April 27, 2011

Another from the Dark Continent!

Gary Kirsten might have had the style of a standing duck, which even traumatised someone like Andy Zalzman, second in ugliness only to Shivnarine Chanderpaul's. But the bloke could play, mind you: a one-day internationals' average of close to forty-one and a test average of over forty-five, which could have been even better had he not played frequently in the bouncy and pacy decks in his country, puts the issue beyond doubt. Dogged in defence, fierce in determination, fuel-efficient with his cover-drive rather than flamboyant as left-handers generally are, Kirsten channelled his aggression through more attritional means than any apparent artistry of method. Perhaps - coincidence or not - Kirsten was the beginning of an end, at once a throwback to an earlier and darker era of civil struggle as his utter lack of extravagance - even while hitting sixes - suggested, and a vanguard of the new, competitive times, yes, with quotas in place, but only to ensure a level playing field for those who had been formerly disadvantaged. And I personally cannot forget the fact, although it irritated me then, that when world-class batsmen still struggled to play on turning wickets in India, Gary Kirsten succeeded and it was a tribute to his technique, as ungainly as it looked, and mental toughness.

No doubt, those qualities and that background served Kirsten admirably during his extremely successful tenure as the coach of the Indian cricket team, one of the more demanding jobs in the sports circuit, which ended with the World Cup triumph. As a coach, Kirsten could have hardly hoped for a better farewell. He had arrived after the abrasive Greg Chappell who had left rookies clueless, veterans hurt and the Indian team directionless. He departed being hoisted on the shoulders of one from the young Indian brigade - visibly awkward, being the quintessential worker satisfied with the intensity of the work behind the scenes - a moment as poignant as Tendulkar's holding the cup with his son and daughter by his side or a head-shorn Indian captain posing with it the next day. I have always maintained that coaches and captains are only as good as their teams. And yet, Kirsten was a name never forgotten during the post-World Cup celebrations. That probably spoke volumes about Kirsten, the man, model and mentor. It is time to thank him for what he's done to transform a bunch of aspiring cricketers, both young and really old, into World Champions. It is also time to wish him well.

The man who has been called up to replace Gary Kirsten is a former England coach, a man who like Kirsten also comes from Africa, Duncan Fletcher. The comparison must, however, end with the continent from which they hail. If Kirsten appeared to be a dressing room version of Mahindra Singh Dhoni, cool, calm and collected, Fletcher was always reported to be passionate, opinionated, sometimes controversial and in a word un-English. But the Zimbabwean had his moments. During his seven years in charge of the England team, Fletcher presided over many memorable moments, most notably the Ashes win in 2005, and some real nadirs, the lowest probably being the revenge whitewash meted out by McGrath and company to the visiting Englishmen in 2007 and yet-another-hardly-surprising early exit for England from a world cup during the same year. So, it is not like Fletcher is an unknown; he is neither new  to the ebbing and flowing fortunes of cricket and cricketers in our time nor to the task of coaching an international outfit. But coaching the Indian cricket team would in terms of the sheer magnitude of the assignment - especially now that the Indians are World Champions as well - be nothing like anything Fletcher might have encountered during his time with England. Even that sounds like an understatement. 

Michael Vaughan apparently tweeted about Fletcher's discomfiture when it comes to handling the media on hearing about his appointment as Indian coach. The classy Yorkshire right-hander is right on the mark because there are few more impossible propositions in the world than facing the Indian media. Strauss' article about what Duncan Fletcher did for England is insightful and speaks of Fletcher as a man who commands respect and is meticulous about details. Doubtless, those are excellent attributes to have as a coach. But Harsha Bhogle sounded a right note of caution about the well-known Indian obsession for track records (read "statistics"), cricket fans and administration being no exception to the norm: Kirsten had an international record to be proud of. John Wright had had a respectable international career to. Greg Chappell's status as a fine modern-day batsman, irrelevant his standing as a coach, can hardly be questioned either. Duncan Fletcher, however, has not played any test cricket and had a reasonable one-day career which was brief. Despite that background, BCCI's decision to choose Fletcher on coaching reputation alone seems both admirable and sensible, even if a little surprising. But only time will tell whether the decision will stand Indian cricket in good stead (and I refer to more than merely victory-defeat ratio by that).

Fletcher has been given a two-year contract which once again seems like a reasonable move, but will start only after the Indian tour of the West Indies. Ironically, the first international tour the new Indian coach will be part of will be the tour of England after the tour of the West Indies. Fletcher's experience in England may come in handy there. Later this year, the Indians also tour Australia and it may be the last time we see Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman bat together Downunder. With Australian cricket undergoing transition and the Indian team looking at one in a summer or two, this will be India's best chance of a test series win in Australia. Fletcher himself would know that well. But his real challenge would come, especially if his contract is renewed, when the three of the Fab Four start calling time one after another. Given that Fletcher helped England, skippered by a fiery Nasser Hussain, from the brink of disaster to Ashes glory, overseeing an "encore", in this case with the Indian team, should not be a problem, albeit the likes of Dravid, Laxman and Tendulkar are irreplaceable. Fletcher's biggest cushion would be a calm and successful captain without an ego who is going to be around for a while by the looks of it. That's always a nice thing and here's hoping Duncan Fletcher makes a good beginning for, with and in team India.

No comments: