Spin wizard Bishan Singh Bedi was Team India’s first professional coach in 1990. He was known for his crazy fitness sessions and for being a hard taskmaster. He hit it off with Mohammed Azharuddin, then India skipper, initially. But when the latter put England in at Lord’s and Graham Gooch scored a triple hundred, the outspoken Bedi hauled him over the coals, openly. Earlier, on the tour of New Zealand after India had made a mess of a tri-series match with bad batting, Bedi had told reporters that he wouldn’t mind throwing the entire Indian squad into the Pacific Ocean. It is therefore alleged that Azharuddin had him removed as coach.
Like Bedi, Anil Kumble too was an intense coach who believed that cricket matches could be won only through hard work and passion. Virat Kohli is alleged to have complained that he scolded players like little children and it has now been revealed that the present India skipper reportedly ‘campaigned’ for Kumble’s ouster.
In cricket, unlike in other sports, the captain of the ship is the team’s skipper. Therefore, the coach, the manager and the entire agglomeration of support staffers are subservient to him. The skipper may deny this; the coach too – when the skipper isn’t around – may try to show that he is the boss. However, to use Nelson Mandela’s quote, the former is undeniably the ‘master of his own fate’ and the ‘captain of the team’s destiny’.
A happy cricket manager or coach is one who organises great practice sessions, makes efficient off-the-field arrangements, helps the skipper with strategy, and smiles at press-meets to show that everything in the team is hunky-dory. He or she is one who works from behind-the-scenes most of the time and lets the skipper hog the limelight.
At a recent press-conference, Kohli looked embarrassed when he was asked by a journalist if Ravi Shastri was his ‘yes-man’. Blushing, and at a loss for words, he had replied that there is nobody who had said ‘no’ to him more than the present Team India coach, and that he had contributed to making players believe that they belonged at the highest levels. This only shows that a good cricket coach not only needs to be a ‘yes-man’ but also needs to know when — and how — to say ‘no’. Something that Kumble probably didn’t know!
Sanjay Manjrekar was the skipper, in 1996, when Mumbai played Baroda in a Ranji Trophy match at RCF’s sports complex in Chembur. Mumbai’s team manager/coach was the legendary former pace bowler, Ramakant ‘Tiny’ Desai. Manjrekar, at that time, had been issued a show-cause-notice by the BCCI for some misdemeanour on his part and I remember him filing a reply, with help from my assistant, in the club office, when Mumbai were batting. I had politely moved out of my cabin in order not to embarrass him.
That evening, after stumps were drawn, a posse of journalists waited outside the Mumbai dressing room to quiz Manjrekar on the issue. When Desai was requested to ask the Mumbai skipper if he would meet the media men, he replied, “Arrey, he’s a terror. I don’t think he’ll listen to me.”
Having played a bit of cricket, coached/managed teams and worked as an administrator, I can vouch for the fact that the best cricket managers/coaches are the ones who learn to play second fiddle to their skippers at almost all levels. If technically good and hardworking coaches like Bedi, Kumble and my friend, former world-cupper Balvinder Singh Sandhu, are not accepted at the international level, it is only because they are too assertive. In stark contrast to this, a football coach has to be the ‘boss’ of the team. I was fortunate to have worked with a professional football team for a decade and had all the decision-making powers.
During the last three decades, India’s most liked coaches have been South Africa’s Gary Kirsten and New Zealand’s John Wright. They were primarily responsible for building a strong Indian squad in the new millennium. Ajit Wadekar, who was coach from 1992 to 1996, was liked and respected too. What differentiated them from others who coached the Indian team was that they believed in the maxim: When a great leader’s work in done, they say, ‘We did it ourselves’.
Greg Chappell, an Australian legend was perhaps the most hated coach India has had. This goes to prove that a great player isn’t necessarily a great coach. Chappell was someone who insisted on having his way in the team, thus rubbing quite a few great Indian cricketers the wrong way.
Speaking of rubbing players the wrong way, Ramesh Powar was said to have paid the price for doing that to a legend like Mithali Raj recently. The women’s coach in the T20 World Cup of 2018 played in the Caribbean Isles, he was perhaps made the scapegoat in an internal tussle between star players in the squad. Was he too much of a ‘yes-man’ or a nice guy?
As I see it, neither the selectors nor the team management had the nerve to drop Raj. T20 is a format for young and fit players, but who would tell a legend that? Therefore, the ‘supari’ was handed to Powar. Eventually, when the Supreme Court appointed committee decided to replace Powar, skipper Harmanpreet Kaur and star player Smriti Mandhana sought to save his career as coach, giving rise to suspicions that he may have been made use of to get even with Raj.
A good cricket coach/manager needs to master the art of leading from the rear. His/her role in the team should be to make others feel that they are leading from the front. Neither Kirsten nor Wright were ‘yes-men’. They led from behind so that the likes of Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Kumble and MS Dhoni could lead from the front. That is why they were great coaches.
Any team with an authoritarian skipper and a ‘yes-man’ for a coach/manager can only be doomed to failure. Hans Christian Andersen wrote The Emperor’s New Clothes in 1837; skippers who would like to be winners in the long run will do well to read and imbibe that tale.
The author is a sportswriter and caricaturist. A former fast bowler and coach, he is now a mental toughness trainer