The decade gone by saw the coach in cricket relegated to the backroom.
Shane Warne, when asked during last year’s Indian Premier League what the coach was doing, replied: “He is driving the bus, mate.” That was a cheekier affirmation of his oft-stated belief that the coach was one who drove the players to and fro from the ground.
It looks like the words of Warne, himself an IPL coach, will prove to be prophetic. The last decade, as it drew to a close, appears to have concluded that cricket will never have football-style all-powerful coaches.
It seemed a distinct possibility in the last decade as Australia’s John Buchanan, a university professor and a mediocre first class cricketer, became the most successful coach in the history of the game, starting with a record 15 Test wins in a row. He stood for invention, be it the Chinese style army camp organised before the Aussies’ departure to England for the Ashes in 2005, a series they lost, or his prediction that players in future will be ambidextrous, bowling and batting equally well with both hands. Buchanan exceeded himself during IPL II when, as the coach of Kolkata Knight Riders, he wanted four different captains for the season, severely undermining Sourav Ganguly.
For Ganguly, of course, a run-in with the coach was familiar territory. As the all-powerful captain of India, he made the mistake of lobbying — successfully — for Greg Chappell over Tom Moody, though everyone else in the team wanted Moody. Chappell turned out to be his own man, full of strong, albeit questionable ideas, and eventually managed to oust Ganguly during a very public warfare between the two.
With that the power of the coach appears to have peaked. Another captain, England’s Kevin Pietersen, went on to lose his job after a run-in with coach Peter Moores, but Moores lost his, too. As the last decade drew to a close and this one began, captains were more or less ensconced at the helm of their teams.
Coaches since Chappell and Buchanan, who was sacked by Knight Riders after the disaster of IPL II, have been milder, happy to stay in the backroom. The biggest example is Gary Kirsten — successful (India is the world’s No 1 Test team) but quiet, stepping forward mostly when key explanations are needed and generally letting skipper M S Dhoni savour the limelight.
In a significant change in the way Australian cricket is managed, not many would remember the name of its current coach. One can argue that the Australians do not win as much as they used to under Buchanan, but many believe that Buchanan was plain lucky to be at the helm of one of the three best teams the game has seen. (The other two, Bradman’s Invincibles of the late 1940s and Clive Lloyd’s all conquering team of the early 1980s definitely did not need to be coached.)
New Zealand suffered under Andy Moles, a modest first-class batsman from England, and currently don’t have a head coach. Captain Daniel Vettori juggles all the balls of responsibility, and with reasonable success given the recent results against Pakistan. South Africa and England do have coaches — Micky Arthur and Andy Flower, respectively — but captains Smith and Strauss are in charge. Among the other major teams, the less said about West Indies and Pakistan the better — both depend on individual brilliance for success and not on organised systems.
For now, at least, the debate has been won by for those who believe that a cricket coach, unlike a football manager, is not the final authority on the game. A football manager has to worry about substitutions, the time left in the match, who should take the penalty kicks in a shootout, etc. A timely substitution can change a game, as Roger Milla did for Cameroon many years ago. The role of a cricket coach, on the other hand, ends once the ball is in play. From there on, it is up to the captain, especially when the team fields.