Sambit Bal, courtesy of ESPNcricinfo, …. June 2017
A battle that has broken in the Indian camp is likely to produce no winners. It is certain, however, to produce rumours, half-truths, intrigue and innuendoes, and those will do no credit to Indian cricket or the men involved. A breakdown of the relationship between the coach and the captain is invariably unsettling for the team, but when the names involved happen to be Anil Kumble and Virat Kohli, the reverberations are inevitably far more severe.
At best, there can only be damage control from here. But no happy pose of rehearsed bonhomie or joint press conference can completely reverse what has been unleashed: of all things, a breach of trust is the hardest to mend.
About the discontent, there is no doubt – ESPNcricinfo has the story confirmed from multiple sources – but it’s puzzling how it got to be like that. The previous coach for whom the words “headmasterly” and “intimidating” were used was Greg Chappell, and the year 2007 was among the unhappiest for the Indian team. But unlike then, there had been no indications of simmering dressing-room tensions this time. It is no secret that Kumble has championed the cause of Cheteshwar Pujara, and apparently there have been differences of opinion too about the inclusion of Kuldeep Yadav in the Test team.
On the face of it, Kohli’s grouse would seem baffling. Few Indian cricketers in recent memory have been as fiercely committed to a regimental work ethic and personal discipline than Kohli himself, and it is often suggested in jest that many of his team-mates have taken to eating Japanese cuisine following his abstinence from Indian delicacies. It would seem odd if Kumble’s insistence on discipline and fitness was a bugbear for Kohli.
Kumble is a titan of the game who represented India with a giant heart and ferocious pride, and Kohli’s passion and commitment towards dragging Indian cricket forward is unquestionable. It is reasonable to assume that there are differences in temperament and over some nuts and bolts of team and player management and the odd selection issue. Indeed, it would be a surprise if two strong-willed and high-achieving individuals agreed on every single matter.
There is no doubt that it is the captain who leads the troops to battle and the players who ultimately deliver the outcome. Because so much of the decision-making takes place on the field, the role of the coach in cricket is far more peripheral than in most other team sports. And it is inevitable in a dressing-room tussle that the coach is more dispensable than the captain. In the coming seasons, India will depend more on the might of Kohli’s bat and leadership abilities than the back-room support, however vital, of a head coach.
However, the question before the decision-makers of Indian cricket is not merely whether Kumble, whose tenure ends with the Champions Trophy, should continue. The larger question is whether the coach must rely on the sanction of the captain and senior players, and whether his survival be dependent on staying in the good books of a powerful few?