Coaching India: The Issues … Beyond the Kumble-Kohli Rift

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?

The captain is certainly the boss on the field, but should he also be allowed to decide how the coach functions? © PTI
There is no doubt that a coach’s position becomes untenable if he loses the dressing room, like it happened with Chappell, but it is also not helpful if he becomes subservient to the wishes of the captain.

Since neither Kohli nor Kumble has spoken in public, it is impossible to comprehend the exact details of their differences. Some selection issues have been spoken of. It is no secret that Kumble has championed the cause of Cheteshwar Pujara after he was benched on the tour of the West Indies, Kumble’s first series as coach, and apparently there have been differences of opinion too about the inclusion of Kuldeep Yadav in the Test team. It has also been suggested that some players haven’t taken kindly to the rigours they have been put through to prove their match readiness while returning from injury.

But speculations can create only more mistrust. Already, there is the question of timing. It is unfathomable why the matter wasn’t raised and addressed immediately after the Australia series. Even if Kumble hasn’t been the ideal coach and it was in the best interests of Indian cricket to move on, the idea of advertising the position a week before the Champions Trophy and then the news coming out that the Indian captain wasn’t enamoured with his methods has, for all purposes, reduced Kumble to a lame-duck coach. The embarrassment apart, it feels disrespectful.

It is perhaps now left to the men who appointed Kumble in the first place to inject some sanity into this difficult situation. Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman have been left with the task of making a reassessment of the decision they made a year ago, and they must do so forensically, without their judgement being clouded by the personalities involved. Kumble has been their long-time comrade, and it is understood that Kohli has spoken to a couple of them in person.

But they have only one question to ask themselves: irrespective of the results achieved during his tenure, did Kumble perform the job in the manner envisioned? They must then objectively assess Kohli’s concerns and speak to as many players as they need to. The broader issue is neither about Kohli nor Kumble, who might not even want the job now. It is about setting some markers.

Players are the most important members in a cricket team, but the future of a coach must not be hostage to personal likes and dislikes, or clash of egos. A dressing room is healthy where there is openness and honesty, and ideas are discussed and challenged in the right spirit. It’s helpful if the coach is popular with the players, but it isn’t essential.

Kumble’s future with the Indian cricket team isn’t moot anymore, but it would be a pity if he was to be a victim of the superstar syndrome. It would set a terrible precedent.

Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo. @sambitbal

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