidature. Yet it would be equally difficult to ignore Shastri’s claims.
Over the past year, since Tendulkar, Ganguly and Laxman were given this role, they have unequivocally plumped for Shastri. And based on the team’s results in the past year, it is a moot question whether change is necessary.
While everything seems to indicate that the contest has narrowed down to Shastri and Kumble, it is pertinent to remember that three foreign players have also been interviewed—of them, Moody was instrumental in leading the Hyderabad Sunrisers to triumph in the IPL this year.
Before the meeting in Kolkata, Ganguly was candid enough to say that the last time he chose a coach (Greg Chappell in 2005), it boomeranged. “With Sachin and Laxman for advice this time, hopefully we have chosen the right man,’’ he added.
Ganguly may have said this light-heartedly but, by Wednesday evening, the BCCI had sent a press release saying that the advisory committee would meet again to “further go through the finer details (of the applicants’ merits presumably)’’ and submit its report now on Friday.
The suspense, therefore, will unravel on 24 June after the BCCI’s working committee meeting. I wonder if there’s still a twist in the tale.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.