May 9, 2012

Coaches don't win matches

They may be the ones who front up at the post-match press conferences, but they're not really in control of the matters they answer questions about

The overwhelming majority of professional cricket coaches are decent people, but few leave much of an impression on their players as human beings. I played for dozens of coaches who followed conventional wisdom, ran with the pack, and cut their cloth according to the opinions of those around them. They were professionally competent, but were they men of honour? Would they risk their own jobs for a point of principle?

John Wright is one of the few who would. Indeed, he often has, most recently in resigning from his job as New Zealand coach after refusing to go along with managerial systems that he does not agree with. He could have dragged out his time and taken the money; he could have stormed off in a huff. He has done neither, preferring to retain his dignity and his honour.

Wright has always been a brave man, as a player and then as a coach. He was at his very best in situations that could not be mastered. It brought out his winning combination of steely resolve and innate modesty. That is why he succeeded as the coach of India. He grasped that the job was too mysterious, too vast and too emotional to be condensed into a reductive formula or limited to a set of rational tactics. You were not only coaching a team, you were serving the whole body politic of a fanatical cricketing nation. Rahul Dravid captured Wright's emotional intelligence when he said he said he was "more Indian than the Indians".

Wright has always been driven from within. He does not see life as a series of shrewd decisions; it is an adventure that must be lived to the full. That's why he has always retained a splash of the artist in his life. With his guitar in one hand and an old paperback in the other, Wright was on a constant journey of self-discovery. He has more in common with a folk musician than with a corporate salesman. It was cricket's great gain that such a restless, bohemian spirit found a home in the increasingly slick and systems-driven world of modern professional sport.

Wright believes in the power of laughter and friendship as well as training and discipline. He knows that cricket teams learn and grow not only through training but also through their shared laughter - the craic, those moments of shared warmth and friendship when a group comes together and forgets its rivalries and tensions.

There will doubtless be moments when Wright asks himself how lesser men have survived longer in their posts than he has. But if he follows the logic, he should not reproach himself. In being his own man, he has lived a fuller, more honest life. And through his own example Wright has taught his players about life as well as cricket in ways they may not yet understand, but will one day deeply appreciate.

There were a couple of insights in Wright's resignation press conference that make essential listening for anyone involved in cricket. The first was typically understated. He thanked his senior players for their "understanding". But he added quickly that they were "pretty busy in India". Did he mean "Distracted by the IPL?" If I was captain of my country - or a senior player - I wouldn't want too many vital changes to happen to the national squad when I was euphemistically "away in India".

Secondly, Wright questioned the idea that cricket matches are won by coaches. They aren't. They are won by players. Coaches can help at the margins - they can improve players' techniques, they can hone a group's sense of togetherness, they can foster a competitive spirit and tactical nous. But Wright knows that the crucial people are the ones on the field, the men in possession of the bat and the ball.

A cricket coach's accountability is very largely illusory. What makes a team win or lose on any given day is far more complex and mysterious than the lines of accountability on a reductive managerial flow-chart

It is self-evident that coaches can make a difference. We know it is not dumb luck that allows Alex Ferguson to lead Manchester United to so many trophies over so many decades. But cricket is not the same as football. Because cricket captains have so much more power than captains in other sports, the coach is inevitably more of a supportive, enabling figure. Cricket has never responded well to all-powerful coaches: the fluid structure of the game works against off-field puppet masters.

Crucially, the cricketing public does not always understand this. Because the coach is among the two most visible people in any team - the man who fronts the press conferences and provides the quotes for the media - it is mistakenly assumed that he is ultimately responsible for short-term results. He isn't. The players are. Indeed, in a small cricketing nation such as New Zealand, the coach doesn't even have much scope to change the pool of players.

There is a very serious point here. The modern media - as it seeks to serve the wider sporting public - demands that someone is always available to comment on the team's performance and tactics. That person is usually the coach. The order of events is always the same: the coach announces the team, then the team plays the match, then the coach analyses the team's performance in public and vows to do better. It is only natural that a correlation forms in the public's collective consciousness that the coach is in control of all subjects about which he has to answer questions. But he isn't. Far from it. The coach is often answering questions on issues over which he has almost no control at all. We should not blame coaches for mistakes that were never theirs.

"Accountability" is a buzzword that managers in all walks of life are encouraged to use. The media encourages them to do so in order to create a clear line of responsibility: in other words, so they can "legitimately" blame someone. But a cricket coach's accountability is very largely illusory. What makes a team win or lose on any given day is far more complex and mysterious than the lines of accountability on a reductive managerial flow-chart.

Wright intuitively understood this. It is ironic that some people think this makes him old-fashioned, a coach who doesn't quite understand the way sport has evolved. I think quite the opposite: in recognising the limitations of coaching, Wright is ahead of his time.

Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman Ed Smith's new book, Luck - What It Means and Why It Matters, is out now. His Twitter feed is here