Monday, July 17, 2017

India Coach: Kumble has himself to blame

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When Anil Kumble was plucked out of nowhere and inserted as coach of India's national team, he was staring at a 13 Test home season and a mildly strenuous tour of the West Indies. 

He was in charge of a team that was already the best in the world in Test cricket. He had friends in high places who had put him as coach in the first place, removing his predecessor Ravi Shastri on what can be called a technicality. In Virat Kohli, he had a captain who had in the previous year and a half showed a willingness to play for wins at all times. A captain who seemed to have developed specific ideas on how to go about doing it. 

A 5 bowler strategy; albeit which was occasionally sacrificed, banking on pace - no more just bowling in the "right areas", a premium on scoring rate; which put Cheteshwar Pujara's spot under pressure early on and lastly fitness by example. Those ideas were already bringing in the results. India's batting had a memorable tour of Australia in 2014/2015 and when India's fast bowlers joined the captain's vision, they won an away Test series in Sri Lanka for the first time in 23 years. 

All Kumble had to do was to understand this blueprint and build a rapport with the captain, his team and treat them as equals. More importantly, treat them like adults. Ravi Shastri before him, tends to do just that. He becomes one of them. This is not to say that this is an ideal strategy for a coach. For another team, for another time, Shastri may just be the wrong man for the job.

It is pretty hard to argue though that this particular Indian team with abundance and variety of skills, a professional approach to fitness led by a captain with definitive ideas on winning and early results that validated his leadership; needed anything more than a catalyst coach. A coach who would focus on removing any roadblocks with the board and help the team execute this blueprint. 

If Anil Kumble now finds himself out of a coaching job, it is quite baffling that he has botched up a very easy assignment. What really irks me about the whole Kumble episode though is that he has managed to walk away with all the sympathy and the media and ex-players have tried to paint Virat Kohli as the "spoilt brat". The people, the experts and the media seem hurt that a legend was treated unfairly. Is being a great leg spinner for your country an insurance against future job firing, without your value even so much as considered.

There are however 2 things one must credit Kumble for. 

One of that is the pitches. Ravi Shastri is a hawk when it comes to over engineered pitches. His only Test has captain and the few Tests with him as the Team director (coach) for home Tests have coincided with pitches that were minefields. There is admittedly no evidence of a coach having an influence over pitches but Ravi Shastri has wholeheartedly defended India's right to engineer minefields, claiming that "everyone else does it too". Under Kumble the pitches have been true and Kumble has a higher sense of spirit of the game than Shastri. The later is more like an Australian; willing to challenge norms if not the rules outright. 

Secondly, he seemed to have played a role in getting Chetashwar Pujara back into the team after he lost his place to what Virat Kohli claimed as an inability "to force the pace". Pujara is a valuable player at a crucial spot and his dropping may be a case of Virat Kohli being too aggressive for the sake of being aggressive. Notice how England have been struggling to win Tests without a solid number 3. 

In sum though, Anil Kumble has probably only himself to blame for his inability to forge a working relationship with Kohli and to get on board with his blueprint. This is after all Kohli's team and the choice of Kohli over Kumble in a situation where the 2 are not on talking terms, is the most logical one. It should have been made without showing Virat Kohli in bad light.

And what of the Cricket Advisory Committee (CAC)?  Their job is actually easier than Kumble's. It also comes with no apparent accountability. How do we know for sure the CAC is doing its job well and what's the consequence of not doing it well? Who is to tell Sachin Tendulkar not to show up for work and face the wrath of crazed fans and a worshiping media? 

This committee exists to advice on the selection of a coach. It is understood by most reasonable people that an advice is kind of a recommendation. On the 2 instances they were tasked with the mundane job of finding a coach; a job most boards and the BCCI themselves carry out without much fanfare; the CAC have raised eyebrows. 

The CAC consists of Sachin Tendulkar, Saurav Ganguly and VVS Laxman. Very important people and big names all. Just because a job is carried out by important people doesn't make the job itself any more important than what it originally is. It was to simply recommend a coach. 

Instead, the first time around they offered the job to Anil Kumble who had not applied for it; removing Shastri because he chose to interview via Skype and the second time around they seemed reluctant to give Virat Kohli, the coach he wanted and when they did offer it to Shastri, they  seemed to sneak in 2 more of their classmates as batting and bowling coaches. 

Leaving their on field exploits from their playing days, aside the CAC have not shown the maturity, the ability to rise above personal friendships, remain on the sidelines and do what's right for Virat Kohli and Team India. There is no bigger conflict of interest in cricket today than the CAC recommending their classmates for important jobs in the day to day functioning of the cricket team. The committee, if needed at all, needs to be more diverse and educated on the basics of cricket administration. Right now its just runs and 100s heavy. 

That leaves Virat Kohli and his role in this episode. So far he has played it with a straight bat, like his new coach would have liked and managed to stay above the immaturity shown by his seniors in using the glory of their playing days to garner sympathy and writing letters leaked to the press playing the victim.

In my books Virat Kohli comes out of this episode the clear winner by simply staying out of it and knowing how to get what he wants to execute his strategy to win Test matches for India.