The perennial sports conundrum – is the captain or the coach the boss?

Anindya Dutta Roar Guru

By , Anindya Dutta is a Roar Guru

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    This has all the makings of a future blockbuster that you and I will pay to watch at a multiplex in ten years’ time.

    The captain Virat Kohli speaks to the ‘Three Wise Men’ of Indian cricket (Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman, members of the Cricket Advisory Committee), individually, to convey that he and the team have serious issues with the coach, Anil Kumble.

    The timing is immaculate for the coach’s contract is almost at an end, and it is the trio who are tasked with finding or indeed re-appointing the coach.

    Someone within the BCCI (which has just been added to Roger’s Thesaurus as the best example of a ‘leaking sieve’) promptly informs his friends in the press. The captain then publicly rubbishes the fact there is a problem within the team. The team leaves for the Champions Trophy in England with the coach’s contract slated to end with the tournament, and rumours of this conflict hanging in the air.

    During the course of the tournament, the coach’s contract is extended for a few weeks to cover the tour to the West Indies that follows the tournament. The team storms into the final and then capitulates meekly to a team that plays out of their skins on the day. Two days later the team leaves for the West Indies, but without the coach, who, as the Chairman of the ICC Cricket Committee, stays back in London for a meeting and says he will join the team later.

    Not long after the team’s flight takes off, the seat belts are off and the drinks on board are being served, the coach announces on Twitter that he is resigning from his post immediately and attaches a carefully prepared statement that cites his position as untenable in the light of the captain’s views, which he claims have just been conveyed to him by the Board. This in itself is bizarre given the visibility the spat has had for the better part of three weeks or more.

    Virat Kohli runs after hitting a drive

    (AP Photo/Rui Vieira)

    A heated social media debate erupts with overwhelming support being expressed for the coach, who also happens to be one of India’s cricketing heroes from the past. Commentators, past players and columnists have a field day filling up the ether with ever stronger castigation of the captain.

    Some foreign journalists react with glee that the Indian cricket’s ‘Captain versus Coach’ conflict has now claimed one of India’s own and all within a year, rather than a poor misunderstood foreigner who once wanted to control India’s superstars but was sacked after two years for his honest efforts.

    It is still unclear what those ‘irreconcilable differences’ are. Speculation is rife about the trigger. And why, two men, Anil Kumble and Virat Kohli, both intensely competitive and intelligent human beings who wear their national pride visibly on their sleeves and want to win every time they step out on to the cricket field, would not be able to have an intelligent conversation. A conversation that would either sort out differences, or indeed if they were irreconcilable, then part ways amicably rather than subject themselves to a media and social media circus.

    As Gaurav Kalra writing in Cricinfo correctly points out: “As an unabashedly ambitious captain and batsman, it is certain Kohli has targeted overseas series wins in South Africa and England next season, and in the 2019 World Cup. How did he come to be convinced Kumble wouldn’t be an ideal ally in accomplishing those goals? We often hear that a winning team is a happy team, then why is it that after their combination delivered so much success in these last 12 months, there were rumblings of discontent? In what ways was Kumble “overbearing”? Why was the dressing room “intimidated” by his presence? In every interview he did after being appointed coach, Kumble insisted the captain was the boss of a cricket team. Did he not actually operate by that dictum?”

    These are important questions that can only be answered when Kohli is allowed to tell his side of the story.

    Be that as it may, this drama will sort itself out in the coming weeks, India (as things stand) will have a new coach, the captain, in this instance, will have prevailed, and life will go on.

    What this does however, is that it begs the eternal question in sports, in such a conflict, who should prevail – captain or coach?

    The search for this answer cannot merely be confined to cricket, for this dilemma is not unique to one team sport or another, and Kumble and Kohli are not the first to have ‘irreconcilable differences’. But it is perhaps worth spending a bit of time first looking at some cricketing experiences before we move on.

    The Greg Chappell versus Sourav Ganguly story has been done to death, the contrasting views of both actors in thing particular drama have been heard, the damning evidence of other Indian players presented post facto in their autobiographies has been registered, the notable silence of others have been noted. The guilty verdict has been passed, and the coach in question has not had another major coaching assignment in the intervening years, national or international.

    Greg Chappell will put his selection cap on after the departure of Rod Marsh (Cricket Australia TV)

    (Cricket Australia TV)

    And indeed India has not been the only country that has had a problem retaining cricket coaches. Across the line of control, it has been no mean task managing the volatile temperaments and mercurial personalities that bring forth the flashes of stunning brilliance between bouts of abysmal performances, that the Pakistan cricket team has taught us to expect. It is clearly not a team that believes in doing anything in half measures. And while conflict between captain and coach may not have been the culprit every time, coaching this team has often been a rewarding challenge and a hazard at the same time.

    Whenever Pakistan has attempted to bring in a former great as coach, as they did with Javed Miandad, or with Waqar Younis, the story has not ended well. The thinking there has emerged that given the complicated chain of command in a cricket dressing room, perhaps it should be the captain who should be the boss. Or should it be the coach? The debate there continues.

    Perhaps the most dramatic moment in Pakistan’s chequered history in this regard came at Kingston, Jamaica 10-years ago when its coach Bob Woolmer was found dead in his bathroom the morning after an embarrassing loss to minnows Ireland at the Cricket World Cup, which late Irish journalist Con Houlihan called “the biggest sporting sensation since North Korea beat Italy in the football world cup of 1966.” The loss knocked the former champions out of the World Cup.

    As James Fitzgerald writes about the reaction of this loss in Pakistan and its effect on Woolmer in his excellent investigative feature, ‘The Woolmer Files’ in The Cricket Monthly, “A mixture of despair and anger spread across the country, fuelled by a hysterical section of the media. Effigies of Woolmer were burned on the streets of Lahore – the team’s homecoming was not going to be pleasant. That night, as he contemplated an early return to Pakistan, Woolmer had a drink in the Pegasus bar before retiring to his room early, ordering room service and polishing off a bottle of Moët Chandon. It was one of two such bottles given to him by Pakistan’s non-drinker assistant coach Mushtaq Ahmed, who had been gifted them by a fan. The defeated coach sat alone in his hotel room, eating lasagne, apple pie with ice cream, and sipping champagne, wondering what to do after his inevitable and imminent sacking/resignation.”

    After 10-years of investigation, it appears that Woolmer may have been unable to manage the stress, and in a proverbial case of the straw that broke the camel’s back, died of a massive heart attack aided by the mix of the champagne and his strong diabetes medicine. A sad end to one of the best cricket coaches in the world. Fortunately, not many coaching assignments end this way.

    How does one tackle this contentious issue? Is there indeed a ‘one size fits all’ solution? It’s worth taking a look at the experiences of other sports before coming back to cricket to see how it could pan out.

    Analysts and gurus expressing their opinions on the Kohli-Kumble saga have been liberally throwing around the example of Manchester United and how Alex Ferguson dealt with David Beckham. The conclusion drawn is clearly that superstars are not indispensable, and since the coach is responsible for the greater good of the team (and the shareholders in the case of ManU), the same principle should be applied in Kohli’s case.

    Not only is the analogy ill conceived, but comparing the two is like treating apples and oranges alike, which, as they taught us in school, is clearly a bad thing.

    First, what applies to a club, cannot apply to a nation. A football club is local institution (in the case of ManU a very cleverly globally marketed local institution) with a myriad collection of multi-national talent who need to gel together as a team, and a coach has a far greater role to play in this than the captain who must execute the plan strategised by the coach, on the field.

    The captain of the Indian cricket team on the other hand carries the hopes of a nation of 1.3 billion on his shoulders and is a leader on the field and off it of players who are representing their country. The coach can guide and strategise and help the players with their game, but is rarely as central to the result of a match as a football captain is.

    Second, the captain of a football team (more so for a club team) may not be the most talented or effective player in the team but usually plays a central and leadership role in how the team operates. His match performance is judged based on the result.

    On the other hand, the performance of an Indian cricket captain, more often than not, is central to the result of the team, and any bad performance in a match is seen as a failure, regardless of the result of the match. Hence the pressure is not the same, and naturally, the importance of the role cannot be the same either in the two cases.

    Finally, both the coach and the captain of a club football team have many options to choose from if they are either sacked or resign. For the national cricket team, in this day of growing international cricket, while the coach does have that option, the captain does not. Hence the stakes for the captain are much higher.

    If, as in the case of Kohli, a man of no mean intelligence, knowing the stature of Kumble in world cricket, he has chosen to join this fight with enough maturity that his first step was to approach the ‘Three Wise Men’ with his grievances, knowing they have each played with Kumble for more than a decade, one perhaps needs to step back a bit before passing a guilty verdict before a trial is initiated.

    Staying with football, in our quest for an answer to this conundrum, what is a much more interesting and meaningful analogy is if we go back to 1992 to see what happened with Denmark as they were trying to qualify for Euro 1992.

    Richard Moller Nielsen, the Assistant Coach of a talented Denmark side, gets the top job on rebound after the team of superstars Michael and Brian Laudrup and goalkeeper Peter Shmeichel among others, fail to win matches as a team. He is a disciplined coach and wants to build the team to win consistently even at the expense of free flowing football.

    The players are unwilling and unable to adapt to his style, or indeed take him seriously from his previous stint as the assistant coach, and Denmark fails to qualify. The Laudrup brothers refuse to play under him and walk out of the team with an accompanying media blitz pillorying Moller’s coaching style. Sounds familiar so far?

    Fate intervenes however and political sanctions (including sporting) are imposed upon Yugoslavia who have qualified, and with 10-days to go for kick off, Denmark are invited back into the Euro to join perhaps the toughest group in the competition which includes Netherlands and France.

    Moller puts aside his ego and personally invites Brian Laudrup, the younger and less glamorous of the two brothers to join the team on Moller’s terms, to play for his country, but to play to the coach’s strategies. Brian accepts.

    In a desperate final group match, doggedly playing Moller’s strategic plays, Denmark beats France to reach the semi-finals, having lost to Sweden and drawn goalless with England earlier.

    At this point, the coach plays a master stroke. Moller has a one-on-one conversation with his superstar where they clear the air, and he allows Brian Laudrup to play his natural attacking game while the team follows his lead with the discipline which is now ingrained in them by Moller’s coaching. Denmark beats Marco Van Basten’s Netherlands on penalties in the semis and then playing with passion and intense will to win, the team lifts the Euro stunning World Champions Germany 2-0 in the final. (The Danish film on this story, ‘Summer of ’92’ is well worth watching)

    There is a lesson in this for any coach-captain relationship. It is the lesson of mutual respect, which doesn’t always come with the job, but is developed over time as the two slowly realise that the end game for both is the same – the success of the team. Give and take is the only way to ensure that this relationship will succeed, and once that barrier of mistrust is breached, the team performance is assured. And it always begins with not only ‘hearing’ what the other person is saying, but actually ‘listening’ to them. In the Kumble-Kohli saga, this may well have been the missing piece.

    An equally interesting study is of the ‘Mighty Magyars’, the magnificent Hungarian national team that became immortal for its many victories starting with the 1953 win over the all-conquering English team and for pioneering a fluid style of football that would be adapted and perfected as the 4-2-4 formation by Brazil a few years on. The brain behind their game was its coach Gusztav Sebes, and the genius behind the execution, its captain Ferenc Puskas, two men who could not have been more different.

    Sebes was cerebral to the point that he would detain his team for over four hours at a stretch while he detailed plays on a blackboard. He was perfectly aware that football is not played on the blackboard and players need to execute it on the field. And in Puskas, he had a captain who never doubted his judgement or told him what to do, and indeed imbibed the broad strategy the coach was espousing, but executed the coach’s strategy in his own way.

    As Les Murray, a Hungarian-born football journalist was to say about Puskas: “He was a street footballer from small childhood. He had not much time for coaching or coaches. Every time Sebes would go through this ritual of drawing all sorts of squares and diagrams on the blackboard in the dressing room before a game, he would lead the team out, and in the tunnel he would tell them to forget all that nonsense and play the way they normally played. And they would always win.”

    And if that gives the impression that there was problem between the coach and the captain, here is what Sebes himself said about Puskas: “Puskas had a brilliant sense of tactical requirements and in the ability, in a matter of seconds, to realise what was necessary to surmount a problem…..He was never a selfish player, despite his own abilities, and didn’t hesitate to lay off the ball to a better-placed colleague. He was the real leader of the team on the pitch, encouraging and driving others on.”

    This is what a coach-captain relationship should be like. Mutual respect in plenty, but the ability to let go and admire what each brings to the table. And then go out and do the job with all the passion and skill that has brought the team to the position they are in.

    When one sees Virat Kohli on the field, there is no one who can doubt his passion, his hunger to win, his commitment to the game and the pride that he takes in representing his country. Relationships don’t always work out as envisioned, or else the world would have no divorces and no need for divorce lawyers.

    And the fault is rarely entirely attributable to one party or the other. Mutual respect for abilities is not enough. Adequate two-way communication and the ability and willingness to step back and let the other play his role in this cricketing marriage is the key to success.

    Indian cricket needs to move on and people need to stop taking sides and castigating one or the other. There is no one correct answer to this dilemma. What is important is that whoever is the new coach, comes in with his eyes open that this is the second highest pressure job in world cricket. He must find a way to work well with the man who holds the highest pressure job, the Captain of the Indian cricket team. With the two working hand in hand, there is little to stop this talented Indian team from conquering every peak in world cricket.

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