July 10, 2013

But what does the coach do?

There are differing opinions on what a coach's job is in a sporting team. In cricket the lines of authority and accountability are more blurred than elsewhere

Bob Woolmer, considered by many of his players to be the greatest coach they played under, didn't usually interfere with in-game decisions © AFP

Mickey Arthur's sacking last month brought to the surface one of the most frequently aired debates in cricket: on the role of the coach. Even as it has become one of the most important positions in every other team sport, cricket remains confused over its efficacy and significance.

In a way, you could compare the cricket coach to the director of football in European club football. On one hand are the traditionalists who argue that all power should reside with the current leader (the captain in cricket, the manager in football), and on the other are those inspired by events beyond their national borders and the borders of their sport. This traditionalists-versus-modernists debate often results in trenches being drawn with no room for conciliation, as is so often the case with arguments in the Twitter age. And thus the crux of the argument remains.

There exist different types of coaches within cricket, although it is almost impossible to quantify their value. If Roy Hibbert sits out the last play of the game, we know that it is Frank Vogel who is to be blamed. If Barcelona have a lower possession percentage and higher shots-to-goals under Tito Vilanova than they did under Pep Guardiola, we know who is responsible for this change. But if Pakistan continue to play in a certain way, do we blame the coach, the selection committee or the captain?

As I said, there exist different types of coaches even within the small world of international cricket. There are those who work as CEOs, defining the vision of the team (Andy Flower, Ottis Gibson); there are those of an earlier generation who act as the captain's sidekick and make their jobs easier off the field (Duncan Fletcher, Dav Whatmore); and then there's the even earlier generation who one could accuse of being decorative: Intikhab Alam has won both the World Cup and the World Twenty20 as the coach of Pakistan, for example. The work and success of a coach is defined by the popular perception of him. What really goes on, we don't know.

One of the most common arguments against coaches has been that it is not they who perform on the field (but neither did Phil Jackson and Alex Ferguson, for that matter). It called to mind an incident narrated in Shaharyar Khan's recent book regarding Bob Woolmer. Woolmer, lest we forget, was the man who came up with the idea - together with Hansie Cronje - of captains wearing earpieces on the field so that they could converse with their coach in the dressing room.

By the time Woolmer came over to Pakistan he had a slightly different mindset, though. During the third Test against India, in Bangalore, Inzamam sought Woolmer's advice on the timing of the declaration. Woolmer, believing that it was the captain and not the coach who should decide in-game matters, refused to respond. Inzi, predictably, took umbrage to this.

Compare that approach with that of Pakistan's previous coach, the great Javed Miandad, who could be seen actively trying to force his will onto the game a hundred yards from the pitch, using pidgin sign language; Pakistan's times with Miandad as coach usually ended the same way as Jimi Hendrix concerts - with a lot of noise and everything being destroyed. Under Woolmer, contrastingly, Pakistan were relatively successful on the field (for 18 months, at least) and stable off it (despite the best efforts of Shoaib Akhtar). Perhaps it was freedom within the playing period that players wanted. It is no surprise that everyone who worked under Woolmer calls him the greatest coach they played for, while few of the same players have a nice word to say about Javed's coaching methodology. Of course it would be wrong to assess the value of a coach purely on the words of his players; otherwise we'd have an army of Michael Scott clones attempting to please their subordinates.

Whatmore, Pakistan's current coach, defines the role of the coach as something that can best be described as a cross between Yoda, Mr Miyagi and Sergeant Hartman. He says he understands Ian Chappell's viewpoint completely, but counters with the example of his own playing career: one of a hard-hitting batsman who never really realised his potential and could have been far greater than he was if only he had been given guidance at an earlier age. He says that the likes of Chappell cannot understand the value of the coach since players like that have enough self-confidence and understanding of the game at an early enough age to become superstars. It is no coincidence that the most vociferous opponents of the coach being a powerful figure tend to be great players (Chappell, Shane Warne); players who were great enough to never really require a coach once they reached the top level.

Finally, there is another role that the coach fulfils, especially for the fans of. He remains the easiest scapegoat for all the team's failings. One is reminded of the former Bayern Munich manager Udo Lattek, who, after three Bundesliga titles in a row and a European Cup, saw a side full of fatigued World Cup winners struggle through the first half of the 1974-75 season. When he called the club president asking for changes, he was provided with one: Lattek was immediately sacked. Bayern would not win three domestic titles in a row after this until their three-peat from 1985 to 1987; their manager during those three years? Udo Lattek.

Thus the words of Johan Cruyff ring loudest; he said that six out of ten coaches actively damage the team, two out of ten have no effect, and only the remaining two have a positive influence. It's that 20% that cricket teams are trying to land. Australia's Ashes hopes rely on Darren Lehmann being part of that 20%.

Hassan Cheema is a sports journalist, writer and commentator, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here