Simmering Coach Captain Rift


Under aggressive captaincy of Virat Kohli, who enters ground only to win, Team India dressing room requires a coach who is not laddish like Ravi Shastri but a place-holder mascot


It’s hard to be outraged at Virat Kohli’s bid to be rid of Anil Kumble if the rumors of a rift between the coach and the national team are true. It’s the business of the coach to get on with his team. Napoleonic coaches like Greg Chappell, who sees their teams as instruments of their will, ask for trouble and invariably get it. But if the friction between captain and coach is a narrower disagreement with a neutral or divided team looking on, then the Cricket Affairs Committee tasked with choosing the next coach has a problem.

There have been newspaper reports of a disagreement between captain and coach about Cheteshwar Pujara’s place in the team. On the last tour of the West Indies, when Pujara was struggling with both his form and his run rate, newspapers had reported on Kohli’s impatience with Pujara’s attritional style and his partiality to Rohit Sharma’s more flamboyant methods. In these reports, Kumble was repeatedly been cast as Pujara’s champion, encouraging him through his lean time in the West Indies (where he was dropped for the 3rd Test), and publicly rubbishing the relevance of batting run-rates to Test match cricket.

Kumble’s faith in Pujara was repaid many times over. Pujara piled up mountains of runs against New Zealand, England and Australia through India’s long domestic season and ended it ranked in the top five of the ICC’s Test rankings, ahead of his captain. If Kumble played a part in keeping him in the playing eleven against the natural inclinations of Kohli, he did what he is paid to do as coach: use his experience and understanding of the long game to protect an unfashionable but necessary player.

The other reported disagreement between the two men was over the selection of the left arm wrist spinner Kuldeep Yadav for the Test in Dharamsala against the Australians. Kohli wasn’t captaining the decider because he was injured, but he reportedly didn’t want the debutant in the team. As it happened, Yadav bowled very well and helped win the match and the series for India. If selection decisions are to be judged by the results they achieve, Kumble’s gamble worked. It’s hard to see why Kohli’s unhappiness with Yadav’s selection should be held against the coach.

But perhaps the problem isn’t this selection or that as much as a generational lack of ‘chemistry’ between Kumble and the present team. Kumble is the greatest bowler in the history of Indian cricket and a former captain. Perhaps Kohli and Co wants an enabling mentor, not a hands-on supervisor who expects to call the shots. Perhaps they need someone bloke-ish and tuned to the same swaggering pitch as the ‘Kohlibeards’. Rumors has it that Kohli wanted Ravi Shastri before Kumble got the nod. Now we hear that Virender Sehwag, nudged by the BCCI, has thrown his hat into the ring for the coach’s job. Sehwag is a great batsman whose cricketing credentials are bullet-proof and whose coaching resumé doesn’t exist: perfect, in other words, for Kohli’s purposes.

There is a case for arguing that Kohli and his team might be better off with a pliant coach willing to fall in with the captain’s grand design and the team’s preferences. Why not cast the coach as a useful auxiliary instead of building him up as a power centre that might rival the captain? You could argue that Gary Kirsten, and John Wright, his predecessor, were successful because they walked the tightrope between comrade and coach without lurching too far one way or the other.

The superstar culture, to use Ramachandra Guha’s term, isn’t confined to cricket; it affects football too, where the coach-manager has traditionally had more authority than his counterpart in cricket. In 2015, Luis Enriques seemed like a dead man walking because he had a falling out with Lionel Messi. Later, when the rift had been healed, Gerard Piquet confirmed the falling out but insisted that while Messi had great dressing-room clout, the ultimate authority, the boss in matters of selection and strategy, was Enrique. Enrique made his peace with Messi but not at the cost of his authority and the club backed him up. And Messi didn’t attempt a coup.

But there is no precise footballing analogy to the Kumble-Kohli affair because the football manager controls selection and tactics and on-field play in a way that has no parallel in cricket. A football team’s captain has titular rank but no special authority. A cricket team’s captain on the other hand is sovereign on the field of play and only defers to the authority of selection committees off it. From Pataudi to Kumble, Indian cricket sides have been identified by their captains. It was Wadekar’s team that beat the West Indies away for the first time, just as it was Kapil Dev’s side that won a series in England. Dhoni won the World Cup in 2011, not Gary Kirsten.

So the responsibility for running a harmonious dressing room rests with the coach. But Guha is right to point to a new and unattractive sense of entitlement freely expressed by recent Indian captains. Mahendra Singh Dhoni notoriously used a tweet by that well-known cricket tragic, Amitabh Bachchan, to let the BCCI’s indentured commentators know that on-air criticism was seen as lese majeste by India’s prickly champions. Harsha Bhogle lost his place on the commentary roster because even his emollient style was too edgy for Dhoni and his hypersensitive men. Kohli, if the reports are true, is after a bigger scalp.

He’s likely to get it because so long as he keeps winning Test series and big one day tournaments, Indian spectators, the eyeballs that underwrite the unreal television revenues of the BCCI, will keep watching enthusiastically. An unhappy Kumble is a minor embarrassment; a sulking Kohli would be a constitutional crisis, which is a pity because Kohli’s contretemps with Steven Smith in the penultimate Test against the Australians showed us a captain whose thrilling cricketing aggression was sometimes at risk of boiling over into tandava dancing. Calling out the opposing captain for cheating was unorthodox but defensible given that Smith was, in fact, cheating by consulting the dressing room. To then allege that this was not a momentary lapse but standard Australian practice without the video evidence to back it up was dangerously reckless.

To follow this up at the end of the series by solemnly declaring, as Kohli did, that he would never be friends with the offending Australians again amounted to the Indian captain going ‘Katti!’ live on national television. Whether it’s Kumble or someone else, we’ve seen enough of Kohli’s captaincy style to know that he needs an adult in the room. Not someone being laddish in age like Shastri, or put up to be a place-holder mascot like Sehwag, but a person substantial enough to call time on hissy fits and hubris. Come back, Gary Kirsten, there’s nothing to forgive.