Gary Kirsten, who came here without any international coaching experience, has set the standard for the Indian cricket team’s new coach. His successor will in all likelihood be a low-profile foreigner. Like the South African, he will be happy being away from the spotlight, his accomplishments as a player will not match or overshadow those of anyone in the Indian team and if the new candidate’s selectors are at all superstitious, he would be a left-handed batsman.
That is, if the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) believes in sticking to a working formula.
Cricket guru: Gary Kirsten gets the royal treatment after India’s recent World Cup win. Hamish Blair/Getty Images
“Gary Kirsten’s are big shoes to fill,” captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni said after the World Cup triumph earlier this month. It was Kirsten’s last assignment with India. “The benchmark has been set really high,” said the skipper, referring to what is possibly the most successful period in Indian cricket history—they topped the official Test rankings for the first time and won the ODI World Cup after 28 years (a young team also won the inaugural Twenty20 World Cup under interim coach Lalchand Rajput in 2008).
This makes the task even more daunting for the next man in the hot seat, possibly one of the toughest assignments in world sport, and the BCCI would rather take its time to find the ideal candidate.
Bets are already on over who the next coach will be. The names being mentioned include former England coach Duncan Fletcher, former Australia batsman Justin Langer, spin great Shane Warne and former New Zealand captain Stephen Fleming. Except for Warne, none of the others were exceptional achievers—Fletcher played only ODIs for Zimbabwe, Langer was a dull but solid opener, and Fleming a smart captain but average batsman who now coaches the Chennai Super Kings, which has Dhoni as captain. All three were left-handed batsmen. Warne never captained Australia but led Rajasthan Royals to the first Indian Premier League (IPL) title in 2008, and leads a high-profile lifestyle. Naturally, there are several former Indian stars with professional coaching experience also aspiring for the post that reportedly paid Kirsten $30,000 (around Rs 13.5 lakh) a month, making it cricket’s most lucrative non-playing position.
Cricket guru: John Wright built one of the most successful Indian teams.
The foreign hand
Appointed in 2008, Kirsten, now 43, was India’s third full-time foreign coach and his approach to the task was remarkably similar to that of New Zealander John Wright, the first overseas appointment in 2000 after Indian legend Kapil Dev stepped down following a disappointing stint.
Before 1990, administrative managers accompanied teams on overseas tours. Former Test captain Bishan Singh Bedi was the national team’s first coach in 1990—most remembered for saying that the players should be thrown into the Pacific Ocean after a disappointing performance in New Zealand—although for a few years subsequently, the position was replaced with that of cricket manager, usually a former Test player of repute.
Former Test captain Ajit Wadekar was one of the country’s most successful cricket managers after he forged a good working relationship with skipper Mohammed Azharuddin in the 1990s.
But given the general trend of international sides hiring specialist coaches, the Indian board decided to adapt to the times, particularly after Sri Lanka’s success at the 1996 World Cup under Australian Dav Whatmore’s tutorship.
The move paid off and the team has made giant strides in the past decade, barring a tumultuous two years under Australian Greg Chappell, who quit just days after the team’s first-round exit in the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies.
Chappell’s experimentation policy was always resisted by the team and in the final analysis he was blamed for the rift in the team, apart from personality clashes with two of the country’s most successful cricketers—Sourav Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar.
“Both Wright and Kirsten were tremendously successful, and India will need to look for someone on similar lines,” former Indian Test captain Dilip Vengsarkar says. “We are currently No. 1, yes, but we need to sustain the dominance, and take it across all formats of the game. To achieve that, it’s imperative that we find the right kind of coach,” the former chief selector adds.
Both Wright, who had a five-year stint, and Kirsten, who had a three-year run, inherited teams that were high on talent but low in confidence, and turned them into champion outfits. Wright took over the reins after the match-fixing scandal that rocked world cricket in 1999. The high point of his tenure was when India made it to the 2003 World Cup final and drew a remarkable Test series in Australia the following year.
Kirsten, a surprise choice, took over after the team had struggled under Chappell’s reign and after another South African, Graham Ford, turned down the Indian board’s offer. During Kirsten’s term, India played 12 series, won seven, drew four and lost just one, in Sri Lanka.
What made it work
The similarity between Kirsten and Wright doesn’t end with the fact that both were left-handed openers with over 5,000 Test runs each and a batting style characterized by a gritty, workman-like approach.
As coaches, both kept a low profile, were happy to be in the background, seldom interacted with the media, displayed solid work ethics and shared a special bond with the players, especially the captains.
Chappell, the exception, was a right-handed batting giant also regarded as one of the great thinkers of the game. However, the comparative success of Wright and Kirsten proved that India are better off with a capable coach blessed with excellent man-management skills, which Chappell was short on, rather than with someone with an exemplary track record as a player. In a team of high-strung egos, success is based on the ability to blend in.
Coaching at the highest level is possibly less about technique and more about helping the side to think out-of-the-box on handling pressure. Given the achievements over the last three years, Kirsten himself cautioned that his successor may face a daunting task. The good part, as he put it, is that the foundation has been laid—the next man needs to bring in new ideas.
“It was Kirsten’s ability to click with the captain and the team that was key to the success,” says former India wicketkeeper Syed Kirmani. “I’d say the role the coach plays is 10% and the captain 90%, but then the 10% is as crucial to put the progress in place,” the former national selector adds. “The next man should be of the same mould.”
India’s busy international season begins with a Test and ODI tour of the West Indies in June, followed almost immediately by a full tour of England. According to people familiar with the functioning of the cricket board, an interim coach will be sent on the relatively low-key tour of the Caribbean before a decision is taken on the appointment of a full-time coach ahead of the England tour in July.
The board wants to keep the selection of the next coach a quiet, closed-door affair to avoid media attention, as was the case when Kirsten was appointed.
Till then, the search had been a public one. But the BCCI felt slighted when Ford turned down its offer, which is probably why it now wants to keep a low profile.
“The president (Shashank Manohar) and secretary N. Srinivasan prefer to work silently and quickly,” says a BCCI official familiar with the process who did not wish to be identified. “It’s really a small pool to choose from if you are looking at world-class coaches. (Current England coach) Andy Flower is also a possible option in the long term. Some of the candidates are already here attached to the Indian Premier League teams. An appointment could also be made before the West Indies tour,” the BCCI official says.
The focus on the coach is only going to increase as India try to stamp their supremacy on all formats of the game. India are already on the verge of toppling Australia as the world’s top-ranked team in ODIs and will need to hold on to their No. 1 Test ranking during a packed and challenging season that includes difficult tours of England and Australia.
“Definitely, that’s what we will look to achieve next,” chief selector Krishnamachari Srikkanth says. “Not just in Tests, but across all three formats of the game.”
India’s Test record under the three foreign coaches
Compiled by Sanjay Rajan.
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