Spare the rod, spoil the child and keep your job. At least in principle, India’s next coach shouldn’t forget this altered adage since his job doesn’t depend on mere results. The sacking of Anil Kumble — despite five straight series wins — has shown that for coaches to keep their jobs, they need to indulge the captain and be popular with the team.
Greg Chappell’s 2007 sacking — triggered by a dressing room revolt — had given subsequent foreign coaches who were headed to India an important travel advisory: Speak less, be invisible. Kumble’s unceremonious departure has added a few more “dont’s”, further undermining the Indian coach’s authority.
But this piece isn’t about making Kohli the villain and Kumble the victim. As is the case with most prickly issues in Indian cricket, the dirt around this spat now lies under the carpet of the London hotel conference room where the high-profile cricket committee of Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and V.V.S. Laxman, along with the BCCI bigwigs, heard Kumble and Kohli in an effort to find a truce. Pledged to omerta, Indian cricket’s most powerful men strangled truth before it could get past the meeting room door.
What have emerged from the failed peace talks are its versions. The BCCI, officially, continues to paint an unrealistic picture. They still call this a seamless transition. Even Kumble doesn’t really slam the door on the way out. His “goodbye tweet” is cautious, not vicious. He plays the righteous martyr and merely hints at Kohli’s backstabbing. Kohli too, so far, at most Champions Trophy press conferences, has been in denial.
The players, pragmatic as ever, don’t believe in shooting their mouth. Cricket — they well and truly believe — is a game of uncertainty. In a matter of months, a captain can lose form and be out of favour. In the BCCI, power equations and favourites can change overnight. The BCCI survival guide mentions it in bold and bright: You don’t swim against the tide; you wait for it to turn.
The grapevine has it that Kohli found Kumble’s approach stifling. Unlike the relaxed Ravi Shastri era, under Kumble there were more orders. Some called them suggestions. It all depended on your affiliations. It was also alleged that Kumble behaved as if he was still the India captain. Again, the other side saw this differently. They say Kumble was a meticulous planner who was prepared for every match situation. He was a hands-on coach who wanted to exploit every weakness in the rival team. He wanted to point out the mistake while the operation was on, he didn’t believe in waiting till the end-of-play post-mortem. For Camp Kohli, the instructions sent out to the field amounted to unnecessary interference.
It’s said that there were a few contentious playing XI decisions on which the captain and coach disagreed. In a dressing room with strong existing cliques, Kumble’s pointed interventions that disturbed the status quo were misinterpreted. These are delicate issues in a team where the majority of players have been signed by Virat Kohli’s agents. However, in the absence of a transparent inquest, plus the player-official pact of silence, these will be brushed aside as conspiracy theories. The BCCI doesn’t believe in exploring the ugly side.
There are, though, a couple of things that can be said with certainty. The Kumble era was very different from Shastri’s and Kohli found it tough to adjust. Second, wiser by the Kumble sacking, the next coach will be aware of the line he can’t dare to cross.
India’s star spinner Ravichandran Ashwin, in a recent interview, gave a glimpse of how Shastri dealt with the young team. Early in his stint, Shastri called for a pre-match huddle but the players were nowhere to be seen. It took ages for an assistant coach to gather the flock. All this while, the new coach looked exasperated. Eventually, when the players formed the circle, they feared that Shastri would blow his top. What followed left the players in splits. “Go out and smash the Aussies,” he roared, turned around and walked away. There was no lecture, nor did he read the riot act. Under Kumble, the same meeting would have been longer and wouldn’t have had a giggly end.
So does this young Indian team need a coach who is “one of the boys” or a scholarly disciplinarian? A longer stint for Kumble would have answered this question.
On their part, the BCCI has wisely gone with the captain. It will be tough to find a worthy successor to Kumble but to search for Kohli’s replacement will be tougher. Besides, the likes of Tendulkar, Ganguly and Laxman couldn’t be seen siding with Kumble. He was coach first and then their one-time team-mate. The “former players turned coach selectors” would have remembered their days as players and how the BCCI sided with them when Chappell challenged the hierarchy.
The residue of this is unpleasant, but unavoidable nonetheless. In a team sport, it’s unhealthy to give unquestionable powers to one man. Leaders with a God complex aren’t great for the team. India, at present, aren’t quite the Steve Waugh Invincibles. Kohli’s, and India’s, record abroad isn’t staggering. To achieve that, India needs a well-prepared team unit, not one that is merely “happy”.
In days to come, an Indian coach will think twice before making life tough for the team or airing his views. Keeping a high-paid job with grand perks would mean speaking only when asked. Perhaps Kohli is justified in asking for a change because of the collapse in his working relationship with the coach. But Kumble’s untimely exit has sent out a wrong message. If more such episodes take place, the Indian coach’s job will interest only the “yes men”. Or maybe, in years to come, it will attract pastors manning confessional boxes and customer care executives with a passing interest in cricket. Aren’t they non-judgmental, impersonal, problem-solvers and speak only when asked?