Considering that so much of cricketing success is the outcome of captain taking instinctive decisions on the field, the excessive furore surrounding the choice of Indian team’s coach is a bit of a puzzle.
The best captains in international cricket, Mike Brearley, Imran Khan, Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi or even Arjuna Ranatunga never took to coaching national sides and this is a telling commentary of the importance they accorded to coaching at the highest level of cricket.
The four named above were inspirational leaders and the decisions they took on the cricket field had a far-reaching impact. Yet the closest any of them came to coaching at the international level was the writing of a seminal book, The Art of Captaincy, by Brearley.
This is not to belittle the work of coaches but call attention to the peculiar nature of cricket where the job is not essential at top levels. This is unlike in say, football, hockey or even basketball. In those games the coach’s word is law. Of course, from outside the playing arena he sees patterns in play that an on-field player simply cannot; thus the constant interventions and instructions.
Having said that cricket is slowly moving towards a stage where a coach has become mandatory for most major teams. One of his roles is to keep tabs on the strengths and weaknesses of rival players and devise a strategy along with the captain and senior players. They may have their differences but they still need to sit down and work on roles for each player in every match and situation.
However, irrespective of what decision is reached, the onus is on the captain to call it. His word is law on the field and in the dressing room. It was so when Brearely, Pataudi, Imran and Ranatunga led their teams and it cannot be different now with Virat Kohli leading team India.
Ravi Shastri, if reports of his applying for the post are correct, would be an ideal candidate to restore balance in the set-up. His mandate would be to ensure that the captain’s job is made easier and he could facilitate that by ensuring that there is a congenial atmosphere off the field.
It is common knowledge that staying cooped together for long periods during a tour is extremely tough on energetic youngsters working under pressure. Frayed nerves are common place, especially in Indian cricket where there is no down time and players are unfairly expected to be at their peak for 365 days, year after year.
A mature, understanding coach who knows when to turn on the heat and when to step back and allow it to simmer is vital for team dynamics.
Test tours are inherently tougher of deal with; for each Test calls for captain and coach being on the same page for 15 sessions, not for a mere two sessions like in ODIs or even lesser in T20s. Having said that, the last thing a captain needs in any format is to have a tough session on the field and come off it to engage in a confrontation with the coach.
Shastri, having played Tests for India and having been team director when India climbed to No 1 in Test rankings, knows a thing or two about cooling passions in the dressing room and pacing the team through sessions.
The challenge for him would not be about notching wins at home. That will come irrespective of who the coach is. The trick is to replicate this success overseas. For that, coach and captain need to see eye to eye and forge team spirit.
At the time of writing, the BCCI is yet to state if Shastri has applied. But there is little doubt that he would be the front-runner if he does apply. He did nothing wrong when he was given charge. Perhaps Sourav Ganguly, who is said to be hostile to Shastri, saw it different. He did not even sit through the Skype presentation, preferring to be away at a book release function.
The manner in which Shatri was sidelined and Anil Kumble was chosen created a storm. The irony is that it seems to be happening all over again, except that the shoe is on the other foot.
Of course, Shastri knows a thing or two about man-management and being India’s team director. After all, under him, India won their first limited-overs bilateral series in Australia when they beat them 3-0 in a T20I series. India also became No 1 in Test rankings. India lost in the semi-finals in the 2015 World Cup and the 2016 World T20.
Shastri thus knows the team members very well, having been in the same dressing room through this period. Additionally, his long career as a TV commentator has given him a rare opportunity to see many of the opposition players in action and in slow-motion. So his inputs could be critical.
The most important thing though is that the team needs a coach they would be comfortable working with over the next two years. All indications lead to the belief that Shastri is just that person. It just remains to be seen if Ganguly too sees it that way.