Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Chappel Exposed

India’s most successful and long-lasting coach John Wright revealed in his book, Indian Summers, that one of the things he did when strategizing about the upcoming tour by Steve Waugh’s Aussies early in his coaching stint was to get up on a chair when talking to his team.

The Indian players were a bit baffled, and some amused, but soon the point was driven home. To succeed against teams like Australia, or South Africa for that matter, one had to look down upon them, not look up to them.

Of course, simply looking down on them was not enough. You also had to raise your game, improve in key areas, and identify key weaknesses of the opposition to succeed.

The other point Wright emphasized in his book, and through his demeanor throughout his stint as coach, was that the buck stopped with the Indian captain. He would be around to provide insight, analysis and yes even a well-deserved kick up the back side to an errant player, but the final decision in all matters cricketing would be the Captain’s.

Unfortunately both these tenets of successful coaching have been jettisoned by Greg Chappell who was hired to succeed Wright.

Chappell’s first major act, after a couple of one-day series while he was settling into the job, was to oust Indian captain Sourav Ganguly. This was done in a manner that was both calculated and ruthless. It was also done with utmost political finesse, and with consummate skill at manipulating the media. Chappell was quick to understand the dynamics of the power structure in the BCCI as well as the workings of the cricket press in India, and used both to his advantage to get what he wanted.

Chappell’s early interactions with Ganguly probably made it clear to him that Ganguly was too much his own man to allow him to play anything more than a supporting role -- a role that he did not see himself in as the Indian coach. These encounters also convinced him that the vice-captain was a much more malleable man, and probably the one he’d be most comfortable working with. And thus, he set in motion events to remove Ganguly.

The new captain Rahul Dravid was much less hands-on than Ganguly, and even said in press statements that all he was concerned about was issues on the field of play. He indicated he was more than happy to leave a lot of things that normally fall within the purview of the captain, such as worrying about team selections, playing mind games with the opposition through media statements, etc to the coach.

Thus liberated from the normal restrictions on a coach's influence, Greg Chappell became an unofficial but de-facto leader of the team. He even made statements to the press like "West Indies have forgotten how to win" in an attempt to play mind games. That the statement back-fired spectacularly never seemed to bother him too much.

He continued to be active in articulating the team’s philosophy including an emphasis on experimentation without regard to immediate results, but supposedly with an eye on the prize of the 2007 World Cup. This mantra was parroted by the captain, and others in the team, even as the team lurched from loss to loss, including 11 in the last 13 matches.

Chappell was active in providing the Indian and international press with plenty of stories and sound bites about his "philosophy" and "vision", thus endearing him to journalists who were used to being shut out by the previous captain, and not many sound bites from the previous coach.

One obvious trend in his interactions with the press was his constant comparison of the Indian team and its supposed shortcomings to the Australian team. He is clearly in awe of the Australian setup, and probably still harbors hopes to coach them. But as any parent knows, constant negative and belittling comparison of your child with one who is a bit more successful can be confidence-shattering for the child.

The anaemic performance of the Indian team after a rosy honeymoon on subcontinental wickets and substandard opposition clearly shows that Chappell’s methods have shattered their confidence. Batsmen as fluent and positive as Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and even the less dynamic Mohammad Kaif have been reduced to confused shells of their former selves. The skipper himself has gone through a slump in his form. And the less said about newcomers such as Suresh Raina, the better.

The irony is that for all of Chappell's alleged emphasis on youth, the team has had to fall back to the old war horses Zaheer Khan, Anil Kumble and now VVS Laxman and perhaps even Sourav Ganguly to provide some fibre to a fast-disintegrating outfit.

The Indian bowlers have not fared much better, with all of the pacemen bowling much, much slower after being “coached” by Chappell’s business partner, so-called biomechanist and self-proclaimed “assistant coach” Ian Frazer. Chappell’s steadfast refusal to accept that the team might need a bowling coach, even while much more successful teams such as England and Australia use the service of one, points to the other aspect of his stint as Indian coach: its largely mercenary purpose.

It has been clear from almost day one that one of the key reasons why Chappell wanted the job of coaching the Indian team was to raise his own profile as a coach and to cash in on the huge Indian market for cricket and cricket related products and services. He first negotiated a huge pay raise from the amount the BCCI paid his predecessor Wright, then he worked out a business deal, clearly in violation of conflict of interest standards, with then Chief Selector, Kiran More, to send the children of wealthy Indian parents to Australia to attend camps run by him and Frazer for the princely sum of Rs. 1 lakh per pupil. He also was busy promoting his book on the creation of champions and flogging it to schools and corporates around the country. He has even made himself available as a speaker on management and leadership, all for a hefty fee.

As for the actual job of coaching the team, he brought in a lot of fancy and untested ideas from disparate fields, concepts such as the de Bono caps, colored balls, chair exercises, as well as commando training and boot camps, the latter of which seemed an attempt to ape Australian methods. In the meanwhile, the fundamental skills of the team have hardly improved and some aspects such as the catching have actually deteriorated.

But the best thing from the coach’s perspective is that he can do all these experiments with nobody to call him out if they don’t produce results, as the Indian captain has not only bought into his plans, but has accepted that the coach is not really responsible of the failure of the team because the coach does not go out and play matches.

Thus, Chappell has the enviable luxury of being able to take the credit for wins or improvements in the performance of individuals, which he has done loudly and unabashedly in the press, but to wash his hands of any problems faced by individuals or team defeats, as those are obviously the responsibility of the individual or will gladly be taken up by the captain.

As the Indian team has fallen to ever poorer performances in the past nine months, both overseas and at home, the gullible Indian public is finally catching on. The matter has even troubled some in the Indian parliament. And yet, the reaction from the coach to criticism from this the nation’s highest body has been predictably flippant. But finally he may have crossed a line, and now a tidal wave of discontent is rising, as the people see for themselves that the “emperor” coach has no clothes.

But it is now too late to hire a new coach, especially with the all-important World Cup 2007 looming. So what should be done now? The answer may just be to fire the coach without worrying about hiring a replacement. That would almost certainly improve the atmosphere in the dressing room and liberate the minds of the players who have been inundated by a lot of fancy-sounding balderdash which has left most of them, who are simple lads, quite confused. The job of temporary coach, which would not entail much more than just man-management and guidance, could be taken up by the current Chief of Selectors Dilip Vengsarkar. After all he has actually been part of a World Cup-winning team, something the current coach has no experience of.

If the chiefs of Indian cricket can also find a way for the previous Indian captain to return to the side, and be allowed to offer his tremendous experience and knowledge, it may help to bind the team into a happy and fighting unit, like it was for most of the time under him.

Let's Hope for the best

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