It's time Virat Kohli's Team India gets a head coach
“The only coach a cricket team needs is the one which carries it to the ground,” – this is what Shane Warne felt about coaches.
The year was 2000. John Buchanan had taken over as Australian coach at the end of 1999. He was not a legend, he wasn’t even a Test player. He was not like Bob Simpson and Geoff Marsh, who had held this position before him. They were like mentors, guides, the ones who let you do your own thing, the ones who you go up to if you need help, the ones who you share a beer with every evening.
Buchanan was more like a manager; he liked his team to train according to his ideas. He made plans, he expected his team to follow it. If he had a fielding session lined up for the day, that’s all the players could do. No throwdowns in the net, no single wicket bowling.
Warne didn’t like that. He felt that the players were being treated like a bunch of kids being taught nursery rhymes. The fact that a man who had never had a taste of Test Cricket and pretty much sucked at all first class cricket he played was ordering him around, telling him to try bowling in a different manner, telling him to knock off his extra weight, was something that didn’t go down too well with his ego.
That cigar-smoking, beer-drinking, ball-of-the-century-bowling kind of ego.
Birth of the modern day international coach
But no matter what Warne felt about Buchanan, the latter’s methods were successful. World Cups, Champions Trophies, Test series in all parts of the world – Australia won everything during his tenure. Other teams looked at Australia with envy; they looked at what Australia had going for them.
They would replicate that and, like Australia, become world beaters. They obviously couldn’t produce the kind of world class players Australia had in such a short span of time. What they could do was get a coach like Buchanan. The headmaster kind, not the elder brother kind which the teams were so used to.
And thus was born the modern day international coach.
India followed in Australia’s footsteps as well. In 2000, they hired New Zealander John Wright as head coach. He deveploped a brilliant working relationship with captain Sourav Ganguly. He was calm, composed and relaxed, that John Wright; the best possible foil to the loud and aggressive Sourav Ganguly.
The balance reflected in the way the players played on the field, and it reflected in the way they spoke of him off it.
India’s experiments and various results
Contrary to popular perception at that time, the way a coach treated his team reflected in their performance. Wright never got the credit he deserved during his time with India; it was only when he left that people realised his value.
After he left, Indian cricket became a mess. Greg Chappell came in and ruined it to bits. He got Ganguly sacked, he got Harbhajan Singh, Virender Sehwag and Mohammed Kaif dropped, he converted Irfan Pathan from a top class swing bowler to a below average batting all rounder, he created rifts in the team.
The players were not enjoying the game anymore, and Chappell had a big hand to play in that. India crashed out in the group stage of the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies. Chappell was told to pack his bags. He had finally been fired.
He was replaced by South African Gary Kirsten, arguably the best coach that cricket has seen. He was a bit like Wright, just a lot more loved – by his support staff, by his players, by India. Under him, India won ODI series by the dozen, they won Test Matches, they became the world’s best Test team.
And most importantly, under him, India won a World Cup, 28 years after their previous one. During the emotional celebrations that followed the victory, the Indian team carried two people on their shoulders. One, for obvious reasons, was Sachin Tendulkar. The other was Kirsten. He was considered so important, he was considered so special.
If it was up to India, they would always have him in charge, they would never let him go. But he had to go. There was a young family back in South Africa to be looked after.
Kirsten was asked to suggest a replacement for himself. He took Duncan Fletcher’s name.
Fletcher was Kirsten’s mentor. He was also England’s best coach. From being second worst at Test Cricket in the world, he took them to being the second best. He won them series in South Africa, series in New Zealand, and he won them an Ashes after 25 years.
He was well respected, well liked by the English players. He got that respect, that fondness, that love from the Indians as well. What he didn’t get was that success.
Under Fletcher, India were whitewashed in England and Australia, lost series at home to England, and only won one match on their second overseas cycle, to South Africa, New Zealand, England and Australia. The Champions Trophy victory of 2013, and India’s 4-0 victory over Australia at home that year were his only proud moments as Indian coach.
The BCCI were not too fond of him. It was only due to the constant support he recieved from captain MS Dhoni and his team that Fletcher held on to his job. Things became so shaky that the BCCI appointed Ravi Shastri as team director during India’s tour to England last year. The move suggested a lack of confidence in Fletcher, and it suggested a new way of going about things.
Maybe the modern day coach was not so modern anymore.
Ravi Shastri’s stepping in and the return of the friendly coach
Shastri took charge of the Indian team in August 2014. He was in a higher position than Fletcher, and he was not your professional John Buchanan kind of coach. He was more Geoff Marsh, the beer-drinking, light-hearted elder brother – the old school kind of coach. ‘Team director’ was just a fancy term.
The combination of Shastri and Fletcher worked well. They were there together until the World Cup, where India played admirably, before being being knocked out by eventual champions Australia in the semi-finals.
Fletcher’s time was up after the World Cup. The BCCI didn’t extend his contract, they didn’t name a replacement either. It was clear that Shastri was the man they wanted, the man who would take Indian cricket forward.
India has a habit of copying Australia. That brashness, that sledging, that aggression – it all originated in Australia. They copy the methods that bring Australia success.
They copied John Buchanan in 2000. They copied Darren Lehmann in 2014; Australia had appointed him a year earlier. He was one of those old school coaches, the ones who didn’t give a damn about in depth technical analysis, the ones who were not too serious about life, the ones who treated cricket as it should be treated – like a game.
Lehmann transformed Australia from a team in a never ending downward spiral to World Champions. But he had a captain like Michael Clarke, a bit more professional, a lot more modern, to balance his often over-the-top way of coaching Australia.
India envied that transformation. They got Shastri for that very reason, to make them what Lehmann had made Australia.
Why the Kohli-Shastri duo is a flawed combination
Shastri worked well when he had Fletcher and Dhoni by his side. They maintained that balance. They were experienced, they knew how to thwart Shastri’s tendency to go overboard. They knew how to practise restraint.
Shastri gets carried away very easily. When Dhoni and Fletcher were there, they prevented it from happening. Even though Shastri was the man in charge, Dhoni would not obey everything he had to say. The man from Ranchi was experienced enough to take his own decisions, and he had Fletcher to bank on as well.
This defensive-aggressive, modern-old school way of going about things worked well for India. Much like it had for Australia.
But then, Fletcher left and Dhoni retired from Test cricket. Shastri was left completely in charge, with an inexperienced captain every bit like him. Loud-mouthed, irrational, aggressive, and certainly not a giver of damns. A dreamer, an idealist, an extremist.
Kohli and Shastri working together is not the best thing for Indian cricket. They are creating this avalanche of aggression, this new style of play that doesn’t come naturally to most of the Indian team. They are backing Rohit Sharma to the hilt, and in their quest of enabling him to score runs, they have made Cheteshwar Pujara warm the bench for four consecutive Tests and moved Ajinkya Rahane up to number three.
In this avalanche of aggression, Bhuvneshwar Kumar has been sitting out games he should be walking straight into. But he doesn’t fit into that aggressive category; Umesh Yadav and Varun Aaron do. That’s why they get games, even though they average in the 40s and 50s and concede more than four runs per over.
People are complaining, they are pointing these things out. But it doesn’t matter one bit to Shastri and Kohli. They are not givers of damns, are they?
While it is not clear whether it is Kohli or Shastri taking these decisions, it seems certain that Kohli listens to everything Shastri says and vice versa. The elder brother thing, it’s like that, their relationship.
It’s not a bad thing, this aggression. In fact, it’s the need of the hour. It’s what everyone wants. It’s what makes cricket exciting. What is harmful is the overdose of aggression. India has gone overboard with it; ever since Dhoni retired, they haven’t had that balance.
Reports coming in from BCCI sources suggest that India are likely to have separate coaches for Test and limited overs cricket. That’s actually a good thing; they can get better candidates for the position in Tests. The fact that it will be less time consuming will make the offer more attractive. People like Rahul Dravid, who didn’t apply because of the workload, may just be willing to accept a single format job.
It’s high time Shastri is withdrawn from his position in Test cricket and a replacement announced. Kohli’s aggression is what India needs right now, but what is also needed is somebody to complement that style, channel that aggression, nullify the eccentricity. They need people like Dravid to groom him. They need people like Sanjay Bangar to be given more responsibility.
They need someone to introduce a bit of rationality into Kohli’s dreamy ways; they need someone different from Kohli. They need a headmaster, not an elder brother.
This team is inexperienced, this captain is inexperienced. They need guidance, they need direction, they need discipline, they need someone who completes this team, they need someone who completes this captain.
Shastri is not that man in Test cricket, but he probably could be for ODIs. He will not complete Kohli’s team, but he may complete Dhoni’s. It’s all about that balance.