Exit, left. Anil Kumble. Enter, right. “Rumor, painted full of tongues”
In the dying minutes against Pakistan – which is to say, any time after the first three overs of the India’s chase in the Champions Trophy final this Sunday – a couple of contrasting images played out on our TV screens.
Dominating the frame, as Mohammed Amir sliced through the Indian top order, was Pakistan coach Mickey Arthur, an import who had taken the gig after resigning as coach of the Proteas following differences with Cricket South Africa.
In the Pakistan dressing room, Arthur pumped both fists in the air as Amir struck a series of lethal blows; he roared his delight as the review of Yuvraj Singh’s eventual LBW dismissal played out on the giant screen.
He turned to the throng of players and support staff surrounding him and exchanged hugs and high fives; he seemed at imminent risk of falling through the glass windows of the dressing room in his unrestrained excitement.
Just occasionally, the cameras panned to the Indian dressing room, and onto head coach Anil Kumble. “Legend” is an adjective that attaches barnacle-like to just about anyone in this era of instant heroes who are as instantly forgotten – but if anyone in contemporary Indian cricket deserves that appellation it is Kumble.
The leg-spinner who “never turned the ball” but who, through pride and through passion and an indomitable will that would never bend, ended an 18-year-career at number three on the list of all time wicket-harvesters. The man who was often the only one standing between India and defeat.
The team of today is fond of talking of “playing with aggression”, of “attitude”. Kumble was walking that talk before some of today’s heroes were out of their diapers.
Sunday evening, Kumble perched on a high chair in the Indian dressing room, desolate, lost, and so visibly, utterly alone. There was no player near him in the frame, nor was there any member of the support staff. He sat there in eloquent isolation – and noticeably, he had with him no notebook, no laptop, none of the accoutrements that are so much a part of his coaching makeup.
The aberration, on the part of a man known to be a consummate professional, was the dog that didn’t bark. And therein lies a tale.
Series of differences
Informed insiders have talked, through the course of the tournament that just ended, of a series of differences between the coach and the team. They tell of the star spinner who opted to sit out the IPL, not because his injury was debilitating or his recovery slow, but because he was doing an Achilles and sulking in his tent because he believed his franchise hadn’t given him his due.
They talk of the coach questioning how a player, who for whatever reason had abstained from limited-overs cricket for the better part of five months, could walk back into a pivotal position in a crucial tournament.
They tell of captain and coach disagreeing about whether various legends with storied pasts were batting at positions a bit too high for their current form, leaving the middle order enfeebled.
They talk of the coach’s insistence on discipline – on turning up at the right time in the right gear for practice, for team meetings, and contributing in full measure to both.
And they talk of an incident from the warm-up phase of the tournament. Kumble, insiders say, had made meticulous notes while the team was in the middle, then spent time with the video analyst to pull up relevant clips relating to how individual batsmen and bowlers had performed and what, in his opinion, could be done to improve.
He collated these clips, created extensive notes for each player, and slipped the notes and videos under their doors late that night. A couple of days later, he discovered that the notes had remained unread, the videos unwatched. And that triggered a dust-up – shortly after which word first began to spread about unrest in the dressing room.
At a June 3 press conference a day before India played Pakistan in the round-robin Group B game of the Champions Trophy, captain Virat Kohli in a press conference schooled the media on the unwisdom of spreading rumors about a rift between the coach and the team.
“There are no problems whatsoever,” said Kohli. Characterizing his relationship with the coach as “really good”, he suggested that people should not “sit at a distance and speculate” about things they know nothing about. He suggested, too, that journalists were cooking up such stories in order “to create a nice livelihood”.
Somewhat precious, Mr Kohli? You don’t need to be a fly on the Indian dressing room wall to have a good idea of what is going on; you never had to, not with Indian cricket.
Players talk. So do the support staff. So do the former players-turned-commentators, who in turn are in receipt of player and staff confidences. And so, too, do the administrators into whose ears captain and players tell tales out of school to further their own agendas.
Equally precious is the suggestion that the media was cooking up such stories to “create a nice livelihood” – there is no contract between any media house and any reporter that provides for greater pay for “cooked up” stories as opposed to genuine ones.
The need for an analytical mind
Try this simple memory test. Here is the ESPNCricinfo description of a dismissal:
Mohammad Amir to Sharma, OUT, Amir’s got him this time! Another incredible ball, slanting across Rohit at pace from over the wicket, pitching on a good length around off and bending back into the right-hander, beating the inside edge of the bat to crash into the pad. The umpire takes a while but eventually sends Rohit on his way.
To further aid memory, here is what happened next: the same bowler ran in to the India No 3, Virat Kohli. The first ball was fuller than the one that got Sharma out; it was wider of the off stump on the angle across the right-hander. Kohli, as he is prone to do early in his innings, attempted to counter by shutting the bat face and looking to work against both line and angle, and ended up getting the outer edge of the bat towards the slips.
And, no we are not talking about the final on Sunday. Which game are we talking about? This , in the Asia Cup last year.
“It really depends on individuals, how they want to prepare against certain players in the opposition,” Kohli said at a press conference on the eve of the Champions Trophy final. “I have never believed in watching too many videos of anyone. I prepare the best way I can… I believe in my abilities and I don’t take extra pressure.”
Fair enough – coaches and support staff can only lead horses to water; whether they drink or not is up to them. And yet, there is a good reason video analysis – the one tool that helps you avoid the mistakes of history – has become central to cricket coaching (or, indeed, to player preparation in any sport) these last two decades.
And any modern coach, in any sporting discipline, would be derelict in his given duty if he did not do due diligence and share his findings with the players he is tasked to mentor.
“I see the coach’s role akin to ‘holding a mirror’ to drive self-improvement in the team’s interest,” Kumble wrote in his official statement on Tuesday night – a completely unexceptional definition of a coach’s role. Notwithstanding our risible tendency to refer to sportsmen in their 20s and 30s as “boys”, these are professionals – and there is room in professional set ups for disagreement, for give and take, for an adult ability to work through differences.
Is it fair to ask, then, what are the differences so irreconcilable that prompted Kohli to resist the concerted mediation efforts of Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman and insist on the coach’s departure even before the recruitment of a replacement was complete?
Disagreements are common
Late into the night of April 2, 2011, the Indian dressing room at the Wankhede Stadium was awash in champagne as “the boys” celebrated their six-wicket win over Sri Lanka in the final of that edition of the ICC World Cup.
MS Dhoni, eminence grise of the current one-day team, senior statesman Yuvraj Singh and star-in-the-making Virat Kohli will remember this: in the thick of the celebrations, Sachin Tendulkar and a couple of others went off to find Anil Kumble, brought him into the dressing room and gave him the trophy to hold, to the accompaniment of much cheering.
It was a brilliant moment – a spontaneous acknowledgement of a truism that the achievers of today reach the lofty heights they do because they stand on the shoulders of the giants who have gone before.
Therein lies the fundamental difference between the teams of the recent past, and this one. There were disagreements then, too – within the team, and outside. Then, too, players were miffed by less than complementary news reports; then, too, players jibbed at internal discipline, and at processes sought to be instilled in them by coaches ranging from John Wright to Gary Kirsten.
But for all those differences, there was an underlying respect – the players acknowledged, freely and often, that coaches, support staff, and even the media were only doing their jobs.
Today, we have a bunch of entitled brats who will insist that anyone – a commentator who has words of praise for the opposition, or a coach who believes it is his duty to point to mistakes so they can be corrected, not merely to sing hosannas – is the enemy and should be banished from their presence forthwith, or they will not play.
The final word
Virat Kohli has earned praise – rightly – for the grace with which he accepted his team’s defeat and for the generosity with which he praised his opponents. Notable, too, is his unstinted praise of the skill of Amir, the man who more than others destroyed Kohli’s dream of making his first outing as captain in a global tournament a successful one.
Kohli has in fact been extraordinarily generous towards Amir in the past as well – as witness his going out of his way to gift Amir with a bat on the eve of the World T20 clash of March 2016, and his words of fulsome praise and encouragement on that occasion.
Contrast with the infantile pettiness of Rohit Sharma. “There is so much hype around him,” Sharma is quoted as saying. “I don’t think it is right to give him too much hype after one match. He is good but he needs to prove it over and over again.”
Indeed. Sharma might want to watch that video from the Asia Cup encounter. Or the one of the first over of the league game of this edition of the Champions’ Trophy, when he was repeatedly turned inside out and survived by the merest chance. Or the three balls he faced in the final against the same bowler.
Then again, we don’t believe in watching videos, do we?