Memo to a coach
Dear Mr Fletcher,
Welcome to Indian cricket. Over the last few days we've found out a lot about you, from folks you worked with in South Africa and England. There has been lavish praise for your abilities as tactician, thinker, man manager, and for your achievements with Western Province and England. All of this accompanied by a rider.
Not about the ODI record with England - for at least a year, few in India will care about the team's ODI record - but the business of media relations. How your general media duties with England became your only weakness, and how handling the Indian media would be a struggle, your "biggest challenge."
Results and coaching careers do not depend on media relations, and that is well understood. But as a newcomer to our country, it is only polite that the Indian media is formally introduced to you.
Well, hello. Here we are.
We're the ones who jammed your inbox within a few hours of the BCCI's announcement and rang your South Africa number non-stop. At the very least it would have given you a good idea of just how many of us there are. At your first press conference, expect at least 25 television cameras, and maybe a room full with about 100 people. There's a good chance some of us will locate you at the airport where you land, or emerging from your the car to enter or leave a hotel. The one way to handle it is to think of it as the rock-star treatment. There are people in Hollywood who would kill for it.
There's a reason we're often called the "scrum" or the "pack". This rugby analogy is not about the pushing and shoving of mikes and cameras, though. Think of us, the Indian media, as reflective of rugby's marvellous variety.
Some of us do the work of the forwards, stuck in the mud, creatures of unfashionable labour, territory covered inch by inch. Some are the versatile flankers, capable of breakaway and tackle, side-steppers and confrontationists rolled into one. They are pretty easy to spot. The wingers among us have a nose for opportunity and charge into the first opening; they can be quite startling. Then, like fly halves and scrum halves, you'll see set-piece players and shape shifters.
We're always looking for a just single thing, but each of us wants a different single piece: of analysis, insight, information, a move, a foul, a plan, gossip. We are not a team because we work for different bosses whom we often blame for our mistakes, like players do with coaches. Sometimes, mind you, we can be right. Sometimes we can be very wrong. Just think rugby formations and you'll be able to read us better.
We're actually quite easy to manage. Ask the ICC's media department - they probably have a secret manual on us. We are easily charmed and equally easily offended. Oh, and we like jokes, even when they're on us. Ask Shahid Afridi, who ticked us off and made us laugh at the same time.
The BCCI won't hire a media manager for the team because life would just be too boring. Besides, their own office bearers will then spend too little time on TV and in the papers.
You couldn't have missed those comments from legendary Indian cricketers about why you shouldn't be here. That's part of Indian cricket's welcome ritual, set into motion every time a new coach is appointed, and always is carried out with the chanting of Jimmy Amarnath's name. We're not sure how hard Gary Kirsten worked on his Hindi when he was here, so if we can offer a few useful phrases: maybe aloo paratha or masala dosa would help.
Your new captain, MS Dhoni, has a simple and successful media template: arm's length. In six weeks of the World Cup, he was the lone face and voice of the Indian team. Other than whenever India had a Player of the Match, which just happened to be Yuvraj Singh through the entire tournament. "The less exposure, the less the controversy," was how the Great Leader explained it to us. Given that a World Cup is won with that, you can't argue much. It's not the only template, though.
One of the latest stories has it that your new contract says your media duties are minimal, and that you don't even have to turn up regularly at press conferences. It may seem most considerate of the BCCI, (we call it a gag) which also follows the less-exposure-less-controversy dictum. Now just because your media duties are minimal, it doesn't mean the Indian media will automatically also become so. We don't, and won't, go away quietly. Why should we? Our equations with your players have many layers. They despise a few of us and trust others; some follow the MSD template, others work on their own. The 'boys' can be pretty good media managers.
Some of the biggest names in your dressing room invited journalists to their weddings. Tendulkar had introduced a dozen by name and workplace to his new bride. He's a good one to talk to. In today's overheated and competitive environment, Tendulkar is actually far more accessible than he was in the 1990s. His cellphone number is known but no one dares call him during a series. When he travels to Mussoorie up near the Himalayas for a family vacation, he has one media conference and then is left alone. He has never spelt out his rules to us, but we just know them.
The team you will work with does live in a bubble most times, but the moment there's a stirring within, our pack gets to hear of it. If anyone wants to grumble about anything, we will be called and told. There are few secrets in Indian cricket.
All this may lead you to look on our English brethren, the ones you left behind, in a much kinder light, but any special treatment to them this summer would be irksome. India's not such a tough place anyway. You don't know it yet, but an invisible army stands behind you ready for your defence, whenever you face a mike or a camera. No, not the BCCI but the team's aggressive fans, who would buy tickets for these moments if it gave them heckling rights whenever an uncomfortable or stupid or unadoring question is asked. (We can do all three inside two minutes.) Think of the questions as your rock-star tax; maybe it will help. We know we are not the massed ranks behind you and they are not us, and none of us wants to switch.
Just like the teams you have coached, we have good days and horrendous ones. As India coach, your view of the media will include wide blue skies and close-ups of the gutter. It depends on where your focus is. We too enjoy victories, are delighted by perspective and can sense signs of progress in the team and mutual respect.
That's about it. Make yourself at home, enjoy the ride.
PS: The TV commentariat will introduce themselves on their own because they belong to a different species.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo