He is overbearing. LAST week, this text flashed on a BCCI official’s phone. It was said to be from Virat Kohli and it was about coach Anil Kumble. Rumblings in the BCCI corridor have begun once again. In another corner of the world, one man isn’t surprised. As a coach, he had pushed and questioned Kohli about small things on and off the field: strategy, the team’s future. Small stuff. Kohli didn’t like it, and soon, the coach was out. “People generally don’t like being questioned and their shortcomings pointed out but I knew what I did was for his, and the team’s, well-being.” That was South African Ray Jennings, one of the first coaches that Kohli worked with at the IPL team in Bangalore. He was speaking to The Indian Express in January 2015, a year after he was sacked and days after Kohli was named Indian captain.
According to Jennings, it was Kohli who pushed for a change of coach. He says he got neither a phone call from Kohli nor a chat about the change in plan. Daniel Vettori replaced him — that was that. “He is a very talented kid but sometimes thinks he is better than the game,” Jennings had said. He isn’t surprised now that there are problems surfacing between Kohli and Kumble. “I know both of them,” he told The Indian Express today. “Pretty headstrong gentlemen with conviction of their views. A conflict, I guess, wasn’t going to be surprising.”
However, Jennings is quick to point out one crucial factor in the relationship between a coach and a captain. “A hard coach can keep pushing and prodding the players of the team but the relationship between the captain and coach has to be good. The trust has to be there. The coach can have issues with the rest of the players but needs to have a smooth relationship with the captain for things to progress. And, as a captain, he has the right to work with people he is comfortable with and I have no complaints.” Here is where the Kohli-Kumble issue gets complicated.
Sources in the dressing room say that Kohli had apprehensions about Kumble right from the start. “He would throw a word or two about what he thought about the new coach. You know, nothing bad, but there was enough there to realise he wasn’t sure or had some doubts,” says a member of the Indian contingent. Perhaps, it was the ejection of Kohli’s man Ravi Shastri that he was finding hard to come to terms with.
Shastri wasn’t exactly a cheer-leading coach but he would always throw his weight behind the captain — talk him up, almost a best man of sorts. It was a relationship that Kohli had warmed up to. In fact, just before the interview process for the coach — where eventually Kumble got chosen — Shastri was very confident about his own chances because of this relationship he shared with the captain.
In fact, he was more concerned about the future of batting coach Sanjay Bangar and bowling coach Bharat Arun as he had heard rumours about them being viewed with scepticism in BCCI corridors. There was no self-doubt about his own place in Shastri’s mind. It was the cricket committee, and Sourav Ganguly, in particular, who effected a coup of sorts by installing Kumble.
Ironically, it’s they who are entrusted with the job to work out a patch-up between the two. During IPL 2 and 3 (2009-10) Kohli and Kumble worked at Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB). Back then, even though Kohli was a rising star, there was no question about who was the real powerhouse. Kumble called the shots then but times have changed. Today, Kohli is the heavyweight and it doesn’t need an overbearing Greg Chappell to cross his lines.
It’s the small things, says a source. “It’s just not the captain alone. A few months back, a bowler landed at the national cricket academy in Bangalore. Rest, recuperation, and some fitness work was on his mind. Some bit of bowling too. He was told he had to put in hours of bowling, get Test-match fit. He wasn’t initially keen but was told he had no choice. For what it’s worth, his bowling improved at the end of the stint,” said a source.
There is another anecdote about a batsman who was injured and wanted to stay away. But it’s learnt Kumble wanted him to “toughen up” and play setting off some disquiet within. “Sometimes, as a coach, you have to tread on fragile egos, be sensitive. A couple of players felt Kumble wasn’t,” said a source.
There are a few others who say Kumble, with little tips and timely suggestions to bowlers during the Australia Test series, actually helped them get successes. So, as with most coaches, the stories are a mixed bag. A team member hits the sweet spot when he summarises the issue: “Kohli would have loved to have a team atmosphere like the one M S Dhoni had.”
Dhoni had the full backing of then BCCI president N Srinivasan and was an immovable object. When the Mohinder Amarnath-led committee wanted to sack him as captain, Srinivasan vetoed it. Dhoni had full command of the team, especially after the noise of the 2012 Australian series where some problems with a senior or two surfaced. Ever so gently, he oversaw the phasing out of veterans in the team.
Kohli might have sensed he had that kind of backing and support when Anurag Thakur was BCCI president. But with the Supreme Court stepping in and shaking up the system, he couldn’t press on with that advantage. It’s here that Jennings’s words find an echo. A coach can be at loggerheads with a few players in the team, can push them around, but he has to have a smooth relationship with the captain. That seems to be clear.
More so when there’s little doubt that Kohli is the leader of this team. There are no alternate power centre. Ajinkya Rahane might have led the team with great composure in the last Test against Australia but he isn’t a certainty in all formats. And there is no one else breathing down Kohli’s neck. R Ashwin has talked about how he is “ “leader without a title” and he is undoubtedly a man whose brains Kohli picks but it’s clear the board doesn’t view him as a captaincy candidate as of now.
In other words, this isn’t the era where anyone from Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, or even Tendulkar could have been the captain — it’s Kohli or bust. If Kumble is credited with successes at home, then one must give it first to the captain. No one is talking about Kohli being dropped or disciplined. In that scenario, it seems he automatically gets the upper hand over whoever is the coach. The cricket committee’s approach to first mend affairs is prudent but it’s easier said than done.
Much will depend on how Ganguly & Co. view the situation. Will they feel that Kohli can’t have untrammelled power and it’s better to have someone to keep him grounded? Or that Kohli, as captain, should be empowered to decide how to run the team? The questions are obvious, not the answers.