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Kirsten, Flower, Fletcher: What's in a coach?

"He (Gary Kirsten) is the best thing to happen to Indian cricket” - MS Dhoni

“I would go to war with Dhoni by my side” - Gary Kirsten

Last week after South Africa replaced England as the top Test team in the world, I did this post on a facebook page that I write and edit for a prominent cricket website. You might want to have a quick look-see at some of the comments people have shot off in response to the post before you read the rest of this piece. I don’t know about you, but I love reading what people have to say in the comments section. Most times the reactions are extremely emotional and always quite entertaining. The feedback to the aforementioned post is no different.

From the looks of it, a lot of folks seem to think Gary Kirsten had a lot to do with India’s rise to the top as a Test-playing nation last year. Really … does a coach play such an important role in the success and failure of a cricket team? Well, Dhoni certainly seems to think so. (Of course, it helps that Kirsten feels just as much love for Dhoni.)

England were outclassed by South Africa in a series that a lot of Indians still smarting from the hammering dished out to their cricket team by the English would have thoroughly enjoyed. But do the losses against South Africa, the comprehensive beating handed out by Pakistan, and England’s mediocre record after they unseated India as the best Test side in the world suddenly make Andy Flower bad at his job? If not, why should the awe-inspiring dominance of the English team, until they became the ‘hunted,’ mark him out as a great coach?

Should India have persuaded Kirsten to stay? Reuters

Should India have persuaded Kirsten to stay? Reuters

Speaking of successful coaches, did the fact that India held their own against Australia in Australia under John Wright (India’s first foreign coach) have much to do with Wright or more with the conveniently ignored fact that neither Glenn McGrath nor Shane Warne – two of Australia’s most successful bowlers ever – played in that series? Not to mention, some of the most motivated captaincy in the history of Indian cricket from Sourav Ganguly. Fact of the matter is, bowlers, strong leadership, and team effort, more than other things, win Test matches. Australia did put runs on the board in that series, but they had a skipper who was on the verge of retirement, and didn’t possess an attack capable of dismissing India for moderate scores consistently. You will recall that India amassed over 700 runs in one of those Tests. And that’s in one innings! Even one of cricket’s winningest coaches John Buchanan couldn’t do a thing about it.

Of course, it helps to have a good coach. But let’s not assume he plays one of the most important roles in the scheme of things. John Buchanan was considered a great coach until he moved on from the near invincible Australian team. Gary Kirsten has now coached two sides to the summit of the ICC Test rankings. Duncan Fletcher, on the other hand, has been part of three whitewashes. Does this say more about their coaching abilities or the teams that took the field? Make no mistake, this is not to put forward the view that anyone as undiplomatic or naïve as the likes of Greg Chappell or Kapil Dev can be a successful coach. It’s certainly not that much of a no-brainer.

An often overlooked truth is that a coach is only as good as his captain, who is only as good as the prevailing team ethic. The Indian team under Gary Kirsten and Dhoni was hungry for success and pulling together as one unit until they won the World Cup. Soon after, they let the triumphs go to their head. And it showed … in the sniping, the rifts, and the poor results that followed. Perhaps Duncan Fletcher could have prevented this from happening. But did Dhoni and the other senior members in the side do their bit to keep the team together?

Buchanan was fortunate enough to be put in charge of a side considered one of the best of all time led by a ruthless leader like Steve Waugh with a seemingly unquenchable thirst for mental disintegration and victory. Andy Flower is lucky the English Cricket Board doesn’t care much for Kevin Pietersen and allows the steely Zimbabwean to call the shots, which makes it easier for him to crack the whip and control the team. And yet, even a powerful coach like Flower hasn’t been able to keep them at the top for much longer than a year.

Going forward, it’ll be interesting to see how South Africa performs now that they are the masters of all they survey. It’ll be even more interesting to see what Indian fans will have to say about Fletcher if their team wins the next three series at home.

The writer tweets @Armchairexpert. You can follow him if you’re into that sort of thing.