Sandeep Patil, the chief selector of the Indian cricket team, was once national coach of Kenya. He worked wonders, taking the African nation to the semi-finals of the 2003 World Cup. Chances are, Kenya picked him for his cricketing acumen – he has played 29 Tests and 45 one-dayers – and not his knowledge of Swahili, the country’s other major language apart from English.
The Board of Control for Cricket in India is looking for a coach for the national team and, in a clear indication that they prefer having an Indian at the helm, the sixth statement of the nine-point eligibility criteria for the position says, “Communication skills befitting the coach of an international team are mandatory along with the ability to effectively convey the right messages and must demonstrate proficiency in English. It is desirable to communicate in Hindi and other regional Indian languages.” This solitary sentence in the job description is probably enough to put off the best foreign coaches, who will now be reluctant to even apply.
While there’s nothing wrong in having a coach who can speak both English and Hindi, this deliberate slant is rather absurd, impractical and, possibly, language-chauvinistic. Before Ravi Shastri’s recent stint as team director, India's last Indian coach was Kapil Dev, around the time of the match-fixing saga in 2000.
Since then, India has had a string of foreign coaches, including the famously successful John Wright and Gary Kirsten. Wright, the affable New Zealander, partnered with Sourav Ganguly for half a decade and managed India during one of its most successful cricketing eras. Then, Kirsten, a widely respected former South African player, combined with MS Dhoni and took India to new heights in Tests and ODIs, including a World Cup triumph.
One of the fuzziest – and less celebrated – stories of the Indian Premier League this year was Mustafizur Rahman’s stint with the Sunrisers Hyderabad. Here’s a Bangladeshi cricketer who can’t speak English or Hindi, playing under David Warner, an Australian, in a team where almost nobody could speak Bangla, for a franchisee based in a city where the predominant language is Telugu.
Hyderabad coach Tom Moody said in an interview that communication with Rahman got easier as the tournament progressed. "Not that our Bengali has got any better, but his English has probably got a little bit better. Also cricket is a pretty universal language," he said.
Moreover, most of the players in the Indian team – the captain and vice-captain for sure – are reasonably conversant in English. Those who aren’t will only benefit by honing their English while they work on skills with the bat and ball.
Take for instance Harbhajan Singh, who struggled at press conferences in his early years, but today is fluent in English and fits in extremely well in the Mumbai Indians franchisee, a team that has one Australian (Ricky Pointing) and one South African (Jonty Rhodes) coach in its ranks, besides English, Trinidadian, Jamaican, Sri Lankan and New Zealand players in the squad.
Just what the doctor ordered?
Given that the Indian team includes members from various states, and the fact that the BCCI has just announced a plan to popularise the sport in the North East, finding even an Indian coach who speaks so many languages is going to be near-impossible.
Of course, this Indian language obsession by the BCCI could spawn a new industry: teaching foreign cricket coaches – remember, there are quite a few in the IPL – Hindi. The first person to sign up could be Daniel Vettori, who has reportedly been recommended for the job by none other than Virat Kohli. But that’s exactly where this gets interesting.
At the expense of sounding deeply cynical, this whole process of advertising for the coach’s post and including this bizarre criterion in the job description seems like a ruse to get one of the BCCI’s ever-compliant all-weather friends the job. Maybe the decision has already been taken. Maybe, as Shastri’s vastly original commentary line goes: that’s just what the doctor ordered.
Depends on who the doctor is. Whether this is a relevant quality for the head coach of the Indian cricket team to possess is open to question.