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When Anil Kumble set himself to be interviewed by his former team-mates, one question floated around: Can the panel really look beyond him? Shastri was suddenly not the hot favourite and with Dravid already mentoring the younger generation, Fab four seemed all set to steer Indian cricket. Here’s looking at the ‘coach selection’ drama.
Sourav Ganguly couldn’t sleep on Monday night. That morning he was in the Kolkata newspapers, nostalgic about the 20-year flashback to his debut ton at Lord’s. His to-do list for the next day had the launch of a book co-authored by him. In less than an hour after the launch, he would be closeted in an air-conditioned room at Taj Bengal, interact with two of his former teammates – Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman – and play a chief role in selecting the coach of Indian cricket team. Another former team-mate was in the fray, so was a former player commentator known very well to all of them. His family had slept, he couldn’t. He hit Youtube for a 12-minute video of his debut ton. “I felt happy and and fell asleep after that,” he said at the book launch.
It was a re-union of sorts for the 90s superheroes. Rahul Dravid, the other vital link from their past, was already preparing the next generation, mentoring the feeder system, and now Anil Kumble, who first plunged into cricket administration at his state and then contributed through cricket committees, wanted to map the immediate future of the Indian team as its head coach.
Another player, the Test captain, the young hero of the zeitgeist in this Age of Kohli would have watched this development. As the Test captain, Kumble was a special invitee to the selection meeting that had picked Gary Kirsten. On Tuesday, Ganguly might have said that panel won’t be consulting with Kohli and Co. but in the weeks leading up to the selection, it’s learnt that the panel members had consulted a few current Indian players about Shastri’s contribution. Much before this panel, before Kumble applied, the board too had sought the players’ feedback and had received favorable recommendations from the captain and a few others. They, apparently, wanted Shastri.
A day after he skyped in for the meeting from London, Tendulkar’s twitter handle rolled out a promotional advert for a bank. The embedded promotional video showed Tendulkar leaning back, cucumber on his eyes, as if he were in a spa, talking up the product. Couple of days before he returned to the country for the meeting, VVS Laxman was tweeting pictures of HongKong harbour view from his room. It looked instagrammable.
A day after he made his presentation, Kumble, who tweets actively with Throwback Thursdays hashtags of photographs taken by him from the past, and pics for Wildlife Wednesdays, put up an old picture of an antelope from Kanha National forest. It was the Muntjac, the species known for its indelible ‘V’ shaped marking on the face. This one posted by Kumble had an additional large V shape on its back as well. It was just a coincidence probably but it was tempting to see it as a victory metaphor.
In the recent past, Kumble and Tendulkar have been tweeting each other about this and that. A wild-life trip that they want to plan together, memories about old photographs.
With a bonhomie like that, and taking in the fact that Kumble was the last applicant, speculations were rife that how could he be not selected? Wouldn’t he have got some sort of a signal before he applied at the last instant? These thoughts are inevitable associations considering how things played out. Wasn’t it advisable, perhaps, to have a cricketers from previous generations, non-contemporaries, in the panel?
Meanwhile, Ravi Shastri was in Bangkok, swimming in the pool. He had given his presentation where he talked about his stint with the team, and was now on a holiday. Speculations swirled. Did you hear Shastri’s passport is already been sent for VISA for the West Indies tour. Did you hear he has been pipped for the post by Kumble? Did you hear that panel had wanted Kumble to apply? All unconfirmed and mostly untrue of course, but understandable rumours during a big news break. All that could be verified was that Shastri was indeed lounging in the pool in Bangkok. Why not? It’s as if he was saying, ‘I have done my bit. The ball is in their court, boss’.
Things were nicely cooking up in this coach hunt with the participants’ pedigree heating up the contest. Three big guns from the past, the current and future face of team in Kohli, and two candidates of stature.
On the other side there is Anurag Thakur, the BJP member and the president of the board. Hitherto, presidents have wielded the power of the post to make their choices. Selectors’ decision to remove a captain has been reversed. Other powerful board members too have been watching events unfold closely. It’s learnt that there were genuine grumbling about how they were blindsided by Kumble’s appointment, and didn’t name him the initial 21-pruned list that they passed on to the panel. Much before Ganguly, Tendulkar and Laxman, the board too had taken informal feedback from the players on Shastri and had heard positive recommendations. A carefully worded criterion for the job, which even underwent a clarification over language skills, had seemingly placed Shastri ahead. Then Kumble entered and had the panel’s backing.
Kumble hasn’t shied away from responsibility. Ever since his retirement, he has thrown himself into the deep end. He won the election to become the president of Karnataka cricket association. It was an exacting, emotional three years where he faced opposition from members but pressed on with his agenda to improve cricket infrastructure at grassroots. When he took over the administration, it led to back-room chats of concern: Can Kumble handle the dirty games inherent in the politics of administration? It was never about whether Kumble had the courage or stature – that leadership during the Monkeygate, his tremendous role in fighting for contracts for Indian cricketers, that sight of face swathed in bandages, and his decision to join administration was evidence enough for that trait. It was about whether he has the stomach for these unpleasant battles.
In those three years, he showed he had and when he stepped down after three years, and didn’t stand for re-election, there were murmurs about that decision to quit but he then moved into cricket committees and continued to be involved with the game.
He hadn’t placed himself against establishment, he wanted to be inside the system and manage changes. Thakur would have seen all that. Over the last seven years, the political channel has also buzzed about Kumble’s involvement with BJP. There were speculations that he would be named as candidate from Central Bangalore in the local elections but it never materialised. Instead, he invested his time and energy in Indian cricket and has now risen to a place where he can lead Indian cricket forward.
In the ideal world, the decision to appoint a coach should involve a considerable input from the captain. Even there, Indian context has a twist. It has two captains – Dhoni in the limited-overs and Kohli, the Test captain. But even if he doesn’t take over as all-formats captain, considering the vision of the panel was to improve India’s overseas Test performances, Kohli’s take becomes that much more important.
It’s baffling and self-defeating in many ways that BCCI built such a secret web around the fact that the players like Kohli too were consulted. Till the end they never made it clear for some strange reason.
It’s not as if players were never part of such decision making process in the past. Both Kumble and Shastri would understand that.
Both were in fact present in the meeting that decided Gary Kirsten as India’s coach. Shastri was a panel member alongside Sunil Gavaskar and S Venkatraghavan, and Kumble was a special invitee as the Test captain. After the appointment, Kumble even went public with a generously glowing recommendation to Kirsten.
In the past, Ganguly too has played his part in appointing coaches. Once, with Greg Chappell, it backfired on him, and a moment he shared on Monday afternoon during the book announcement where he said that he doesn’t want to make that mistake again. Tendulkar, of course, has always had his feedback acknowledged by the board on the coaches. Be it in the eventual removal of Chappell, or before bringing in Kirsten.
As a captain of a young team, Kohli has often raved about Shastri’s contribution. Even the framing of his rave reveals the nature of the association. “Shastri is someone who has played cricket on his own terms. Played it with lot of composure, character and belief. When a guy who has done all that talks to you, a young players gets confident. As long as he wants to continue in that job, its going to be beneficial to team. He has given confidence to everyone in the team, we are are young side, you need someone who has been there and done that.”
To deduce Shastri the coach from Shastri the bombastic commentator is a slippery slope of tropes. His coaching style wasn’t of a man who is happy to be in the sidelines, mouthing “just go enjoy” in the dressing room. He does that, as one should, but a lot more and players from Virat Kohli to Ashwin have detailed the technical assistance provided by him.
A stereotypical representation of both candidates was further queering up the pitch. In some corners, Shastri was painted as an attitude-shaper, and Kumble as a discipline-invoker with hands-on ability to influence the team. The truth is that Shastri wasn’t just a psychological mentor – that by itself is no small ability of course – but he has been hands-on with technical side as well.
There is no reason to believe Kumble, as a guy who’s been there, done that, would not do the same. But in this case, Shastri was already doing it; he had already built a rapport with the captain, and leaving his imprint.
By picking their former team-mate, the panel has probably tried to enforce their shared vision on Indian cricket. Considering their colossal contribution, and their unquestionable commitment, to the game, this will never be seen as a takeover.
The change of guard is perfectly timed too. For the next year, India are scheduled to play a lot of home Tests before they travel abroad. There is enough time and comfort of familiar environment for Kumble to build the team, and prepare for tougher battles later, if he is renewed.
The one-year term and the explanation of the board secretary that it was because it was a professional appointment and a transition period doesn’t quite wash. If there was any transition period, it was actually Shastri’s stint. He has already overseen the transition but perhaps the board not only wants to wait and watch Kumble but also show / retain control over the developments.
On Sunday, Ganguly talked about how he was “struggling” with his populated task list. He is the Bengal cricket association president, runs a popular Bengali TV show, about to co-author a book, and was about to select India’s coach. “I am hoping it would settle down.” With the selection out of the way, he would be far more settled. Hopefully, with Kumble’s rise as coach, so would Indian cricket.