Indian cricket's Canterbury tale

The victorious tour of Pakistan last year was perhaps the acme of John Wright's time as Indian coach. Yet, that evening in Rawalpindi, just hours after Pakistan had been drubbed by an innings for the second time in the series, it was a sense of wonder that prevailed over pride at a job well done. Talking to the New Zealand Listener, there was almost a wide-eyed innocence in his eyes when he said: "I went to a school with 26 kids. Sometimes I think, 'How did I get here?'"

During his tenure, Wright did far more than help win a series in Pakistan or plot a course to a World Cup final. He affected an attitudinal change in a team whose performances had seldom been in keeping with its undoubted potential. Like the great Bill Shankly who once stood outside City Hall in Liverpool and said, "Time and again, I have drummed it into my players that it's their privilege to play for you," Wright made his more callow charges aware of their exalted status in Indian society. "The people I love are the people on the street, who are coming up and thanking us," he once said. "Most of them earn an average wage of 3000-4000 rupees a month. They mightn't get a day off, but they love their cricket if we can be a good fighting team."

His own attitude was drastically different from anything that Indian cricket had seen before, the unobtrusive General Bradley to all the flamboyant and quote-hanging Pattons that had gone before. Where some had considered that they were doing the team a favour by taking on the coaching job, Wright saw it for what it really was - an unalloyed privilege, albeit one that came with poisoned chalice and overhanging sword.

On the hard days, and there were a fair few of those too, he would dutifully troop into press conferences, sparing his captain the inevitable media flak, and on the resplendent ones, he would stay out of the camera's eye, anxious not to steal the frame from those that he felt deserved it more.

There had been a few disbelieving glances when Wright was given the job in November 2000, largely on the strength of his work with Kent - Rahul Dravid had spent the summer there - in the English county championship. Other contenders like Geoff Marsh and Greg Chappell had weightier resumes, and far loftier reputations during their playing days.

Funnily enough, the fact that Wright had been something of an Ordinary Joe as a player - though one with an irreproachable work ethic - was to prove his greatest strength. For those that weren't blessed with the genius of a Tendulkar or the resolve of a Dravid or Kumble, he was an ideal mentor, imbuing them with the confidence that is so often the difference between those in the middle and the nearly men. Even the stars benefited, as his emphasis on hard work and single-minded dedication coaxed extra lumens out of them.

A team that had an unenviable reputation for choking on the big stage - dating back to a singular Miandad blow in 1986 - started to stand up and be counted when it mattered. Indian cricket's finest hours were scripted over two halcyon days at the Eden Gardens in March 2001, when Wright prevailed on the team to send VVS Laxman in at number three after Australia had seemingly laid all the foundations for a series win by asking India to follow on.

The figures - and ultimately, there is no better judge - reveal why Wright's tenure will be looked upon with so much fondness by so many. In the decade preceding his arrival, India won just 19 Tests, including a pathetic return of two - one of which was Bangladesh's inaugural Test - from 35 matches played overseas. Since his weather-beaten hands took over the tiller, there were 18 victories, nine of which came in 27 Tests away from home. Those at Headingley and Adelaide, where Australia piled up 400 for 5 on the opening day, have a special place in Indian cricket's Hall of Fame, alongside The Oval, 1971 and Port-of-Spain, 1976.

But more than a catalogue of achievement, what set Wright apart was his demeanour. In a cricketing arena that is ever more commercialised, and where the proportion of arrogant boors and ill-mannered oafs grows higher by the day, his humility and sense of proportion were spring sunshine. Across the border, Bob Woolmer has done much to try and revitalise a moribund Pakistan side, but his reward for that has been endless sniping from the local media. Wright, perhaps by being less outspoken, was usually spared such a fate. If anything, after initial scepticism, all but the isolated and ignorant xenophobe embraced him, and considered him one of them.

A man's intrinsic merit is often conveyed by what he leaves behind. When Wright leaves these shores, his legacy will be a professional ethos, where once there was merely ramshackle amateurism. He leaves behind a team that has the potential to compete with the very best, provided they remember those lessons about heart and perspiration that he taught them.

When Shankly, a dyed-in-the-wool Scot, died, the city of Liverpool mourned him like they had never mourned one of their own. Wright's departure will evoke similar sorrow in a generation of Indian cricket lovers who had almost become reconciled to underachievement and wasted sunsets. That he was able to touch so many hearts so far from his North Canterbury roots tells you all you need to know about a truly remarkable individual.

Dileep Premachandran is assistant editor of Cricinfo. Sambit Bal will return to these pages next Thursday.