Column | Cricketing logic should prevail in picking Team India head coach

Gautam Gambhir
Gambhir is currently serving as the mentor of KKR in IPL 2024. File photo: IANS/Bibhash Lodh

Rahul Dravid has gone on record that he will not be applying for the post of the Indian cricket team. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) had advertised for candidates for this post and the new coach is set to take over from Dravid on July 1. Thus, the ongoing International Cricket Council (ICC) T20 World Cup will be the last assignment of Dravid in his capacity as the head coach of the national side. 

The impending exit of Dravid has prompted plenty of chatter as to who will be his successor. There are aspirants aplenty as this is  the top assignment of this nature in the world, bringing not only plenty of attention from the media but also providing an opportunity to be part of the team building process of the most popular sport in the country. The coach is also invited to attend meetings of the national selection committee though he does not have the right to vote. The job also brings with it an attractive package, with the remuneration running into crores of rupees. According to unconfirmed reports, Dravid was paid Rs 12 crore per annum by the BCCI, while Ravi Shastri, the previous incumbent, was reportedly earning Rs 9.5 crore every year.

The concept of a coach, who occupies a high profile position, is a relatively new development in cricket. In fast moving sports like football and basketball, coaches, who direct the proceedings from the sidelines, have been in existence for almost as long as the game itself. However, in cricket, the focus was always on the captain, who is charge of the proceedings when the side is bowling. He decides the field placements besides changes in bowling and generally controls the happenings on the field. When the side is batting, he is the final authority regarding the batting order and brings about changes in it as he deems fit. He is held responsible for the fortunes of the side and there have been many an instance when skippers not only lost their jobs but even ended up in the doghouse on account of poor performances of their sides. 

The increasing popularity of limited overs cricket, which is undoubtedly faster paced than the conventional five-day game brought many structural changes in the game. Though many sides experimented with hiring services of former players to mentor the sides, it was during the mid 199’s that cricket administrations stared thinking in terms of hiring full time coaches for the national sides. South Africa and Sri Lanka were the prime movers in this regard, with Bob Woolmer and Dan Whatmore being appointed as coaches for the above two teams.  This move yielded immediate results with Sri Lanka winning in the 1996 ICC World Cup while South Africa  established themselves as one of the top sides in international cricket in both versions of the game. More importantly, professional coaches started making their appearance in first-class  cricket, especially in England. 

Dravid, who played for Kent as professional during the 2000 cricket season was impressed by the positive impact that John Wright, then coaching this county, brought on the side. It was Dravid who suggested to Sourav Ganguly, the captain of the national side, that India should also think in terms of appointing a professional coach. Since Ganguly had the ear of Jagmohan Dalmiya, then BCCI supremo, this proposal could be pushed through fast. And, incidentally it was Wright who was appointed by the BCCI as the first ever professional coach of the national side towards last months of 2000.

John Wright
John Wright was India's first professional coach. File photo: AFP/Brendon O'Hagan

The story of professional coaches of national side from Wright to Dravid have been told and retold too many times for it to be repeated again. It will suffice to say that Gary Kirsten and Wright were eminently successful, with the former being in charge when India won the World Cup in 2011. Greg Chappell and Anil Kumble had to leave the job midway through as they could not get along with the players. Duncan Fletcher had a colourless term while Shastri and Dravid did well in this job, though without bringing home any major trophy. Though Dravid has one final chance to guide the team to a global title.

The failure of Chappell and Kumble brings us the lesson that the success or failure of a coach depends on how well he gets along with the captain and the players. Both Chappell and Kumble were players of great stature and reputed to be thinkers and shrewd analysts of the game. They had led their national sides with elan and were respected across the cricketing world. Moreover, they took on the job with great fanfare, kindling huge hopes among the followers of the game. But both of them could not get along with the players and had to leave under a  cloud. 

Sourav Ganguly and Greg Chappell did not see eye to eye. File photo: AFP/Manan Vatsyayana

Chappell was entrusted with the job based on the recommendation of Ganguly but the two soon fell out, with the latter losing his place in the side. The side had a miserable outing in 2007 World Cup, after which he was given the boot, with senior players, including Sachin Tendulkar, feeling that the coach was a divisive force. Kumble, on the other hand, was seen as abrasive and highhanded, which earned him the displeasure of players with the result that Kohli put his foot down and ensured that he did not get an extension beyond one year.

The moral of the story is that though the coach may be a supremo in other cricket playing nations, his position in the pecking order is definitely below that of the captain in India. The members of the national squad are superstars in their own right and know very well that the crowds flock to the ground to see them in action. They have massive following in the social media and are financially secure as well, all of which make them feel like demigods and warrant careful handling. Even a person like Shastri, who had his own fan base during his playing days and carved out a niche for himself as a commentator subsequently, chose to play second fiddle to Kohli, when he took on the task of catching the side. 

The primary job of a coach in cricket is to assist the captain in laying down the strategy to be adopted by the side during the game. He should also get along well with the players, support staff and administration to create an ecosystem wherein each player is able to play to his full potential and also blossom as an individual. Coaches are also required to attend to individual players going through temporary loss of form or suffering from minor ailments and injuries and help them get back to peak shape and prowess. In a vast country like India, where players come from diverse backgrounds, believe in different faiths and communicate using multiple languages, the challenges involved multiply exponentially.  

Rohit & Dravid
Rohit Sharma and Rahul Dravid have a good rapport. File photo: AFP/Punit Paranjpe

It is as yet not clear as to who will take over from Dravid. According to media reports, Gautam Gambhir, Stephen Fleming and Mahela Jayawardene are the front-runners in the race. All of them come with credentials of being successful, besides having coached sides in the Indian Premier League (IPL). Speculations are rife that Gambhir might get the job with many former players endorsing his abilities and coming out openly in his support.

Gambhir was a member of the sides that won the T20 World Cup in 2007 and the ODI World Cup in 2011. He earned his name as a doughty left-handed opening batsman, who adjusted to the needs go both white- ball and red-ball cricket with ease. He was successful in reining in his attacking instincts to the needs of the longer duration version of the game, where he could stonewall effectively for hours. The tally of more than 10,000 runs in international cricket stands as testimony to his technique, temperament and ability to perform on the big stage. He also led Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) to two title triumphs in the IPL. 

After his playing days, Gambhir moved to the commentary box initially. But he stepped out of the cool climes of the commentary box to the heat and dust of political arena in 2019, when he contested and won the East Delhi Parliamentary seat as a candidate of The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). However, he returned to cricket in 2022, when he took up the role of mentor of IPL side Lucknow Super Giants (LSG) before joining KKR in the same role in 2024.

However, over the years, Gambhir also developed a reputation for having a very short fuse. He is not averse to picking up spats, both on and off the field. This was seen during IPL 2013 when he famously took on Kohli in an incident on the field, that did not cover either of them with glory. He had a further spat with Kohli in 2023 with both of them exchanging angry words after a match between Royal Challengers Bengaluru (RCB) and LSG in front of television cameras. 

One hopes the BCCI thinks long and hard about this trait of Gambhir while considering him for the post. A player or even a captain can afford to show his aggression on the field, but a coach, who sits in the dressing room or the dugout and has a “balcony view” of the developments, is expected to maintain his calm and composure. He should not react to provocations, however, grave they might be, and should project the image of sagacity and serenity. A coach who picks up quarrels or joins in a spat will only worsen matters, rather then being part of a solution.

Finally, the BCCI should ensure that selection to this post is based solely on merit and nothing else. Cricket and politics do not make strange bedfellows in India, where administrators with political background have equipped themselves very well. However, responsible positions in connection with national team should not be handed out based on political connections of an aspirant nor as quid pro quo for actions outside cricketing arena. The onus is on the BCCI to ensure that the process involved in selection of coach of the national side is clean, transparent and the final decision is arrived based solely on cricketing logic.

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a retired bureaucrat)

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