It is likely Kolkata Knight Riders will soon announce the sacking of John Buchanan as their head coach. Franchise insiders are already discussing possible successors, from Paras Mhambrey to John Wright. Buchanan is being blamed for the team's dismal, last-place finish in the second edition of the IPL. More than a cricket failure - can a team do much if Chris Gayle, Brendon McCullum and Sourav Ganguly decide to lose form at the same time? - Kolkata's problems are being attributed to management failure.
There is a two-layered analysis necessary here - of Buchanan's management failure, and of the failure of those who managed Buchanan. At a larger level, two seasons of the IPL, two seasons of eight teams run by stodgy business corporations and flamboyant control freaks, have put on display an array of sports-management styles.
Is a pattern discernible? "Each team reflects the personality of its owner," says the CEO of one franchise. "For the most part, teams owned by institutions and corporations have done better than those run by high-profile individuals." Yet there are exceptions to this rule. Indeed the (over) empowerment of one key individual failed in the case of Buchanan and Kolkata, but tried in another fashion worked for Deccan Chargers.
That is, however, getting ahead of the story, which must begin with Kolkata. Shah Rukh Khan's franchise operates, as one insider puts it, on the "Big Tent" approach, organising its cricket team like a movie production.
What does this mean? Consider how a film is made. The financier and producer hire a director and give him the creative authority to alter the script, choose the lead actors, decide on the music score, collect talent from all parts of the country or world. Within broad parameters they allow him to choose locales to shoot the film. In sum they trust his creative ingenuity and leave the film in his hands. When the film is shot, it's all over. "The Big Tent is dismantled," as one source puts it, "and everybody goes home." Indeed Kolkata have so far operated on a very loose and liberal management principle, with team executives and back-room people split between Mumbai, Delhi, Australia and Kolkata, the notional home of the franchise.
The "Big Tent" management technique was applied because it was the one Shah Rukh and his co-owners understood from their line of business. It also entailed trusting one man completely and making him the cricket supremo of the franchise - like the director of a film.
As such, Buchanan centralised all decision-making. This led to him taking sole ownership of some crucial calls. One, he chose half-a-dozen coaching assistants, taking them all - including his son, as well as a wicketkeeping coach and a nets coach - to South Africa for the duration of the IPL. Two, this past winter, he proposed a training camp at the Centre of Excellence in Brisbane (Queensland). Kolkata's international and Ranji Trophy players were not available. Others in the franchise hierarchy argued the camp would be a waste of money. Buchanan said it was necessary to build a future relationship with the Queensland cricket authorities. It was a thin argument, but Shah Rukh went along with it.
Three, in sending Aakash Chopra and Sanjay Bangar home from South Africa, Buchanan didn't realise it, but he demoralised younger Indian cricketers. "The message they got," says a player who was in South Africa, "was, one failure and you would be on the plane home."
Over two seasons the relationship between cricketers and investors/owners who have no previous experience of running a sports franchise has been as easy to map as Brownian motion
Finally Buchanan reduced the captain to a cipher. For instance it was he who decided Ajantha Mendis would bowl the Super Over to Yusuf Pathan in the Kolkata-Rajasthan Royals match that Kolkata lost. Many in the team dugout thought Yusuf was too accomplished a player of spin, and that Ishant Sharma, bowling at express pace, may have sent down a couple of game-changing dot-balls.
Giving a film's director complete independence, or hiring a CEO for a company and giving him the freedom to hire and fire at will, change the corporate culture, shuffle the product mix - neither is unusual. What this also means, however, is that absolute power is expected to produce results. Otherwise the director is not hired again, or the CEO is turfed out.
The point is, traditional cricket is unused to such wild swings. "It is governed by a separation of powers," says an IPL associate who watched Buchanan grow larger than life and then implode, "by built-in checks and balances."
Take the Kolkata experience again, and place it against Buchanan's previous job as Australia coach. He contended with a variety of stakeholders - Cricket Australia (CA), a selection committee, a strong captain, the public. If he wanted a camp at the other end of the world, CA may have had budget issues. If he wanted to select a player on a whim, the selectors may have argued. If he wanted a spinner to bowl the Super Over, Steve Waugh or Ricky Ponting may have overruled him.
As such, if Australia lost a series, Buchanan would not have been held disproportionately responsible. "At KKR," says a sympathetic franchise source, "he was on a treadmill. He kept pushing and kept getting his way. And he couldn't stop."
How did other teams do it? After the drubbing in 2008, Deccan Chargers tried a variation of the "empowered CEO" model. The cricket aspect of the franchise was handed over to new captain Adam Gilchrist and coach Darren Lehmann. They had the veto on all matters related to cricket, team selection, the works. Perhaps they were more realistic than Buchanan or perhaps they were just luckier. Whatever it was, the two Australians who ran the Deccan Chargers team succeeded in winning.
Delhi Daredevils follows a faceless business corporation model, in keeping with the infrastructure company that owns it, with a well-defined clarity in functional roles. It helps that the CEO, Amrit Mathur, has a background in both cricket and the civil service, understanding how sport works as well as how India works. He also has a clear-cut charter - to make Delhi Daredevils profitable as a business in three years.
In a media company the publisher is somebody to whom both editorial and marketing report. Mathur's role is similar. He is overall in charge of both the commercial and cricket ends of things, playing adjudicator in case of differences down the line. For example, when the IPL transfer season opened, coach Greg Shipperd wanted to trade Shikhar Dhawan for Ajit Agarkar (Kolkata). Virender Sehwag, the captain, wanted Ashish Nehra of the Mumbai Indians. There was a stalemate and the matter went right up to Mathur. He decided in the captain's favour.
Over two seasons the relationship between cricketers and investors/owners who have no previous experience of running a sports franchise has been as easy to map as Brownian motion. There has been comedy: in 2008 a Reliance Industries director was watching a Mumbai Indians game and suddenly announced the rival team had 12 men on the field. In full view of the rest of the box, two subordinates were ordered to count the number of fielders and report back. There has also been irony: in 2008 again, a brash business heir, with little but his surname to show for himself, gave Yuvraj Singh, a man who has played two World Cup finals, a lecture on the will to win and the psychology of excellence.
Finally there is the un-model model - that of Rajasthan Royals. This is a team that depends not so much on an empowered CEO as a messianic evangelist. In 2008, Rajasthan were so disorganised and unprepared that they even outsourced talent scouting and recruitment of young Indian players to a Mumbai-based cricket academy. With their degree of preparation, they had no business doing well in the IPL. Yet they made one extraordinary choice: naming Shane Warne as captain.
Over two seasons Warne has not been the detached superstar. Rather he has been the touchy-feely, matey senior bloke in the team - the CEO who rolls up his sleeves and pays his dues on the shop floor. He has talked up younger players, given them supreme confidence. "He made young boys feel they were special," recalls an admiring Mumbai Indians executive, "took them to the big names and said, 'Hey Glenn [McGrath], you must meet the next big thing in Indian cricket…'"
Soon enough, Warne's men were ready to go to war for him. In 2008 the momentum took them to the podium. It was magical, but magic cannot be institutionalised and replicated at will. Perhaps that is why the formula didn't repeat itself in 2009, and Rajasthan failed to make the semi-finals.
So which model will outlast the others and become the template for other IPL franchises? Deccan Chargers' victory this year may provide a recipe: a tight business corporation empowering two cricket specialists, who know when not to push their luck, to run the team their way. Is this the IPL way? More important, is it cricket's old new way?
Ashok Malik is a senior editor at the Pioneer in Delhi