So Darren Lehmann is Australia’s new wonder coach! And if you read everything attributed to him you would think he just had to walk across to Old Trafford and Manchester United would rediscover their ability to play football. Andy Flower is now too regimented, far too much into micro-managing; he is taking away joy and independence, none of which of course he did when England were playing genuinely good cricket.
I don’t know if the coaches themselves are bemused by the extraordinary fluctuation in their perceived ability but we should! Coaches don’t take wickets or score runs, they don’t always pick teams either and certainly have no control over whether a player suddenly decides to slog to mid-wicket with three fielders there. We often make coaches out to be supermen, possessors of wands more potent than those at Hogwarts. Some coaches like that image, they front up for the team all the time, others like to stay in the background, aware that they are support staff, mandated to doing the best they can to help someone else do well.
So my thesis is that coaches cannot be measured by the results their teams achieve, certainly not in cricket where they are not the team leaders. In fact I fear we greatly overstate the importance of the coach, often allowing ourselves to believe that players are just malleable balls of plasticine, acquiring the form the coach’s hands assigns to them. No, the coach at best chisels away at rough edges, does a bit of filing here and there for the players, certainly at international level, already possess form, ability and style. And therefore, I believe, the role of the coach is to help the player maximise his performance given whatever he already had.
The coach always takes away a bit of the pressure off the captain who may be grappling with problems of his own and therefore could help having a bit of the team burden taken away from him. Ideally he creates the right environment for the players to flower, gets them to look forward to coming the next day. Gary Kirsten did that with India in the three years he was here and he saw his role as being that of a provider to the players. “I told them I would offer them all of myself” he said and so he did different things for different players and that to my mind is the key to being a good coach; understanding that each player is different, is vulnerable, and therefore there is no one size fits all.
There are non-negotiables, largely to do with discipline and fitness, but Kirsten was able to offer Tendulkar something that was different from what he offered Gambhir and so was able to raise everybody’s game. He seems to have been able to do that with South Africa as well and in neither job was Kirsten the face of the team. I will be interested in what he achieves with the Delhi Daredevils for example which is a completely different form of cricket; a concentrated burst for a couple of months and then..all over!
Often coaches work well with certain kind of players and struggle in alien cultures where they seek to impose their style. John Buchanan, for example, worked well with a group of achievers in Australia but struggled with players of lesser skill and different attitude at Middlesex. His style wasn’t quite right at Kolkata Knight Riders and he seems to have struggled a bit in New Zealand as well. You can see, for example, why Andy Flower is struggling with a free spirit like Kevin Pietersen but the reality is that Flower must do what is best for Pietersen rather than the other way around (unless there are deeper issues of team spirit and discipline).
And so, to believe that coaches win tournaments, or marquee series, is to overstate the reality. It is different in football where the manager is not just selector and strategist but also decides what your contract looks like. In cricket, the coach is the support staff and the best coaches have always looked upon their role that way. Yes, Lehmann brought some fun back into the dressing room, helped decide roles for each player, made them feel secure, but he didn’t win the Ashes.