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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Lyndsay on January 24, 2013, 20:55 GMT

    I think Stephen Fleming would be a wonderful coach for India. He's done a great job as coach of the Chennai Superkings & he has the same laid-back style as Gary Kirsten. I was gobsmacked when Duncan Fletcher was appointed coach. He was an ordinary player a generation ago & his style is abrasive. After a coach like Kirsten (who must be thinking 'What the hell have you done to my team!') who was inclusive, confidence-inspiring & not old enough to be the grandfather of players like Virat Kohli, Fletcher was the worst choice imaginable. Because of the politics involved in Indian cricket, I think an overseas head coach would be far better for the team, but it has to be someone who can relate to the team on a personal, as well as a professional manner.

  • Ra on January 24, 2013, 12:43 GMT

    @sumanc1979, Those who are against ganguly/ kumble as coach b'cause they don't have prior coaching experience should know that even Kirsten didn't coach any team (doemstic or international) before India. And the only reservation I have against these two is that they should be coaching only after their ex colleagues retire. And my preference will not be Ganguly/ Kumble if I have to pick a coach based on how great they are while playing. then It would be SACHIN. But unfortunately he will never be a good coach.

  • Karn on January 24, 2013, 10:33 GMT

    Great article Aakash. I feel as though one of the largest problems in Indian cricket is the "God" like status we have given some of the players. We've put some of these players on such a high pedestal that the selectors are afraid to drop them and the players think they're indispensable . I recently watched an episode of The Newshour on Times Now which had Bishen Singh Bedi come on the show and he told viewers some very disturbing stories. He said that one of the coaches of the team asked some players to do some sprints during practice, to which one of the players replied "What's the point, its not like we're preparing for the Olympics" - something along those lines. I feel as though no matter who the Indian coach is, nothing will change until the players realize they are representing their country on an international stage and that they should consider it as a privilege to be playing for the country.

  • roshan on January 24, 2013, 8:11 GMT

    you are right Akash. At this point of time india really needs a coach who is someone technically brilliant and and methodical. I feel Michael Bevan is the right choice as he is a man of great personality and a player of talent. Sachin,kapil, rahul dravid, sreenath, anil kumble can be the great coaches but some time needed to make that changes. Michel bevan is a great choice for the new coach.

  • Ashok on January 24, 2013, 1:43 GMT

    Aakash, Your thoughts on having an India coach is noble & patriotic. But is India ready to accept an Indian Coach? Even selection of the Indian squad & XI is jam packed with politics. How do you expect an Indian Coach even of stature of Dravid & Gangully to succeed amongst these politics. No, in my opinion India is not yet ready for an Indian coach. I think the next coach should be someone like Warne or Gilchrist of Australia. Both got on famously with Rajasthan & Hyderabad IPL teams & I thought they did a superb job in finding talent & even unitting sagging teams. Neither of these 2 have been on coaching assignments before. But I can bet my bottom dollar they will be far superior to Fletcher or Chappel. Also I like to see the Coach being involved in the Selection of the squad along with the Captain for the sake of accountability & keeping the Selectors Honest. I also like to see Coach being one of the 4 man committee to pick the final XI to keep the Captain honest & unbiased!.

  • Cricket on January 23, 2013, 19:59 GMT

    Before India can decide on who the coach is, it must decide what it wants to achieve and then appoint a coach who can help deliver the goals. IMO the goal over the next 6-12 months is to rebuild. That means identifying a pool of bowlers and batsmen who will represent India beyond and work with them on getting and staying fit, being competitve when the chips are down, fighting until the last run or wicket, forgetting about winning and losing, selecting players on form and fitness and no star player status on any player thus getting rid of the undroppable player mentality.

  • shan on January 23, 2013, 18:51 GMT

    I agree Aakash that all past players may not make good coaches, but surely India is not totally bereft of good coaches! I am sure the likes of Dravid, Tendulkar & Dhoni were coached by somebody who was not a famous player. By all means appoint another Overseas coach and also make it a condition that he takes an Indian developing coach so that he can learn & flourish. Football clubs do this all the time.

  • debarata on January 23, 2013, 17:38 GMT

    Good article. But problems with the Indian team start with the way most Indians do things. Just as India's political parties and movie industry are dependent on a dynastic culture, which is doing nobody any good, the culture of star players and hero worship is so entrenched in Indian cricket, that no coach will ever have a level playing field. Add this to an increasingly complex equation of sponsorships, IPL regional quotas, constant scrutiny by an obsessive media and fans, and a deep sense of resentment against other cricketing boards after the recent hurtful thrashings in Tests, and this job is pure poison. And because of that very fact, BCCI might just go for a very dispensable Indian coach. Because more than anything, thats what an Indian coach will be. Dispensable.

  • Kalyanaraman on January 23, 2013, 4:06 GMT

    Most people would agree that Stephen Fleming would be the right person. In case he is not inclined, Steve Waugh would be a good choice with Wasim Akram as bowling coach and Robin Singh as fielding coach.

  • Binoj on January 23, 2013, 3:50 GMT

    I don't think coach of a national team should concern himselves with correcting technical faults of players. That should have been sought out before you start playing at international level. If not, get dropped, go back to NCA, correct your faults, play well in domestic matches and make your comeback. In international level, especially Test cricket, it is all mind game. Those who win it becomes successful. It is the ability to come back at a batsman who clobbered you in the previous delivery or set the batsman up for a dismissal. It is the ability to come back after being shocked by a bouncer and sensing the set up of the bowlers. It is about studying opposition batsmen's weaknesses and opposition bowler's stock deliveries and developing strategies accordingly. For these, what players need at international level is mental back up and help in planning strategies. Nothing else