Our flight out of London after the Champions Trophy is about to take off and I suddenly see Anil bhai isn’t here. We land in St Lucia and the next thing you know, he has resigned as coach.” A senior member of India’s tour party in West Indies isn’t the only one who was shocked by coach Anil Kumble’s sudden decision to part ways with the team. Neither he nor any of his team mates had expected that they would come to know about their coach’s resignation by the news alert that popped up on their phones once the WiFi kicked in at St Lucia’s Hewanorra Airport.
It has been a while but the team is still grappling with the fallout of an episode that has left an unpleasant aftertaste. The split at the top, between coach Kumble and captain Virat Kohli, created walls within the dressing-room, with players and support staff forced to pick sides — and most of them obviously went with the side they knew would endure the controversy. According to one player who has witnessed first-hand Kumble’s stint in the dressing room, the split has left its mark.
“I think there was this realisation in the team that Virat is a very powerful figure. Everybody has been around long enough to know that in case Virat doesn’t want Kumble, he will have to go. Be it the support staff or the players, everyone thinks about their own future. Once players and support staff knew that the captain wasn’t keen on Kumble, people started saying things that Virat wanted to hear,” says the player.
Earlier this year, there was a news report about how Kumble was in close touch with a few journalists and that he had shared “confidential stuff” with them. Chinese whispers have a way of working like earworms through a young team, which reacted with “shock” at the “betrayal of trust”. “We heard that he had discussed private information like his one-on-one interactions with Kohli and some other players with that group of journalists. That was it, really,” says a member of the India contingent in West Indies. He also claims that the team had been aware of information allegedly leaking even before the article appeared.
“That really was a betrayal of trust and that’s when players started distancing themselves from him (Kumble). You could make out that he was just hanging out with one or two of the support staff,” he adds. It’s in this backdrop, according to the source, that batting coach Sanjay Bangar’s influence began growing in the dressing room. Players, he says, were a lot more comfortable discussing their fears and insecurities with Bangar as they were convinced it would stay with him, unlike what they had experienced with Kumble.
However, no one can recall anything confidential about any player ever spilling out on the sports pages. A seasoned India player dismisses the thought that Kumble would have betrayed the players’ trust. “In the last few months, it was clear that things were not right between Virat and Kumble. There have been instances when, after an on-field session, Virat has spoken about tactics to assistant coach Bangar, even while Kumble was around. It was a way to undermine the authority of the coach. Initially, the team thought that maybe he gets along better with Bangar. Now when we look back, we see this as a sign of the Kohli-Kumble rift,” he says. That’s how one of the biggest rifts in the Indian dressing room will now be seen — filtered and assessed in hindsight.
One of the allegations against Kumble is that he was too set in his ways, so methodical that it inhibited the spontaneity of players. Some believed his “over-emphasis” on planning didn’t quite sit well with a team that was intent on “expressing themselves”.
“As coach in modern-day cricket, you need to scribble plans down with a pencil and let the game flow. He was writing them down in bold with a pen,” says a member of the support staff. “Today’s cricket is all about thinking on your feet. You can’t have plans that you are so stubborn about not changing. Cricket doesn’t work like that anymore,” he says.
“Overbearing” was a term that was allegedly used by Kohli to describe Kumble’s methods at the time when speculations about the rift first started circulating. It’s learnt that one bowler in the team informed the Cricket Advisory Committee (CAC) — which has Sourav Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar and V V S Laxman as members — that Kumble’s demands from him were simple. As he is said to have put it, “It wasn’t much. He just wanted two wickets with every ball I bowled.”
Some in the India team believe that Kumble never got his due as a player and thus was desperate to make the coaching stint his legacy. “Everyone says that he brought discipline to the team. But he was just building this perception about himself by using the media close to him. As if Virat and Ajinkya (Rahane) need to be told that they should wake up at 8 am and not be late for the bus. You name one player who wasn’t supremely fit before Kumble came in,” says a player.
Another player, however, says that Kumble was simply sticking to his beliefs and wanted the team to stay together. “For instance, the entire team collectively decides on a time when they would leave the stadium after the day’s play. So, say, they agree to meet in 40 minutes, Kumble would want the team to stick to that time. He didn’t want a situation where a few boys are in the team bus waiting while others are still chatting in the dressing room,” he says.
There is another way to view Kumble’s “rigid methods”. All the coach can do is plan minutely and hope his bowling unit enforces the plan on the field. If they don’t, and deviate too much, it’s bound to irk the coach. It’s not as if Kumble is some two-bit player, he says, who doesn’t know the importance of being spontaneous on the field.
“There were a time when a bowler had not done what was decided before the game and Kumble took it up at the team meeting. Again, he wasn’t harsh but said that in case you wanted to do things differently, you should have discussed it in the team meeting. Never ever did he raise his voice in the dressing room,” says the player.
According to him, Kumble’s team meetings were precise, with a lot of time spent on one-on-one sessions with the bowlers. “Once the match started, he would concentrate on bowlers who were not a part of the playing XI. Take the case of Kuldeep Yadav. During the Australia series, Yadav wasn’t a part of the team for most Test matches. He would sit with him while the matches were on and talk to him about bowling. During lunch or tea break, he would take him to the nets. He even took him to Shane Warne. Now, everyone is talking about Yadav’s wickets in ODIs but no one is talking about the time Kumble spent with him,” the player says.
Interesting that he should mention the chinaman bowler. It was Yadav’s selection for the Dharamsala Test against Australia that’s supposed to have been the tipping point of the controversy. There are two versions here: While some say it was Kohli who wanted him to play, others say it was Kumble who forced Kohli’s hand despite the injured captain not being in favour of the move.
There’s a ‘Shastri angle’ too. Ravi Shastri, who preceded Kumble, is known to have a different style. Shastri, according to some, was better at the role because he didn’t interfere much with what the support staff were up to and stuck to being more of a man-manager. The way he handled the team after the Test loss in Galle in 2015 is pointed out as an example. After losing the first Test, India had come back to win the series 2-1 and many saw Shastri’s rousing dressing room pep-talk, on the evening of the Galle loss, as the prime reason for the team’s dramatic turnaround.
With the CAC meeting on July 10 to select the new coach, it’s not surprising that Shastri has emerged the front-runner. But again, there are some who feel Shastri was like “a motivational speaker whose team talk was better designed to inspire a corporate crowd”.
However, this comparison between coaches is flawed since not only are they two different personalities but also the requirements of the job from them were different. Shastri had two specialist coaches for bowling and batting, in Bharat Arun and Bangar. Both of them were methodical and Arun had earned the trust and respect of the bowlers. So Shastri largely stuck to mentoring, inspiring, and keeping the mood in the camp happy. Kumble, on the other hand, has had to double up as bowling coach and hold one-on-one sessions with bowlers.
Much of the blame for this rancorous end to a partnership should reside with the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). The three BCCI managers who oversaw Kumble’s tenure would have filed reports after every series and, with the Board claiming to be in constant contact with the players, it’s unimaginable that the rift would have caught them by surprise.
Kumble was seen as too close to the Supreme Court-appointed Committee of Administrators (CoA) that’s presently in-charge of Indian cricket. The BCCI old guard always feared that in case his demands weren’t met at the Board level, he would escalate it to the CoA. It was on the insistence of the high-profile CAC that Kumble joined the coach race.
Some players even believe that the BCCI used the rift between the captain and coach to get their way. As one player says, “If they wanted Kumble to go, it could have been communicated better and at the right time. All this ugliness could have been avoided.” The end certainly wasn’t pleasant. Kumble tweeted a “thank you” post, in which he had made public the rift, which, until then, was a matter of speculation. Kohli responded by going to his Twitter archives and deleting his welcome tweet to Kumble. Two days later, he made it a point to hint that Kumble’s decision to mention his “misunderstandings” with the captain on social media had breached the “sanctity of the dressing room”.
Some claim that Kohli and Kumble had struck a decent working relationship during the Champions Trophy, their final tournament together, and the two would communicate amiably during team meetings. They also say the two had a chat about the speculation on the breakdown of their relationship and decided that whichever way the issue ended, they would never go public with it.
“And then he goes ahead and tweets that goodbye message when he’s very well aware that the team is in the air and will only get to know once they land,” says an insider. When contacted, Kumble refused to comment. Perhaps the Kumble-Kohli rift was just a simple case of the Indian dressing room not being big enough for the two of them. Or maybe it was a clash of ideologies that wasn’t handled well or maturely enough by all parties involved. Ironically, despite having achieved unprecedented success on the field, the Kohli-Kumble era will always be remembered for the furore it created off it.
Their final few tumultuous days at the helm of the Indian dressing room are best summed up by a player who throws up a rhetorical question: “Who do you think will be the next coach?” And answers it himself: “What is the value of a coach these days anyway? We know who’ll actually pick the coach. There was one guy trying to do his job, and they got rid of him.”
Trouble At The Top
Chappell vs Seniors
Less than two years after Greg Chappell was touted as the man to steer India to fresh cricketing heights, the Australian tendered his resignation in the aftermath of a disastrous World Cup in the Caribbean in 2007. By then, his relationship with several seniors in the team was strained beyond reconciliation. What began as a fall-out with skipper Sourav Ganguly soon bloated into a situation where you were either with Chappell or against him. Other seniors such as Sachin Tendulkar slammed him in a rare public outburst and later in his autobiography. Harbhajan Singh too was disenchanted with the Australian’s “overbearing” personality.
It’s ironic then that Ganguly and Tendulkar, alongside V V S Laxman, were brokering peace between ex-coach Anil Kumble and Virat Kohli. In a couple of days, as members of the Cricket Advisory Committee, they would interview another teammate of theirs, Virender Sehwag, who famously didn’t turn up for a practice session which Chappell had insisted he attend.
KP vs Moores
England captain Kevin Pietersen didn’t mince words about what he felt of coach Peter Moores. A “woodpecker” who became a “jackhammer” is how he described the later. Tensions were already simmering when Moores flushed out Pietersen’s predecessor, Michael Vaughan. A few months into captaincy, Pietersen was allegedly involved in a dressing room spat with Moores after losing the Chennai Test (2008). Their mutual antagonism became public when Pietersen expressed his anger over Vaughan not being picked for the Caribbean tour. He issued a “him-or-me” ultimatum to the England Cricket Board. A week later, Pietersen stepped down while Moores was sacked.
Arthur vs Seniors
As South Africa coach, Mickey Arthur was criticised for being soft on the players. So when he joined Australia as coach in 2012, he seemed bent on being the disciplinarian. It manifested, ill-fatedly, in the form of the ‘homework-gate’ scandal during Australia’s tour to India in 2013, where Arthur was involved, along with captain Michael Clarke, in suspending four players for not completing a homework task: they had to identify three areas of possible improvement. The move was condemned as an overreaction by the cricket fraternity. Six months later, an Ashes defeat sealed his fate.
Buchanan vs Ganguly
The first two years of Kolkata Knight Riders’ existence were, for several reasons, forgettable. Among them, how coach John Buchanan’s radical methods, like the multiple-captaincy theory, antagonised the players. While it didn’t spiral into a Ganguly-Chappell sequel — though it did involve Ganguly — Buchanan was the butt of much ridicule and criticism. Sunil Gavaskar even accused Buchanan of racial discrimination. At the end of the second year, with yet another numbing result, Buchanan was shown the door.