Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr was being a prescient Indian cricket tragic when, in 1849, he formulated the epigram plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
This is not the first time India, on the eve of a major international tournament, find their internal organs in a state of considerable disrepair. That ‘record’, for want of a better word, was set back in 2007 when the then coach Greg Chappell and influential star Sourav Ganguly found themselves at outs in the lead-up to the World Cup – amusingly, there is even a detailed Wikipedia entry on the ‘Chappell-Ganguly controversy’.
It was a “dictatorial” coach then, it is a “headmasterly” coach now. Underlying the discontents, then and now, are two sets of superstar cricketers who, bolstered by repeated successes, get to believing that there is nothing more for them to learn, that there is no skill remaining to master, no nuance left in the game to be explored. The more things change in Indian cricket, the more they remain the same – up to a point.
Virat Kohli has “vigorously” denied any rift with the coach - a joke among journalists is that in politics, business, movies and sports, no rumour is true until it has been officially denied. Anil Kumble for his part has been rigorously silent. It would be easy to accept Kohli at his word, to dismiss talk of a “headmasterly” coach as nothing but a passing gripe blown out of proportion, but for one little detail: the players, several reports have said, are upset about the rigour Kumble has imposed on the vetting of injured players before they report back for duty.
That strikes a familiar note. The bane of Indian cricket’s superstar culture, first enshrined in the 1990s and incrementally raised to its current peak, has been the stars’ insistence on writing their own ticket as far as injuries are concerned. X has “declared himself fit” used to be an all too common headline on the sports pages. That is all it took – an injured star would ‘declare himself fit’, often backed by the certificate of some friendly neighborhood GP, and he would walk back into his preferred slot in the side, no questions asked. With the result that the team has repeatedly fielded half-fit players in key positions, and paid for it.
Kumble, a veteran of those times, is more aware than most of this tendency, and one noticeable aspect of his year-long tenure as coach has been his refusal to hand out free return tickets to injured stars. Instead, he has insisted that the player be first assessed by the physio and if declared fit, return to domestic cricket for a try-out before being called back to national colours.
Ironically, Mahendra Singh Dhoni had drawn attention to this as far back as January of this year. "You can't really get 150 percent performance from a player who is 80 percent,” he had said then. “That's where you have to be very practical, very honest. There are different ways to handle everyone: for some it is a kind word, for some it is a harsh word.”
Kumble’s governing trait is that he is forthright; he says what he thinks, always, without applying coats of sweetener to his utterances. And that is where the penny drops. That is when you realise there is more to this kerfuffle than the kvetching of a bunch of man-boys who just want to chill, have fun in between times, and not have to listen to boring lectures on the importance of rolling the strike over or whatever else the coach has chosen to throw up on Power Point.
The ongoing imbroglio is not about boys wanting to have fun out of school – it cuts deeper, strikes at the heart of the star system that has been meticulously fostered by sundry administrators, brand managers and self-seeking hangers-on, both inside the commentary box and outside.
The more things change...