John Wright's time on the Indian treadmill April 18, 2005

India's Mr Wright



John Wright: bowing out after a successful stint as India's coach © Getty Images

Just how do you judge a coach? Some people like to look at the win-loss record of the team that plays under him. Others, who are less statistically minded, prefer to accumulate anecdotal evidence from the players who have worked under him. You could speak to the men who employed the coach in the first place, or you could just pronounce your judgment from afar. Whatever route you take, you would have to say John Wright's five-year association with the Indian team has been a success.

Almost everything that needs to be said about Wright has been said, but some things bear repetition. He took over as coach at a time when the Indian team was at its lowest ebb. India had been rocked by the match-fixing episode and the team was rudderless. Instead of embracing the professional for what he was, India - its players, media, fans and administrators - gave Wright a suspicious welcome. Most people did not reckon he would last six months.

Yet he built slowly. He did not try to shake things up dramatically. Instead, he put elements together with the tenacity and precision of a bricklayer. He brought pride and passion out of his captain, he coaxed runs from batsmen with imperfect techniques. He confronted the players with a new fitness regime, and changed the attitudes of an entire generation.

Of course the team lost while he was in charge. There's no doubting that India's fortunes, and development, have not followed the linear path that Wright would have hoped for. Perhaps his biggest misfortune is that India achieved so much, so quickly, in his first years in charge. Before Wright, India barely believed they could hold it together long enough, over five days, to win Test matches abroad. Suddenly, India were winning one Test in every away series, on top of taking that epic series against Australia at home in 2000-01.

Then there were the highs of holding Australia to a draw in their own backyard, and beating Pakistan in theirs, in perhaps the most hyped, and keenly followed, series of all time. Perhaps India had just set the bar too high, and were unable to keep the momentum going long enough to build on all the early gains.



Wright was not a man to leave any aspect of the game to chance © Getty Images

After five years, you also have to ask the question: "Just who is John Wright?" And if anyone can answer that in one sentence, you can bet he's lying. Wright is the soft-spoken yet firm-behind-the-scenes worker - it often takes one of the players to pass some credit his way when the team wins. One minute he can be chatting to you as if he grew up playing marbles with you, and the next turn into highly-strung, craggy-faced sourpuss - not because he's nuts, but because he's suddenly remembered there's work unfinished, and it won't get done with him talking to journalists. He can appear to be a million miles away, especially when India have lost, and often he takes the fall the hardest, even though he really isn't the hands-on type. There's a frustration and emptiness about losing, and Wright has felt that as acutely as any of the players, over the last five years.

Wright isn't perfect. The manner in which he handled his bowlers - especially the pacemen - was far less effective than the way he dealt with batsmen. The way he has managed his relationship with Sourav Ganguly in recent times - and the blush has clearly come off the rose as far as that uneasy marriage goes - is not quite as effective as it was when a working relationship was somehow forged years ago. Some might even say that Wright did such a good job of adapting to and working with Indian conditions - dealing with board officials on their own trips, and selectors with their idiosyncratic whims - that he slowly began to lose the greatest asset that he brought with him when he joined India - his foreignness, his ability to remain outside the system.

Personally, my abiding image of Wright is not of him shepherding players around nets, or of him skulking to press conferences carrying the can after India have lost. It's not of him pumping his fists in an unusual show of emotion on the dressing-room steps when India picked up a crucial wicket or of him cursing like a sailor when a batsman has just thrown his wicket away. It's of him, after a long practice session in debilitating heat and humidity, well after the team has left for their hotel, running.

It's of him running lap after monotonous lap, bloody-mindedly putting one foot after the other, simply because that's what he needs to do. He ran on the treadmill that is Indian cricket for five years - something no other coach has managed - and was able to step off rather than be thrown off. Yes, that's Wright, still running after everyone's gone home.

Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Cricinfo.