Cricket’s long-standing debate: Coach or Captain?

In modern team sport, players are usually more dispensable than coaches. Even those that are considered superstars. Cricket, however, has historically been different. And Indian cricket has been a different ball game altogether.

Written by Daksh Panwar | New Delhi | Updated: June 21, 2017 9:32 am
anil kumble, virat kohli, kohli, kumble, india coach, cricket news, cricket, sports news, indian express Gary Kirsten stayed in the background; Duncan Fletcher largely confined himself to the players’ techniques; and Ravi Shastri behaved as one of the boys. (Source: AP)

In his resignation letter to the Committee of Administrators chairman Vinod Rai, the author Ramachandra Guha cited the Anil Kumble contract episode as one of the reasons behind his decision to step down from the body appointed by the Supreme Court to manage Indian cricket. “…Surely giving senior players the impression that they may have a veto power over the coach is another example of superstar culture gone berserk” wrote Guha. “Such a veto power is not permitted to any other top level professional team in any other sport in any other country?”

Indeed, in modern team sport, players are usually more dispensable than coaches. Even those that are considered superstars. Alex Ferguson literally ‘booting’ David Beckham out of Manchester United in 2003 remains an extreme example, but in a locker room bust-up between a player and a coach, you know who will end up having a bloodied nose.

Cricket, however, has historically been different. And Indian cricket has been a different ball game altogether.

A kind of unsaid rule was laid with the exit of Greg Chappell in 2007 that the coach of the Indian team — more so, if he were a foreigner – would be placed a rung below the players, certainly beneath the captain, in the order of preference.

Gary Kirsten stayed in the background; Duncan Fletcher largely confined himself to the players’ techniques, and Ravi Shastri behaved as one of the boys. And the players loved them. Then, nine years after the bitter break-up with Chappell, India got another high-profile personality — a bonafide legend of the game — as their coach.

We thought Kumble was Indian, hence the outcome would be different — it certainly was in terms of results — but the personalities eventually clashed and it was Kumble who had to move out of the house. He lasted one year less than Chappell did. It lays down another unsaid rule, for now. That even if you are an Indian legend, you will have to, as a coach, bow down to the captain and players.

Micromanagement

Giving veto powers to the captain and players over coaches sits at odds with the direction cricket is moving in. The sport is becoming more dynamic by the day. For a team to be consistently successful, which India aspires to be, its various aspects need to be constantly micromanaged. The role of coach is not only to sit down with captain and formulate strategies for a given match, or stand at the nets and give advice on techniques. Its scope far exceeds that. It includes identifying and assembling a pool of match-ready fringe players — as Kumble did during the home season working alongside Rahul Dravid.

It involves creating a strong chain of command, in which if one piece falls out, another steps in to take his place seamlessly — as Ajinkya Rahane did in Dharamshala, standing in for the injured Kohli.

It requires taking a stand and telling the captain, if need be, that he is wrong — as Kohli was about Cheteshwar Pujara’s strike-rate. The job basically requires vision, something which can’t be demanded of the captain, who has his own performance to take care of and who also needs to switch off at times. The captain, therefore, should be the coach’s man on the field — and not vice versa.

Cricket has been slow to catch up with other team sports, but it’s gradually evolving. The captain/superstar player might have won this round, but it’s the coach that will come out on top eventually.

While interviewing Gary Kirsten last year, this reporter slipped in a shallow question. Who was important in T20s, the most modern of cricket’s formats, a captain or coach? The question touched a raw nerve with Kirsten. His reply was long and instructive. And it was not T20 specific.

“One’s got to be careful of that language,” cautioned Kirsten, who has come to be considered the most hands-off and players-first coach that India has ever had. “You know it’s a very dangerous language in the world of modern sport. The coach has a critical role to play in cricket. Critical. Across all formats. You know the days of the old order, where we just went on the field and played, and you played 15 games a year, as opposed to the new order where you play across three formats and virtually the whole year, you’ve got to manage a squad of people. The man management role alone is a massive task. And it’s not just cricket. You take baseball, they play 180 games in a season. They have got a roster of 50 players. Some of those big baseball franchises have mental conditioning departments with eight people. So to say that the game is run by the players is ridiculous.

“The coaches play a critical role in setting up a system. Yes a captain walks on the field and goes on to make decisions under pressure, and that’s his role. In a professional environment where there are role definition spaces, that is his role. But to say the captain is more important than a coach in a professional outfit is outrageous thinking. There is so much to do as a coach…I don’t think coaches get enough credit for the work they do.”

Indian cricket has once again endorsed that captain is more important than a coach. It remains to be seen, as Kirsten says, if this is “outrageous thinking”.

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