January 21, 2013

Who after Fletcher?

In the past Indian coaches have been appointed based on what they achieved in their playing careers; the current team cannot have one of those

Nearly two years ago, when Duncan Fletcher replaced Gary Kirsten as the coach of the Indian team, he must have thought that a success similar to Kirsten's would improve his coaching CV exponentially. After all, there is no bigger test as a coach than taking charge of one of the world's most influential set of cricketers. But at the back of his mind would have been the case of Greg Chappell, who was booted out by a vociferous Indian public and an unhappy bunch of senior cricketers.

No points for guessing where Fletcher stands today. The last 18 months have been horrendous for him and India.

Wasn't it supposed to be one of the easier assignments? India were No. 1 in Tests and World Cup winners. All Fletcher had to do was consolidate. But that's where most of us, and Fletcher, got it wrong, for coaching and mentoring aren't so much about preservation as about fortification.

His contract will soon come to an end. So who will be the right person for the job now, especially with India on a downward spiral?

There have, as usual, been calls for an Indian coach. This reminds me of a training session Jonty Rhodes, then South Africa's fielding coach, conducted for his players before a friendly match against Delhi years ago. He placed different coloured cones at various angles in different parts of the field, and the South African players went on to display how a professionally run international unit carries out a fielding drill.

While South Africa went about practising in a meticulously planned manner, we, the Delhi players, did a few laps and some very basic fielding practice. One such drill was reminiscent of how cricket was played nearly a century ago. Our coach, a former India player, got us to stand in a semi-circle around him. One of us would throw a ball at him and he would deflect it with his hands back towards us, trying to change the direction of the ball regularly to catch us by surprise. It was Mickey Mouse stuff for first-class cricketers. The South African players couldn't resist a chuckle looking at our archaic fielding drill.

The only criterion the Delhi association considered while assigning this former Indian player the role of coaching a first-class team was his experience in international cricket. To be fair, his resumé was inspiring, loaded with many cricketing achievements over a long career, but it wasn't appropriate for this job, because he hadn't upgraded his knowledge with the changing times.

Another coach, also a former India player of repute, would typically respond to any cricket-related query with, "Jigar se khelo" ("Play with your gut"). Since he had been a very good cricketer in his heyday, we often asked him for tips, and invariably his advice was this statement.

Unfortunately this sort of coaching isn't an aberration in India. The history of coaching in the country is littered with many such oddities and incidents, which aren't limited to players of the past.

Many Indian coaches, for instance, have shied away from taking on the responsibility of correcting a player's technical flaws. One coach, now associated with an IPL franchise and a Ranji team, didn't know how to fix a fast bowler's no-ball problem. To correct an overstepping issue you only need to measure the run-up with a tape, or mark the point of the jump and put something close to the popping crease that works as a deterrent. The coach in question simply scolded the erring bowler every time he overstepped.

Many former India players have tried their hand at coaching, considering it the easiest option after retirement. While playing cricket at the highest level for a reasonable amount of time does teach you to deal with many issues in the game, and involving a team's needs, it doesn't always teach you how to pass on that knowledge to others, especially the finer nuances of individual play.

The difference between learning and teaching is the difference between a player and a good coach. A player can point out a fault, but a good coach will come up with solutions to rectify that fault without tinkering too much with the existing strengths of the player. It helps if you have played cricket, for it allows you to understand better and quicker, but only having played the game is not a good enough qualification for a coach.

While playing cricket at the highest level for a reasonable amount of time does teach you to deal with many issues in the game, and involving a team's needs, it doesn't always teach you how to pass on that knowledge to others

Some of the best players of the game have made poor coaches, because it's unimaginable for them to fathom why what was so easy for them seems so difficult for another. For instance, why should a player have trouble releasing the ball with an upright seam or playing an on-drive without falling over? These things come naturally to great players and they don't have the ability to understand the difficulties less-talented players confront.

I remember the story of a young player who asked Brian Lara for a few tips while practising against the bowling machine. Lara spoke to him about the importance of getting the front leg out of the way while playing on the front foot, but the player was unable to grasp the explanation. Lara decided to show the kid how it was done. He asked the feeder to increase the pace, walked in to bat without leg guards, and put on a scintillating display of high-class batting for 20 minutes, in which he played all the inswinging balls through the covers and the outswingers through midwicket. The kid admired every shot from the master but remained at sea about his problems, just as he had been before speaking to Lara.

Now that Fletcher seems out of favour more or less, and the Indian board might be likely to be looking for an Indian coach to salvage the team's lost pride, the question is: should a candidate's credentials as a player, and his nationality, be kept in mind, or should his qualifications and body of work as a coach be considered over them?

While the idea of India having an Indian coach is definitely plausible, we must not forget why the BCCI chose, more than a decade ago, to pick a foreign coach over an Indian one. In the days before then, Indian coaches were chosen not for their coaching skills but for their past contributions as players. These former cricketers didn't acknowledge the seriousness of their new assignment and didn't pursue it with as much diligence. They failed to realise that to do justice to a new job, they had to start from scratch and educate themselves. Playing for the country gave them an advantage, but only just, for they still needed to learn how to pass on their knowledge efficiently.

The other problem most cricketers had with Indian coaches was their affiliations to their respective states and zones. Indian coaches of the past wouldn't think twice before talking to a player in a shared regional language. While there was nothing wrong in doing so in private, doing so publicly led to a feeling of discord.

If we were to look for an Indian coach to replace Fletcher, we must look at the ones who have taken NCA coaching courses to acquire theoretical knowledge of how to identify and rectify players' mistakes and have handled assignments with Ranji and India A teams. There are a few of them.

The next India coach will be taking over a young team that is going through a crucial transition, so he will need to have a lot more than game sense and man-management skills. He won't only be required to make plans but also to get personnel ready to execute those plans.

While there's a case for having an Indian coach, it's naïve to believe that anyone who has played a lot of cricket and is Indian will automatically resurrect the team.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here