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August 20, 2008

Samir Chopra

Staged coach

Samir Chopra
Greg Chappell gets behind the bowling machine, Nagpur, January 20, 2007
 © AFP
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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

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Posted by Vipul Gupta on (August 21, 2008, 5:33 GMT)

contd.. Captain by the Coach, the Bowling Coach the fielding coach etc. and together they are able to plan out every possible situation beforehand. Nobody can deny the role Cooley played in not only the 2005 Ashes triumph but also the prior success the English bowlers tasted between 2003-2005. In fact the stats of all the bowlers improved during his reign. Great players like McGrath and Warne will always do well simply because they are great. It is only when the lesser players start doing well that the performance of the coach, in the case of Buchanan can be appreciated which happened when fringe players like Tait and Hogg performed superbly in the 2007 WC. The job of the Coach and the backroom staff is to help the players perform at their peak on the field. And that’s the reason why any credit for success and failure on the field has to be shared collectively by all parties.

Posted by Brendanvio on (August 21, 2008, 5:31 GMT)

I agree and disagree with some aspects of this article. I will point out that some coaches have encouraged a greater deal of professionalism in their players (Simpson, Moody et al) by promoting fielding drills and better fitness that allowed them to stay on top of their games. A coach should never interfere with tactics, which I thought Duncan Fletcher was guilty of,(Vaughan was a fine captain in his own right) and perhaps John Buchannan (Too much mumbo-jumbo with Buck). It is the players that do the job in the end, and the captain who is solely responsible for on-field decisions.

Posted by Vipul Gupta on (August 21, 2008, 5:31 GMT)

I must say that I really do not agree with Mr Chopra’s assessment for a coach. Yeah he is person who can be a support system for “outside field matters” and I do not have any issues if he is known as a side player. In today’s age with the constant traveling the Captain can certainly do with some help in arranging fielding drills, training sessions etc. The reason the Aussie side is great is that they pay attention to the minutest of details. It can’t be a fluke that Clarke , Symmo or Punter hardly miss whenever they have a shy at the stumps? Match situations are simulated in fielding drills. When McGrath bowls a particular length and line to Sachin they know which shot he will play and that’s why Clarke is always in a position to anticipate and throw down the stumps from any angle simply because he has practiced it a 1000 times. And these inputs are given to the contd .....

Posted by Swaminath on (August 21, 2008, 4:48 GMT)

What the coach brings to the table comes into picture here. if the coach is knowledgable about the game and can identify the strengths and weaknesses of each player in the team, and has the requisite knowledge to correct those weknesses, I am all for having a coach. I believe Bob Simpson made the current Australian team what they are now with his cricketing knowledge. Buchanan gives the impression of being just what Shane Warne called him some time back. A silly goose. Full of hot air. As a coach, keep things simple. Stick to the basics, and advice the players when they deviate from the basics. Every team would be happy to have a coach who does this, I guess. never mind about conducting drills, never mind about team meetings and strategies. Leave that to the captain. Samir, I guess this is what you mean when you say the coach makes the captain appear like a quarterback.

Posted by Swaminath on (August 21, 2008, 4:48 GMT)

What the coach brings to the table comes into picture here. if the coach is knowledgable about the game and can identify the strengths and weaknesses of each player in the team, and has the requisite knowledge to correct those weknesses, I am all for having a coach. I believe Bob Simpson made the current Australian team what they are now with his cricketing knowledge. Buchanan gives the impression of being just what Shane Warne called him some time back. A silly goose. Full of hot air. As a coach, keep things simple. Stick to the basics, and advice the players when they deviate from the basics. Every team would be happy to have a coach who does this, I guess. never mind about conducting drills, never mind about team meetings and strategies. Leave that to the captain. Samir, I guess this is what you mean when you say the coach makes the captain appear like a quaterback.

Posted by Hari on (August 21, 2008, 3:34 GMT)

The West Indians ruled the roost for almost 20 years, who was their coach? Who coached Pakistan to victory in '92? Was Dav Whatmore's contribution more than Arjuna's in '96? Ditto with the last three world cup also. If you are saying that Australia was the number one team because of professionalism imparted by Simpson, you are kidding yourself. As good a coach as Simpson may be and however big his role in '87 truimph may be it was Glen McGrath and Shane Warne who are the chief architects in Australia's world dominance. If professionalism and work ethic was the criteria then South Africa is as good as Australia, they also had a very good coach in Bob Woolmer. Why havent they beaten Australia in a test match series? The simple answer is the players werent good enough. So I am again reiterating my point, the coach however good he may be at best can be a side player, and may be he can ease the captain's burden after a loss by going to the press conference himself, nothing more.

Posted by Sharath on (August 20, 2008, 22:18 GMT)

I liked the way Fletcher approached his job. He saw himself as a consultant. By the looks of it, he didn't even speak unless spoken to at team meetings. He used to have a one-on-one with Vaughan before the meeting, and then let him take over. And he always made sure that in the eyes of the players at least, he and Vaughan were reading from the same script.

Now of course nobody is suggesting a good coach can turn a bad team into a good one, but there is no doubt they make teams better than they are. At the very least, they take the pressure off the captain and allow him to focus more on his own game, which in itself is a sizeable contribution.

On the other hand, if a coach assumes authority and if his ideas are openly seen to be conflicting with those of his captain, it leads to confusion galore, and that can only be detrimental.

Having no one in charge is better than not knowing who is in charge.

Posted by Anjo on (August 20, 2008, 19:44 GMT)

Someone should do a study on the correlation of naivety and reading comprehension ability. Nobody said England won only because of Cooley, just that he played a vital role in coaching their bowling attack. Why do you think Cooley was snapped up by Australia soon after? His coaching made a significant difference in Australia's bowling tactics in the 2007 World Cup, particularly with the way Nathan Bracken was employed. Anyone who has read the autobiographies of players that won the '87 world cup will know how much the team changed as a unit after the Simpson-Border partnership. That level of professionalism has never left Australian cricket. I expect someone to understand the difference between a coach winning, players winning and a team winning, but it wouldn't surprise me if that was also conveniently forgotten along with the roles of Venkatesh Prasad and Robin Singh during the CB Series, T20 World Cup and England Test series.

Posted by tgevans on (August 20, 2008, 17:21 GMT)

In cricket, the captain is still the most important person, but coaches have an important part to play at the strategic level. Players at the international level don't need to be told to "play the ball on its merits" or to "bowl in the right areas". But they do need a well-managed support staff, well-organized drills and practices, thorough oppo research, and strong psychological support. As in all things, good coaches are valuable, bad coaches are harmful, and mediocre coaches are irrelevant.

Posted by Charindra on (August 20, 2008, 17:02 GMT)

Not sure I agree with this article. How can anyone say so conclusively that a coach is "pointless and counterproductive", especially a writer who hasn't even got close to playing at the highest level?? The designation doesn't matter (you can call him babysitter for all I care) but a team certainly needs an outsider to guide it, come up with strategies, train youngsters, and keep things on an even keel. Some good examples are Whatmore and Moody for SL, Wright for India, Fletcher for Eng (pre 2006) etc. But of course as witch hunt says, the chemistry and the understanding between the captain and the "coach" is of paramount importance, without which the whole thing would just fall apart.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Samir Chopra
Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He runs the blogs at samirchopra.com and Eye on Cricket. His book on the changing face of modern cricket, Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket has been published by HarperCollins. Before The Cordon, he blogged on The Pitch and Different Strokes on ESPNcricinfo. @EyeonthePitch

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