Monday, December 11, 2006

A tale of two coaches.......

Cricket Coaches, especially the ones who coach international cricket teams have become targets for accountability hawks (accountability is usually defined for these purposes as - "if the team doesn't win, then the coach is held accountable, all team management decisions become coach's decisions, all problems result from problems between the coach, the captain, the "senior players" and the selectors, with the coach being the villain of the piece). The role of international cricket team coach has been questioned by several commentators, most notably by Ian Chappell, who thinks a coach's involvement should be minimal. Today we have a situation, where two of the most difficult coaching jobs in the cricket world have just become even more unsavoury, because the teams in question have been losing.

Greg Chappell has presided over what must now be seen as more than just a troubling slump in form - 18-6 over his first 25 games as ODI team coach (with Rahul Dravid at the help), and 3-12 in his last 16! Duncan Fletcher goes into the biggest series in recent English history, with all of England anticipating Ashes success, and finds his side down 2-0, with a very real possibility that England will go into the marquee Test matches (Melbourne and Sydney), with the Ashes already lost, and with the more familiar goal of not falling to an Ashes whitewash). Both Chappell and Fletcher have faced criticism thanks to their alleged biases against certain players. Chappell is seen in parts of India as having been vindictive against Sourav Ganguly (never mind that Ganguly's record in the last 4 years of his career was very poor), while Fletcher is seen to prefer the diligent prose of Giles over the classical poetry of Panesar. "Experimentation and flexible batting line ups, all overdone" in the case of Chappell, translates to "questionable selection and poor preparation" in the case of Fletcher.

A calmer, purely cricket based investigation (minus subtexts driven by and riddled with common press frailties), reveals simpler a simpler explanation - class. Eleven players make up a cricket team, and there is general agreement about the distinct skills and gifts that
these 11 players must offer, to make up a good team. It follows then, that the quality of each player, is what defines the quality of the team. In sport, there is another characteristic - form. The form of each player, reveals how much above or below par the team performs. Bench strength or depth, further explains how much longevity there will be to the success. These three factors - class, form and bench strength, in that order, are far more central to the results achieved by a cricket team, than the singular influence of a cricket coach. What a coach and a captain can do at best, is to ensure that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

The simple truth of the matter is, that in Indias case, success in 2005-06 was down to the performance of 3 players - Irfan Pathan, Mahendra Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh, who offered something over and above what was generally contributed by players in their positions to the national side. Add to this a well above par effort with the bat from Rahul Dravid, and you have the makings of an 18-6 record. During the 3-12 phase, Irfan, Dhoni and Rahul Dravid went off the boil, while Yuvraj Singh got injured. The rest of the side, continued their par effort - Tendulkar made his sporadic appearances, and played well on occasion, Sehwag continued his usual hit or miss performances, Kaif was steady, the bowling actually did better than it usually does, Harbhajan remained world class, and the fielding in general was pretty good. The fringe places - in the case of the current India side 1 batsman and 1 bowler, performed as well as fringe places can be expected to. The winning edge was lost, because the match-winners went off the boil. This is where class comes in. World class match winners do not stay off the boil for too long, and the availability of relentless class at each position, ensures that when some match winners do occasionally go off the boil, others come along and take their place. The same argument extends to bench strength - which in Indias case is light to begin with.

In Englands case, more than anything they have done, it has been down to what they have been faced with - relentless, unyielding class, playing in home conditions with something to prove. Steve Harmison's form and Panesar's absence has not helped, but i doubt whether it would have made a telling difference. It is interesting to compare this series with the 2005 series. Australia lost the second test in 2005 by about 2 runs (it may have been 3), after a tremendous fight back. They won the second test in 2006-07, after a tremendous fight back. You can argue endlessly about how Vaughan's tactical understanding was superior to Flintoff's and how the English bowling and fielding in 2005 was superior to that in 2006-07, but the fact of the matter is very simple, and Duncan Fletcher knows it - England have to be at their absolute best, and have to have everything go right for them in order to beat Australia by a whisker (2005 Ashes in England, won 2-1, the victories coming by 2 runs and 3 wickets, the defeat by 7 wickets), while Australia at their very best, with everything going their way, are good enough to hammer anybody, let along England, 5-0.

There is no substitute of quality - a coach can not manufacture it, and therefore a coach can not be realistically assigned all the blame. Both Chappell and Fletcher have taken selection decisions (assuming that they had a hand in team selection decisions), which are well supported by statistics and performances of the players available to them. And this is the key - they can only choose from the players that are available to them. Formers cricketers must necessarily be opinionated, cricket journalists must look for stories, and cricket fans must demand victory at all costs. In the end however, reality wins out. Completely brand new realities are created only rarely, and even these are often traceable, if you look carefully enough.

In most cases, the winners play well enough to win. They don't however always end up being enduringly successful cricket teams. Just to put Chappell's efforts in perspective, the Ganguly-Wright era, which we look back at today with so much nostalgia, saw India achieve a 45-60 record against non-minnow ODI opposition. The Chappell-Dravid era, still has India with a 50% record against non-minnow opposition. Fletcher's England side is still the most successful English test team since the second world war.
Chappell and Fletcher remain easy targets, and indeed, it is their job to be targets. That is part of the responsibility of the exalted Gandalfian role of "coach". They can not however manufacture cricket teams.

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