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Letter from... a coach

Ravi Shastri has been named India cricket coach replacing Anil Kumble. Photo: Reuters
Ravi Shastri has been named India cricket coach replacing Anil Kumble. Photo: Reuters

Some years ago, I ran into Ravi Shastri in a hotel lift purely by accident. Though we had never met before, he acknowledged my presence with a hello and a nod, quite like how it’s done in some countries where it’s completely normal to greet strangers on the street.

Last week, Shastri’s name was being tossed around like a tennis ball in a fascinating saga played out in true BCCI style (news leaked out about his appointment, followed by denial and then acceptance). They kept everyone guessing, rumours and names floated about and many people and committees were involved in one simple decision before the final choice was made. The two-second lift incident came back to me as a memory of a man who has certain charisma and ability to connect with people. 

That characteristic is important in the role of a coach which, for the men’s team, is not about telling a batsman when his toe needs to be pointing towards gully. A coach’s role is so different now from that of the traditional concept of teaching.

In an interview, Shastri said coaching at this level was more about helping players stay organized in their daily activities as opposed to tinkering with their style of play. It’s about fine-tuning, mentoring and about effective communication, he said. The BCCI’s press release calls the coach an “elder buddy”.

It’s also about strategizing, and sometimes correcting the course of action during the run of play. In football and field hockey, for example, coaches can be seen screaming their instructions out from the sidelines, gesturing wildly, trying to get players’ attention. But you always wonder whether any player, in the thick of the action in a stadium filled with ballistic fans, can hear anything the manager is saying.

In tennis—I bring it up because of the ongoing championships at Wimbledon—coaching has always made for interesting conversation. Whether it’s about Roger Federer playing often without a coach or Andre Agassi advising Novak Djokovic or Amelie Mauresmo assisting Andy Murray, coaches have made news as much as players.

In this year’s edition, the coaching issue came up in the women’s quarterfinals when Svetlana Kuznetsova complained that her opponent Garbine Muguruza was coached from the sidelines. This is not allowed in Grand Slams, but in the Women’s Tennis Association Tour events, coaches can speak to their wards during changeovers.

There is an ongoing conversation on whether on-court coaching is a good thing or not. The US Open this year will experiment with this, allowing for chitchat during the qualifying competition. Other tournaments are mooting the idea, but some like Federer are opposed to the suggestion because it’s unfair for players who can’t afford coaches, while others like Djokovic are open to the experiment.

Coaching is integral in players’ early years, when they are still honing their techniques and getting a sense of balance. It was Ramakant Achrekar’s early lessons, besides the obvious talent, that allowed Sachin Tendulkar to play as long as he did. Because he had the right technique, he could adjust his game in his advancing years to compensate for the loss of reflexes.

Something similar applies to Federer too. His technique has aided in his longevity and in that he could alter his game—the backhand—at the age of 35 to win titles, when other players would be considering retirement, if not already retired. 

Fitness is the other aspect. But while trainers and physiotherapists can help keep an athlete fit, it’s far more difficult to learn new techniques when a sportsperson has been competing professionally for a long time. A coach, in that phase of career, is merely a third eye, watching out for deficiencies in game, motivating and analyzing opponents.

The Indian cricket team will possibly have this set-up: a coach (Shastri), an overseas batting consultant (Rahul Dravid), a batting coach (Sanjay Bangar), a bowling consultant (Zaheer Khan), a bowling coach (Bharat Arun), a fielding coach (R. Sridhar) besides trainers, physios etc., which makes the support staff almost as big as the team itself.

This could have something to do with our inability to trust one person to do the job (the reason why your passport is checked five to eight times at the airport) and the need to please multiple factions (in this particular case). But it also puts the support staff in the limelight along with the team, which is unnecessary.

We like watching sports or certain sports people because of their instinctive grasp of the game, reaction to situations, ability to make the right choices, handling pressure and a feel for the circumstances. It’s the reason some players seem to be or are “uncoached” —like a Virender Sehwag —or are so natural—like Zinedine Zidane or Federer—that you believe they were born to do this. 

When you add visible strategy, planning or method to this, the exponent loses some of the magic that makes his/her skill enviable. It humanizes them, exposes their preparation, shows that they do homework like the rest of us and are not superhuman, as we would like to believe. One of my least favourite “coaching” memories is of Nick Bollettieri signalling to Agassi on how to react after the latter won his first title at Wimbledon in 1992.

Give the coaches credit, but not so much of the spotlight.

Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend. 

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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