In the summer of 2016, cricket circles in this country were flush with anticipation. The interview process for the Indian team’s head coach had begun, and while former team director Ravi Shastri was seen as a favourite by many, Anil Kumble’s entry into the fray meant the equation changed dramatically leading up to the interviews.
Just do the math yourself. A legendary leg-spinner, the greatest match-winner in the 90s, a former cricketer whose integrity and desire to win were beyond question, and most importantly, a link between India’s golden age and this aggressive present/future generation — Kumble was the perfect candidate, never mind the lack of a coaching record.
Overnight, Shastri had been downgraded to second-choice contender, and the ensuing drama between him and Sourav Ganguly (who took leave during Shastri’s Skype-interview) was a marker of how things had changed quickly in Kumble’s favour. However, that public spat between Shastri and Ganguly left a bitter after-taste.
Something was not quite correct back then, much as it hasn’t been these past few months as Kumble fell out of favour with skipper Virat Kohli. The manner of the coach’s exit left the same unpleasantness as was witnessed a year ago, only for the coach selection process to be repeated.
Despite winning 12 out of 17 Tests in a long 2016-17 season, and topping it up with a runners-up performance in the recently-concluded Champions Trophy in England, the fact that the Cricket Advisory Committee (comprising of Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman) will be conducting interviews this week for the coach’s post twice in 12 months points to how fast things went pear-shaped in the Indian dressing room.
Stop for a moment herein, and wonder aloud about how it went wrong. Kohli was guarded throughout the Champions Trophy, and then made a public admission of discord when he deleted his year-old tweet welcoming Kumble after the latter resigned. For his part, Kumble too kept a muted silence about this fiasco but fired an uncompromising salvo with his goodbye tweet/letter.
No one is sure when this discord began — during the Champions Trophy, or during the Australian series, or earlier in the season. No one is sure what it was about either; did Kumble overstep his mark by getting carried away in his faith to serve for the betterment of Indian cricket? Or, was Kohli denied his due — in terms of selection or even credit — as India climbed to the top of Test rankings’ ladder?
Nobody knows, but there can be no denial that the Kohli-Kumble combination, one that had looked like a winning, all-conquering pairing for the near foreseeable future, was split wide open due to irreparable differences. That word — irreparable — is an important one, for one member of the CAC had confirmed to this writer during the Champions Trophy that all of it was “a simple misunderstanding between captain and coach.” Let it be said here that until the very last moment, these three CAC members were hopeful of finding a middle ground so that the Kohli-Kumble pairing could continue shepherding Indian cricket.
It didn’t happen, of course. The more surprising element though was when Ganguly came out shortly after the acrimonious split and claimed that the debacle ‘could have been handled better’ by the powers that be. On the face of it, this is an ironical statement since Ganguly himself was one of the people charged to ‘handle’ the situation. Did he — and the other esteemed members of the CAC — misjudge the gravity of the tension between Kohli and Kumble, assuming that it could all go away with a simple bridging of communication between the two?
Even so, this is not the underlying question as things stand. Kumble is gone, Kohli is leading the team on his own in the Caribbean, and back in India, Shastri’s name is at the forefront of the shortlist for India’s next coach. Yes, Ganguly and Co cannot be held accountable for what happened in the dressing room these past few months. But they need to be asked if they applied proper rationale in picking Kumble over Shastri last summer?
The answer doesn’t lie in Kumble’s lack of coaching credentials. Instead, it is in Shastri’s time spent with the Indian team until that point. He had assumed charge during a turbulent period when the team lost the Test series in England and then in Australia. He oversaw the transition period from MS Dhoni to Kohli, and helped keep the dressing room together. He then helped both captains (in different formats) with insight as well as encouraged them to showcase adventurism in whatever they did.
Again, it is not to say that Kumble didn’t do all of those things in the last year. If this debacle hadn’t happened, the legendary leg-spinner would have continued in his job unperturbed. But, if his results were ‘good enough’ to merit an extension, just why did the CAC think last summer that Shastri hadn’t done enough to get the coach’s job ahead of Kumble?
The argument can be, that charged with such an important decision, the CAC wanted to leave their mark on the future course of Indian cricket, and appointed someone they had full faith in, having played so many years with Kumble. Yet, in doing so, Ganguly, Laxman and Tendulkar went against their own individualism. At least two of these celebrated names have in the past gone public with criticism of the national team’s coach (it didn’t help that Greg Chappell was grossly incompetent to handle an Indian cricket team, albeit it is a separate debate).
Furthermore, there is more evidence in how Gary Kirsten cultivated his relationship with his captain (Dhoni) and senior players (example, Tendulkar). The latter is the keener point. On many occasions, both Kirsten and Tendulkar have talked about giving a free hand to the batsman in what he did, in terms of preparation and approaching the game.
The bottom-line is that Ganguly, Laxman and Tendulkar — even Kumble for that matter — belong to a generation that always searched for effortless compatibility with the coach. In that light it makes for wonderment if the celebrated CAC made a huge mistake in overlooking someone in 2016, who had already built that comfortable rapport with the current Indian team. Does it make them directly accountable for the mess Kohli-Kumble created?
The bigger question to ask is, if the CAC will make the right decision this time, even if it is in picking Shastri indeed.