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The end of this month will possibly also see the end of the John Wright era in Indian cricket
April 8, 2005
Has India found a replacement for John Wright? In this piece, published in the latest issue of Wisden Asia Cricket, Chandrahas Choudhury sizes up the leading contenders. With Nagraj Gollapudi and Andrew Miller.
The end of this month will possibly also see the end of the John Wright era in Indian cricket. Many of the high-water marks of modern Indian cricket - a home victory over Australia in 2001, drawn Test series in England and Australia, a historic series victory in Pakistan, and progress to the final of the World Cup - have come under the calm stewardship of Wright. His tenure will be remembered as one in which an average Test team, with an especially hopeless away record, metamorphosed into a tightly-knit and competitive unit respected around the world.
Wright's impending departure leaves a vacuum that the Indian board should have filled up already by interviewing candidates and homing in on one or two prospects. The job is a far more high-profile one than when Wright took it up in November of 2000 (this is one indication of his success), and the names of a number of highly qualified candidates have been doing the rounds. Here's the lowdown on the most prominent of them, curiously all Australians. What is their background, what qualities might they bring to the task, and, most important, are they interested?
Marsh is the ultimate poacher-turned-gamekeeper. As a player, he was a student of Ian Chappell's 'work hard, play hard' philosophy, racking up 96 record-breaking Tests as Australia's wicketkeeper, and a Sydney to London beer-drinking record to boot. But his authoritarian streak has never been far from the surface - when he made his coaching debut, he was working as a high-school teacher - and since 1990 he has been taking his original calling to new levels, as the gruff, no-nonsense coach of, first, the Australian Academy and latterly the England Cricket Board (ECB) version.
Personal responsibility is central to Marsh's ethos. "Work hard, train hard, give it everything you've got, and we'll get on just fine," he told the original ECB intake in 2001. "Coast along and you've got a winter of sand-dune sprinting ahead of you that you'll never forget." He does not profess to offer solutions, merely suggestions, for it is not his intention to convert every one of his charges into a world-beater. If a player is not cut out for the highest level, it is better to find this out on the parade ground than in the heat of battle.
Marsh's one-on-one tutorial skills are second to none. It is the question of his team-building abilities that will provoke the greater debate. Marsh has spent much of the past year playing down a perceived difference of opinion with Duncan Fletcher, while on the England A tour to India last winter, he was so powerless to prevent a run of dismal form that he even gave up on team talks so that his players would be encouraged to work out the answers for themselves. That approach is laudable at Academy level, but less so when a Test series is spiralling out of control.
There can however be no questioning his commitment to, and love of, cricket. After four successful years which have produced a core of players with the wherewithal to challenge for the Ashes this summer, Marsh claims to have called time on his England commitments to spend more time with the grandchildren. The chance to test his methods at the ultimate level, however, may prove hard to resist.
What they say "You know what you're getting with Rod Marsh. He's a straight-talking man who puts a high priority on discipline and fitness but likes to keep things simple. You can't go too far wrong with that sort of attitude, to be honest.
"In my time at the England Academy, there wasn't one single outstanding thing that he taught me. The basic message that he instilled in all of us was that it's your own game and you've got to learn it for yourself. If you want to lean on people to gain knowledge, then that's fine, but you've then got to take responsibility for your own game. His message came at a good time for me, because up until then I had expected people to teach me things all the time, but from then on I was expected to work it out for myself." - Andrew Strauss (Strauss trained at the Academy under Marsh)
What he says "No comment."
There are few minds in cricket today as lucid and as inquisitive as that of Chappell, the former Australia batsman, selector, and coach of South Australia. Like all the best modern-day coaches, Chappell understands cricket not just as a specific set of pure skills to be learned and applied but as part of a larger totality, requiring knowledge of matters like body structure, different kinds of learning methods and motivational practices, and issues of diet and nutrition.
Author of a recent book called Cricket: The Making of Champions, in which he expounds upon such concepts as unstructured learning environments, and the unweighting and coiling of the body while playing, Chappell has a deep insight into the fundamentals of the game. There is no doubting his considerable technical understanding and tactical awareness, which comes, as he says on his website, from a lifetime spent in trying to understand cricket's complexities.
Chappell and the Indian team potentially make a good fit. He already shares a good rapport with Sourav Ganguly, having helped him out with his batting before India's last tour of Australia. Chappell also has some experience working in the subcontinent, having spent some time last year as a consultant with the National Cricket Academy in Pakistan. He is hugely respected everywhere, and the younger players will value his ability to break down a problem helpfully. But Chappell will be understandably wary of embarking on negotiations with the BCCI, having done it all once before in 2000, when he and Wright were in contention for the job and he was pipped to the post by Wright.
What they say "Greg Chappell's record and his cricket knowledge is second to none. He was probably the best player of his era and his communication with players at international level is exceptional. And that would make him a really good coach with the Indians." - Darren Lehmann (played at South Australia under Chappell)
What he says "India is potentially the next powerhouse of world cricket. Coaching them would be one of the most exciting opportunities in cricket."
A veteran of two World Cup-winning campaigns as far apart as 1987 and 1999, Moody has considerable first-hand experience of top-flight cricket.
His coaching CV is admittedly rather light, being limited to one long stint at Worcestershire, where he holds the grand title 'Director of Cricket'. But Moody's record has been impressive, and he has publicly expressed his desire to coach either England or Australia after his county stint. "You strive for the top and the England job - like any other international coaching job - is the top," he was quoted as saying early this year. Skeptics might say that very little about Moody's record suggests that, even if he were offered and were to accept the post of India coach, he would have the requisite experience for the challenge. After all, he spent most of his career playing in Australia and England, and when he retired he chose to take up a position in what might be called his home away from home, Worcestershire. One could say that so far Moody has chosen to work within his comfort zone rather than expand it.
However Wright, too, came to India straight out of county cricket, and there is reason to think that Moody's comparative lack of experience may in some aspects be an advantage. While men like John Buchanan and Dav Whatmore have, in a sense, seen and done it all, Moody would arrive with a first-timer's enthusiasm and commitment. Hunger to succeed is just as important for coaches as it is for players.
The youngest of those featured here - he's not yet 40 - Moody has a long coaching career in front of him, and India would offer the kind of high-profile assignment he may want at this stage. Worcestershire have already expressed their readiness to release him from his contract if he is offered an international assignment.
What they say "What makes Tom Moody a good coach? All of these: he has the cricket knowledge and relevant cricket experience, having been a World Cup winner. He is technically well equipped to handle both sides of the game as he was an allrounder himself. Leadership comes naturally to him and he was a successful captain. Add to that the desire to succeed, and his man-management and communication skills and he is a good choice for the job." - Steve Rhodes (played at Wocestershire under Moody)
What he says"It would be a very exciting prospect. John Wright has done an outstanding job over the past few years, the players that are currently playing are world-class, and the cricketers that are coming through are very talented. So it would be a great challenge."
Whatmore's links with the subcontinent began in childhood: he was born in Colombo but brought up in Australia, where he played for Victoria. He also represented Australia with modest success in seven Tests. After some years coaching in Australia post-retirement, Whatmore returned to top-level cricket when in 1995 he took up an offer to coach Sri Lanka.
Whatmore's influence on Sri Lankan cricket was profound: his place in the nation's cricket history is as prominent as that of any of its great players. He took on a talented team and gave it the confidence and self-belief to think of conquering the world. He forged an outstanding coach-captain partnership with Arjuna Ranatunga, a similarly assertive figure.
Whatmore was responsible for a dramatic improvement in Sri Lanka's fitness standards, replacing their cursory exercise and warm-up regimens with gym work, swimming, and road running. Just as Australia won the 1987 World Cup by dint of superior strategy and planning, so Whatmore and Ranatunga brought home the trophy in 1996 with a superbly thought-out campaign that influenced the way teams around the world approached one-day cricket for years to come.
Whatmore's experience of cricket in the subcontinent is considerable: after leaving Sri Lanka in 1997 he returned for a second stint from 1999 to 2003, years in which Sri Lanka became arguably the most formidable Asian team at home. And after the 2003 World Cup he took up what some considered a hopeless assignment: coaching Bangladesh. Here, too, his declared intention was to change the team's defeatist mentality before anything else, and Bangladesh have showed steady improvement under him.
Like Wright, Whatmore is low-profile, working behind the scenes with training and organisation and allowing the captain to be the public face of the team. Better still, he has a highly developed sense of what it means to work with problems and concerns specific to an Asian cricket culture, an area in which some of the other contenders have no experience. Whatmore's contract with Bangladesh ends in June.
What they say "Dav is a very positive individual. He is assertive and clear about his ideas and has the desire to get results. In the process he gets the best out of the individual and the team. He has a powerful strategy and technique and places a lot of stress on mental toughness, mental skills, and physical fitness. That approach was pivotal in Sri Lanka becoming world champions. He is never aloof, always direct and honest, and always approachable." - Kumar Sangakkara
What he says "It would be a different challenge from the one I have at the moment and from the ones I've had in the past. The management of the group and maintaining a very positive environment will be very important. That's where I think my experience of the sub-continental environment will be an advantage. That and my being fourth-generation Sri Lankan with an Australian upbringing will come handy."
Rixon left has considerable coaching experience, having worked as a full-time coach for one and a half decades now. In his one stint as coach of an international side, with New Zealand in the late nineties, he played a stellar role in rebuilding a fractious New Zealand outfit that had just ousted his predecessor Glenn Turner after a player revolt.
Rixon's task with New Zealand was very similar to Wright's with India: transforming a side that belonged very much in the second tier of world cricket into a sharp, disciplined outfit that could stand up to any side, as England found out to their surprise when they were beaten 1-2 at home in 1999. Even though it has been six years since Rixon left, his stamp on the present New Zealand team remains visible. Stephen Fleming, now the most experienced captain in world cricket, took up the post at the age of 23 with Rixon's backing, and Daniel Vettori was picked to represent the country at the age of 18 when the coach saw a spark in him. Players like Chris Cairns, who was perceived as having an attitude problem, and Dion Nash, were later to acknowledge the massive influence that Rixon had in knocking them into shape and improving their contributions to the team. Turner was a much bigger name, but it was Rixon who earned the players' loyalty and respect.
Rixon clearly has impressive credentials, and it is possible to envisage his insistence upon fitness and discipline, and particularly on setting a high standard in the field, as having a good effect on the current Indian side. But in his one assignment at international level he began very much from scratch and was allowed to crack the whip, while if he came to India he would be taking over the reins of a settled line-up with a reasonably good past record, and would be expected to build and consolidate upon past gains and an entrenched style of working. Another worry is that he has no previous experience of working with an Asian team, a challenge which demands a considerable adjustment.
What they say "He worked very hard on fitness and fielding routines to make New Zealand a very efficient fielding side. He tried bringing the Australian-type attitude towards the game, but trying to bring a different culture to a foreign team was never going to be easy. But I must say he did make some progress with some players." - Richard Hadlee (New Zealand's convenor of selectors)
What he says "At this point of time I have another year with Surrey and then I will decide whether to renew my contract or look out for other opportunities. As for the challenge, the subcontinent has always interested me to some degree, but it would come with some provisos. When you take over any side you take over with the idea of doing it your way and that should never be hindered. Unfortunately a lot of that does happen through the subcontinent where too many people get involved, which makes it difficult."
Tall, stooping, and professorial, Buchanan is something of an oddball amongst coaches, capable of quoting Sun Tzu to make a point or declaring that his vision for the future is an Australian team in which each player is ambidextrous. But Buchanan's record speaks for itself: he made his name by taking Queensland to their first ever victory in the Sheffield Shield the first year he coached them, and an Australian team that were already the best in the world have ruthlessly dominated all opposition under his charge.
Buchanan's reputation as a visionary is all the more remarkable because he had no real cricketing pedigree to speak of, unlike, say, a Bob Simpson. Buchanan had a short and unremarkable first-class career, during which his propensity for experiments with different kinds of batting and bowling techniques was sometimes thought to be so far out that he earned the sobriquet 'Pluto'. But his persistence in, to use one of his pet phrases, "looking outside the square" led to him bringing up a host of innovative ideas as coach, including borrowing techniques and practices from other sports and encouraging players to grow as individuals in ways not related to cricket.
A great proponent of the use of advanced technology in analysing and breaking down cricket technique and match play, Buchanan essentially works as a facilitator, setting down new ideas and challenges before one of the most capable and motivated teams ever to appear on a cricket field.
However, even though his contract is due to lapse soon, the prospect of Buchanan coaching India is unlikely, and perhaps India are not yet at a stage where they could take advantage of his unique talents. Still, it is intriguing to imagine him sitting at the same table as the Indian team.
What they say "John Buchanan's greatest strength is his vision. He looks outside the square and encourages his players to do the same in their quest for excellence and constant improvement. He also has the ability to surround himself with excellent specialised support staff who ensure no stone is left unturned in the team's preparation." - Justin Langer
What he says "I would not like to be included on the list as I am contracted to Australia till the end of October this year. However, I might add that apart from the relevant qualifications of the person, the next coach after John Wright must be able to clearly enunciate a vision for Indian cricket to build upon the work begun by him; he must be given the full support of the board and the captain to structure the development of the 'elite' elements of Indian cricket, and must put in place coaching pathways to enable Indian coaches to take the reins at the earliest possible time."
Chandrahas Choudhury is staff writer of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine.
This article was first published in the April issue of Wisden Asia Cricket.
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