Samir Chopra August 20, 2008

Staged coach

Results show no overall positive or negative bump depending on the coach

Most cricket fans have, at some point, while listening to the ponderous pronouncements of an 'expert' television commentator, said words that approximate the following: "No sh*t, Sherlock!" In short, we are used to being deluged with Missives from the Department of the Bleeding Obvious.

We are told early wickets are important, that while chasing a victory target, the openers should provide a good start, and that line and length is key (feel to supply your own personal favourite). My intention in reminding us of these tautological dictums is not to make merry at the expense of an oft-vilified demographic, The Expert Commentator, but to try and segue into a brief questioning of the latest addition to international cricket's evolving cast of characters: the national coach. For, like some cricketers, I often wonder at what precisely the role of the coach is. To slip into corporate mumbo-jumbo for a second, what is the 'value-addedness' of this entity, what is its core competency?

Does the coach supervise the nets? Does he run catching drills? Does he map out tactics and field placings? Devise team selections, batting orders and bowling combinations? Perhaps the answer to this set of questions is "Yes". But in each case, the tasks described are better done (and have been for ages) by the captain in co-operation with other members of the team, with the captain picking and choosing his partners on the basis of assessed competency at the task. The captain and the rest of the team are the ones executing these tactics and strategies; they are the ones whose professional success is inextricably linked with the team's performance.

In cricket, it is the captain who is given unique responsibility for the operation of the game on the ground. Given this, it is appropriate that the captain have corresponding authority off the field in order to run his campaigns efficiently. To introduce a coach into this picture is to unnecessarily muddy the waters of authority, to introduce incoherence into a straightforward situation (perhaps with embarrassing psychobabble about motivational strategies) and to run the risk of players constantly being subjected to a barrage of obvious throw-away lines ("I think we need to restrict the lead tomorrow and hold all our catches"). The world of professional cricket provides all the wisdom needed for any cricketer, available to anyone who bothers to watch and listen to his contemporaries, whether friend or foe. If a cricketer isn't picking up tips from this grapevine, he isn't a very good listener or learner, and no coach can help him.

The best you can hope for is that the sheer cricketing talent of the team will render the coach harmless (c.f. John Buchanan and the Australian team). In the worst case scenario, there is confusion about lines of authority and the team falls apart (c.f. Greg Chappell and the Indian team). And as has been noticed in Pakistan, New Zealand, England, Sri Lanka, West Indies, Bangladesh, and South Africa, the coach cannot make up for the cricketing deficiencies of 'his' team. The experience of those teams is roughly the same all over the world: in terms of positions on the cricketing ladder, the teams are where one would expect them to be given the quality of their players, captains, and cricket administrations. Their results show no overall positive or negative bump depending on the coach. In short, the coach is irrelevant to the success of the cricket team. There have been some success stories that may be linked to some coaches (e.g., Wright, Woolmer, Fletcher) but in each case it seems to me there are perfectly good alternative explanations.

Most irritatingly, the national coach seeks to turn the Test captain, a singular figure in international sport, into a glorified quarterback. Here, here is the playbook, printed off from my laptop; now, run out on the field and execute it. The introduction of the coach into the international cricketing setup has been the introduction of the second sword into the scabbard: pointless and counterproductive.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here