If you have ever decided to switch careers and attended an interview out of the comfort zone of your industry, this is what you will invariably be told – your past experience doesn’t really count for much in this new role and everything you have painstakingly built up to that point has no bearing on your future. All the accolades that you have earned, the lost weekends, late hours and countless sacrifices that have gone in to making you who you are is all fine but they belong in a vault called the past. Are you willing to throw it all away for something new?
Anil Kumble isn’t doing the equivalent of switching industries but nonetheless, he finds himself in a similar predicament. Consider all the things that will henceforth have no bearing on his career as a coach:
a) Bowling with a broken jaw in Antigua and taking the wicket of Brian Lara
b) Taking all 10 wickets in an innings against Pakistan
c) Being the highest wicket taker for India in tests
d) Being the third bowler in the world to cross 600 wickets
e) His stint as captain at the twilight of his career in which he shepherded the team through one of Indian cricket’s lowest moments during the Monkeygate scandal
f) Leading the spin attack single-handedly in the 90s before he got support from Harbhajan Singh
g) Having a circle named after him in the heart of Bangalore City
It isn’t easy to forsake a glorious past in favour of an unpredictable future, to throw a glittering CV into the waste bin and start afresh.
Anil Kumble isn’t on alien territory. He isn’t a cricket legend who is seeking to take Indian hockey to new heights. He is a legendary cricketer trying to inculcate the same values with which he played the game into a generation raised on IPL, t20 and instant riches. His 3 year stint as the chairman of the Karnataka State Cricket Association after he retired along with his state mates Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad was a mixed bag. They lost the re-election and even stormed out of a meeting that was chaired by Brijesh Patel and his cohorts when they felt disrespected.
In their playing days, the greatest of the great are feted and put up on pedestals that are very often not of their making. Once the sand clock runs out on their careers, they are left with two choices – live off the fame and riches forever and ever, or throw their hat in the ring and test themselves again.
Many have come up short in this regard. A few cases in point:
Much was made of Greg Chappell’s appointment as the Indian national coach in 2005. His candidature was pushed forward by none other than Sourav Ganguly, then the reigning prince of Indian cricket. In a very short span of time, the prince was made the pauper and Greg Chappell was made the villain. His two year tenure had a few highs like 17 ODI wins on the trot, a maiden test victory in South Africa and a test series win in the Caribbean. India’s 2007 World Cup disaster is entrenched in the minds of people with one image; in the do or die match against Sri Lanka, India’s final wicket fell and with it their hopes of progressing in the World Cup, one which they entered as favorites. The camera pans to the Indian dressing room after the last wicket of Munaf Patel and we see Rahul Dravid standing up and wiping something from across his face. From behind, Anil Kumble pats him in a bid to console the inconsolable. They knew what a first round exit in a World Cup would mean back at home.
The bad blood that flowed through Indian cricket’s veins in his tenure still makes blood boil when Chappell or that era is brought up (see video). When asked about Chappell being sacked as a selector a few years ago by the Australian board, this is what Ganguly had to say “I think we’ve gone one step further. Just leave him as a great player.”
In hindsight, many of the changes that Chappell sought to bring about in the team weren’t off target. Sourav Ganguly’s form was on the wane when he was asked to step down, and Zaheer Khan and Virender Sehwag had fitness issues. After being dropped, Zaheer Khan isolated himself from the jamboree of Indian cricket, spent a season in the Worcestershire County Cricket Club and came back a changed man in the test series against England in 2007. But as Chappell himself later admitted, his methods may not have been the best. The morale of the team had touched a new low with senior players questioning Chappell’s tactics. In the movie Any Given Sunday, the coach of the Miami Sharks, played by Al Pacino, gives a rousing speech in which he says “You either win as a team or you lose as individuals.” That phrase best describes the Greg Chappell era. Everyone – players, fans and stake holders lost.
For all the greats that have come after him, Michael Jordan can still stake claim to the title of the greatest ever NBA player ever. After he ended his career with a second three peat with the Chicago Bulls in 1998, he managed the Washington Wizards for a couple of years before deciding to make a third comeback as a player. He quickly realized that greatness is a limited resource and that he had run out of it. After 2 unsuccessful seasons, he announced his third and final retirement and hoped to return to the front office for the Wizards only to be shown the door. He is currently the owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, a team that has one of the worst winning percentages in NBA history, a stark contrast to the records that Michael Jordan has in his possession. Though Jordan isn’t the coach, the fact that his presence hasn’t automatically lifted a side shows that stature and greatness as a player don’t necessarily translate into a great coach or manager.
Diego Maradona, one of football’s most colourful figures, revered and reviled in equal measure, has had numerous failed stints as a coach with various clubs. His tenure as coach for the Argentinian side ended with a 4-0 drubbing against Germany in the 2010 World Cup.
Ask anyone to name a coach of the Indian team in the 90s and the odds of people coming up blank are high. There were a mish-mash of former players with no coaching experience that were given the task of coaching a side run by an unprofessional board. Before Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman found their feet and forged their own paths to greatness, the team comprised of one curly haired genius in Sachin Tendulkar, an overworked pacer in Javagal Srinath, a bespectacled spinner who wasn’t considered a spinner in Anil Kumble and a captain who was neck deep with the mafia in Mohammad Azharuddin. They were the pivot around whom the team revolved and it wasn’t surprising that they lacked self-belief or even possessed the methods to compete at the highest level. In a selection meeting, Sachin Tendulkar apparently expressed his surprise at the inclusion of David Johnson from Karnataka in the team. He is said to have retorted “David who?” on hearing his name.
Indian cricket has come a long way since then.
To understand how India has come full circle by formally appointing an Indian as a head coach is to understand why at the turn of the century, India first began to look beyond its shores for a coach.
Under Jagmohan Dalmiya, the BCCI struck oil and turned the tables on World Cricket. If the match-fixing scandal hadn’t landed cricket in the mess it did at the turn of the century, professionalism may have still have been some years away. Even Kapil Dev, one of the country’s most iconic players, failed to inspire the team as a coach. One of Indian cricket’s sadder sights was seeing Kapil Dev breaking down on camera when questioned about his role in match fixing. Something had to give. Mohammad Azharuddin left the game in a dark cloud that hasn’t really gone away, a badly made biopic notwithstanding.
Enter John Wright, India’s first experiment with a foreign coach.
He took the reigns of Indian cricket in 2000 and began rescuing it from the depths of hell. With him came new methods and there could have been no allegations of favoritism and nepotism that had dogged the previous coaches. He was the perfect foil to Sourav Ganguly’s aggressive captaincy. It helped that he had what is widely considered India’s golden generation to work with and rebuilt the side after the dark nights of cricket’s soul at the turn of the century. Coaching assumed a sense of professionalism and India won a historic test series against Australia in 2001 (which included what some consider the greatest test match ever played in Kolkata) and reached the finals of the 2003 World Cup. They drew a test series in Australia and beat Pakistan in Pakistan. The latter half of his tenure wasn’t as successful and his stint ended with a series loss against Pakistan.
John Wright set the precedent for what was expected of a foreign coach in India. Greg Chappell was to take Indian cricket even further and his arrival was met with much fanfare and expectation. How it turned out and ended is a well-documented story. The ensuing years have seen many players from that era speak out openly against his methods and madness. A few months after he tendered in his resignation, Rahul Dravid unburdened himself of captaincy and MS Dhoni was catapulted from wicket keeper to statesman. It was Ravi Shastri who again stepped in to guide the team after the World Cup fiasco in their short tour to Bangladesh. It also must be noted that India won their only t20 World Cup with a temporary coaching staff. Venkatesh Prasad wore the badge of bowling coach, Robin Singh was the fielding coach and Lachand Rajput was the designated head coach.
Gary Kirsten took over in late 2007 and under his astute guidance, the side reaped a rich harvest. They were numero uno in the test rankings and though they faltered in two t20 World Cups under him, they drew a series in South Africa and the crowning glory was the World Cup win in 2011. Duncan Fletcher’s appointment was a quiet one and it was unfortunate that his tenure began when the powers of the famed trio of Laxman, Dravid and Tendulkar were on the wane. The wheels began to come undone after the World Cup win. The side lost 8 test matches on the trot and there were cries for heads to roll. Rahul Dravid retired in March 2012, Laxman in June 2012 and Tendulkar soldiered on till November 2013.
In the 5 test match series against England in 2014, India pulled off a fantastic victory at Lord’s. What followed was abject capitulation and they lost the series 3-1 after leading.
Faith in Duncan Fletcher’s abilities was tested when Ravi Shastri was again parachuted into the dressing room as team director to boost the morale of the Indian side. Though the team lost the 4 test match series 0-2 to Australia in 2014-15, the side put up a respectable performance and had to contend with MS Dhoni’s sudden retirement halfway through the series that saw Virat Kohli take up the mantle of test captain. The 2015 World Cup saw the team put up commendable performances until they ran into a familiar foe in Australia in the semi-finals. Their exit also ended Duncan Fletcher’s tenure, who went out as quietly as he came. It was then left to team director Ravi Shastri and his support staff of Bharati Arun, Sanjay Bangar and R Sridhar to take the team forward. A test series win outside home against a Sri Lankan side that is rebuilding was followed by a semi-final spot in the t20 World Cup which ended in heartbreak with India crashing out to West Indies in the semi-finals at home.
There was little that Ravi Shastri did wrong. The coach-captain relationship plays a role in how a team is run and the success it experiences. The good relationship between Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri stems from the fact that both are aggressive and unafraid to speak their mind. Anil Kumble isn’t someone to hog the limelight and will prefer to work in the back drop and hopefully soothe Kohli’s nerves when tempers flare or things reach boiling point. In the end, it was a choice between two very able men amidst reports that there is no love lost between Ravi Shastri and Sourav Ganguly, one of the divisive personalities that make up the cricket advisory committee. When Anil Kumble, Sourav Ganguly, VVS Laxman and Sachin Tendulkar come together, it is deja vu. It was these few good men along with the likes of Rahul Dravid and Javagal Srinath who lifted cricket from the deep abyss it had fallen into at the turn of the century. It also shows that after more than a decade and a half of looking around the world for an able coach, India has finally decided to look inward for someone to guide the team. The giant step then is not that they have appointed an unquestioned legend who left behind shoes too big to fill, it is the fact that Indian cricket has come a long way from the 90s when it was felt that a home grown coach didn’t possess the methods to take the team forward.
A few months back, speculation was rife that Rahul Dravid was approached for the job of coaching the Indian side. Citing a young family, he politely declined and settled for working with the U-19 team. No doubt the years to come will see him emerge as a top contender for the post. The board was veering towards an Indian coach and specified that a person who has previous coaching experience was preferred and until Kumble sent in his surprise application, Ravi Shastri was the front runner by a mile. A one year tenure shows that the board has been able to distinguish between Anil Kumble’s stellar achievements as a player and what he can bring to the table as a coach. As a player, his credentials are beyond reproach, as a coach, it is a blank slate waiting to be filled. A season that involves 18 test matches, most of them at home, will give him the cushioning required to settle into the new role.
As much as Anil Kumble would like to roll up his sleeves when the side is searching for a wicket on an unresponsive track and bowl his heart out like he did in his playing days, he will now have to watch from the side lines. He doesn’t need glory, money or recognition. He has all that and more in abundance. The rigours of the modern game has meant that coaching too has evolved. With players getting lesser time to recover from injuries and the concept of off season being thrown out of the window, a coach’s job has become that much more challenging. Increased financial resources have allowed teams to employ a roster of support staff but come match day, the support staff don’t go out and play the game. Being a bowler, Anil Kumble also knows that without a bowling attack that can get 20 wickets, winning abroad consistently will remain a pipe dream. He is inheriting a young side and while MS Dhoni’s place in the scheme of things is still murky, he isn’t saddled with a overbearing legacy that Duncan Fletcher was handed.
When Anil Kumble retired in 2008 on his favourite ground Feroz Shah Kotla, it was thought that there was nothing more he could given Indian cricket. He took his limited abilities and multiplied them with tons of hard work and grit. His legacy as a player will remain untouched and the memories he left behind are still fresh.
The only question to be asked then is can he give Indian fans even more memories to savour as coach.