Once Brothers

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‘How can I ever bring myself to fight against Bhishma and Drona, who are worthy of reverence? How can I, Krishna? Surely it would be better to spend my life begging than to kill these great and worthy souls!’

Arjuna to Lord Krishna in the Bhagvad Gita

In the epic the Mahabharata, Arjuna is forced to go to war against his own family and gets wise counsel from Lord Krishna to do his duty. It is sad that Indian cricket seems to be embroiled in a Mahabharata of its own. There is dissent in the board about how they are now being forced to take a smaller share of the cricket pie. There is dissent against the ICC and Shashank Manohar, who is accused of not standing up for Indian cricket. A few weeks back, there were talks of India not participating in the Champions Trophy as sign of proetest against the ICC. Those fears were quickly assuaged as it would have looked immature and silly if cricket’s biggest money spinner didn’t participate in ICC’s second biggest event after the 50 over and T20 World Cups.

And then, a week or so ago, a new and unexpected firestorm has been raging and if all the half baked information and reports could form liquid rock, a volcano is bound to erupt. After the victorious Australia series, Indian cricket went from its longest home test season to the razzmatazz of the IPL. There were no murmurs of dissent, an unhappy dressing room, or a rift between the coach and the team.

Indian cricket is seemingly at war with Indian cricket.

The first wave hit when the BCCI announced that it is inviting applications for a coach.

Wait, don’t we already have a coach who has had a very successful first year even though it was a home season?

Wasn’t an extension a given?

Why advertise the search for a coach a week before the team is playing the Champion’s Trophy?

What the hell exactly happened?

There is at least one positive – if a point of no-return has been reached between Virat Kohli and Anil Kumble, at least the wheels didn’t fall off when the team was in the middle of a high profile series and didn’t lead to a series defeat. Barring an unexpected result and tawdry performance in Pune against Australia and couple of minor scares against England, the Indian team has had a dream run. It appeared to be the perfect setting to take things to the next level with a season of high profile international series in the offing. Though a series win against Sri Lanka in 2016 came after a long drought, the new look Indian team are yet to win convincingly in Australia or England. A victory at Lord’s in 2014 was followed by a meltdown of epic proportions where the side crashed and burned in matches that were lucky to last 3 days.

The rift has gained significance because after a long time, the players are odds with one of their own. When Greg Chappell and the team had travelled to the World Cup in 2007, the wheels had well and truly gone off. Had India not had such a disastrous showing, it’s anyone’s guess what might have transpired. If Chappell was well and truly the devil that he was made out to be, he may not have kept his job but he may not have exited the country in so much ignominy. All blame was cast on the coach then, that he created a dressing room where no one was secure and this led to a team that was low on motivation. The World Cup fiasco was the point of no return.

Luckily, and if reports are to be believed that the rift between Kumble and Kohli has a nadir, it didn’t result in a series loss where all dirty linen was aired in public.

Few remember Kapil Dev’s stint as coach in the late 90s mostly because Indian cricket and professionalism kept an arm’s length from each other those days. When the match fixing scandal hit, he was forced to resign and his tenure is barely a blimp in the short history of the long list of Indian coaches. But with Anil Kumble, things are very different.

For someone who once refused to share space in a newsroom with a former cricketer tainted by match-fixing, that he was going to have a no-nonsense approach was a given. Someone who bowls with a broken jaw isn’t the one to nurse bruised egos. With Virat Kohli’s own work ethic being beyond reproach, it didn’t seem to be a perfect mismatch like the way it is being reported now.

Should players choose their coaches?

Should employees choose their bosses? What an ideal world that would be. Or would it?

At the risk of  flogging a dead horse, let’s recap Greg Chappell’s appointment as the Indian coach back in 2005 amid much fanfare. It was none other than his soon to be arch nemesis, Sourav Ganguly, who pushed from Chappell’s appointment. The honeymoon, if there ever was one, spiralled and snowballed into a controversy when Ganguly was made to step down as captain. Even though India won a test series in
West Indies after 35 years under Rahul Dravid’s captaincy, Chappell’s legacy will always be tied down to the tumultuous meltdown off the team in the 2007 World Cup. Accusations were bandied and Sachin Tendulkar himself spoke to the media on how he was personally hurt by the accusations of the coach on the perceived lack of commitment of some senior players.

After his fall from grace and exile from the corridors of Indian cricket, a behind the scenes Gary Kirsten worked quietly behind the scenes and his run ended with the greatest prize of all – the World Cup victory in 2011 after a 27 year drought. No one knew when Duncan Fletcher came or left and Ravi Shastri met with some success as Team Director.

There are a few uncomfortable questions here – if Virat Kohli is making such a hue and cry about not wanting Anil Kumble and supposedly prefers Ravi Shastri, why didn’t he get what he wanted last year instead of letting a year go by and then playing truant?

If a legend like Anil Kumble is treated so shabbily, why will any of the former greats try their hand at coaching?

Last year, when the board asked people to apply for the coaching position, there were 57 applicants. This year, there are 9. Looks like no one is willing to be a moth that is burned by the flame. And the 9 that have applied aren’t even enviable. If reports are to be believed, Virender Sehwag is one of the applicants. In his playing days, his cavalier approach once led to John Wright catching him by his collar and admonishing him. His playing career was surely compromised as he didn’t really put a premium on his fitness. At his peak, his was breath-taking, audacious and could change the fate of the game in matter of minutes. But can he be the coach of a national team?

In all of this, Ramachandra Guha’s resignation letter has created a storm in a teacup about the helplessness of the COA and the vested interests in Indian cricket that keep it from moving forward and making whole scale changes. He may have seemed a misfit in the ethic less world of cricket administration but the fact that he has nothing to lose must make us take some of what he is saying seriously.

Does a team need to be happy and cheerful to win?

It’s a question that has plagued many people who study motivation and though many have claimed to have found answers, reality poses a very different scenario.

If the Indian team was so unhappy, could they have had the season that they had?

 

The role of a coach at the highest level is very different from the role of a coach at the lower levels. If the only job of a coach is to create a happy dressing room, it is very difficult to measure success. If a team doesn’t perform, the coach is the first to get the boot. And going by what we have heard, the Indian team was a bunch of not so happy campers who had an outstanding home season, in spite of a ‘headmasterly’ coach.

Some thing just doesn’t add up, or we need to admit that there can never be one criteria for judging success. And that happiness and satisfaction don’t necessarily lead to victory, nor does dissatisfaction and unhappiness necessarily lead to catastrophe.

Can a bunch of unhappy people cobble together and still create something? Sure, it happens in workplaces all the time.

In 1998, the Chicago Bulls won the last of their six NBA titles. After that, one of the greatest sporting legacies broke up as there were conflicts between the coach Phil Jackson, the team and the manger Jerry Krause. Even in his hall of fame speech made a little over 10 years after he wore a Bulls jersey, Jordan spared no barbs when it came to Jerry Krause. All of which go to show that everything wasn’t hunky dory behind the scenes.

Whatever the reality, this fracas has surely altered a few things that will haunt Indian cricket in years to come.

Former cricketers of stature will surely hesitate to come forward and take up the coaching mantle. Rahul Dravid’s name has been doing the rounds as national coach for years but after seeing the treatment meted out to Kumble, he would like to keep more than an arm’s length from the job. Virat Kohli maybe a great player but the truth is there are no ‘no men’ around him. With the COA turning the Supreme Court at every step and the old guard still trying to restore old order, his say in things seem to be overwhelming. But everything that goes up must come down. He can do well if just saw how the generation that preceded him conducted themselves.

After his retirement, Anil Kumble was the president of the Karnataka State Cricket Association for 3 years before deciding not to run again. He has been very involved with Indian cricket but this will surely shake him up and make him rethink of his role and contribution to the national team.

If Indian cricket just wants Yes Men, then that’s what they will get. Sunil Gavaskar, however great he is, is an unapologetic yes man. So is Ravi Shastri, which is why the board seems to be reluctant to look beyond him. Which is why he was sure he would be appointed coach before Kumble threw a googly and pulled the carpet under him. The trio of VVS Laxman, Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly would have surely not foreseen such a twist in the plot when they appointed one of their comrades and one of the country’s most tireless warriors on the field as coach.

Anil Kumble’s engineering past was evident in his cricket. He always seemed methodical and after his playing days, didn’t seem uncomfortable with power point and making presentations. A few weeks back, he had championed an increase in the fees for players by making a presentation to the COA.

It’s a tragedy that a man of method is caught up in all this madness.

Whether Indian cricket is on the cusp of another golden age is yet to be seen. But after the match fixing imbroglio, it was a bunch of well-intentioned gentlemen who came together and made of fall in love with cricket again. Srinath, Dravid, Kumble, Tendular, Laxman, Ganguly and later Zaheer Khan and Virender Sehwag, all made us hold our heads up high again. No doubt, there was some emotion involved when they appointed Anil Kumble as coach. They were all a band of brothers who traveled the world and changed the face of Indian cricket.

Now, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly have to take a call on the future of one of their own.

For all the battles that they have fought together, like Arjuna in the Mahabharata, this is one battle that they wish they would never have had to fight.

 

 

Jumbo, and one giant leap for Indian cricket

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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.

 

 

 

 

In the shame of the game

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The story of Absalom from the Old Testament tells of forgiving the unforgivable. Absalom, the son of King David, waged war against his own father in a bid to take over the kingdom. In battle, Absalom is brutally killed by his father’s forces. On hearing of his treacherous son’s death, King David says in his anguish – ‘O Absalom, O Absalom, what have you done’? But in 2013, forgiveness and redemption are at odds with Sreesanth, Ajit Chandila and Ankeet Chavan, who tragically find themselves in Absalom’s situation.

With a lifetime of inquiries  shame, dishonor and oblivion ahead of them, the trio may run out of answers, reasons and logic, but not out of time. They have the rest of their lives to ruminate over their actions. That Sreesanth had the gumption to go on a twitter rant about the slapgate incident when he was making deals with the bookies on the side goes to show how divorced from common sense he is. While most cricketers would kill for the opportunities that were afforded to him, he seemed to be over eager to lay his talents to waste. At what juncture he chose to tread the path of no return is something we probably will never know.

In his Bradman oration, Rahul Dravid said “If we stand up for the game’s basic decencies, it will be far easier to tackle its bigger dangers – whether it is finding short cuts to easy money or being lured by the scourge of spot-fixing and contemplating any involvement with the betting industry.” The IPL seems to have downgraded itself from being a sports tournament to something that resembles a B grade movie. From the female anchors that are hired just to be good looking props to the over-the-top commentators, there is a crassness that has set into the filthy rich league. It’s like the Playboy Mansion, where everyone comes to have their fun and then goes back to the real world. Player conduct, on field altercations and drunken team owners creating a ruckus don’t make for good viewing and send out the wrong message to future cricketers – that it’s okay to throw tantrums and behave like a jackass.

The clout enjoyed by the BCCI isn’t accompanied by humility. Instead, it is used to defer the use of the umpire review system and refusing to sign the doping clause issued by the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA), citing player privacy concerns. Unhealthy autocracy won’t help the game learn from its mistakes which is the need of the hour now.

There is so much to mourn now. Three young cricketers who sold not only their services, but also their hopes, dreams and futures for a few extra bucks. Who in a moment of madness turned endless possibilities into bleak futures. Life throws at us these moments of disbelief and the only thing left to do is pick ourselves up and rediscover faith in the game we love so much. With a new generation of cricketers that are bred on glamour and have millions in their cache before they have any significant accomplishment to speak of, the task is much harder. The very people who rescued Indian cricket from dark times in the early part of the decade can play an  important role – Javagal Srinath, Anil Kumble, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly must step up to the task instead of basking under silence. Whether the players serve jail time or not, they have created prisons for themselves with no key to free them from the depths of hell they find they themselves in.

The nature of sport and sports persons is to endure and cricket will hopefully emerge stronger and wiser after this crisis.There is no force in the world can thwart human greed and lust. Fall from grace stories and tales of  rags to riches are two sides of the same coin.To the disgraced trio, all we can do is echo what King David said in his anguish – ‘What have you done, what have you done’?