June 24, 2013

Let's talk about Duncan and Mickey

It has been my contention for years that good cricket coaches, however skilled at man management and however charismatic, do not build great teams. Rather it is team performance, as Ian Chappell asserts here, which makes a coach look good or bad. One can even repudiate the other generally accepted claim that great teams often make strategically average captains look great while bad teams can make good tacticians look ordinary, because captains can still alter the game with bat or ball in hand. Coaches though neither score runs, nor take wickets, and their fates are shaped by the performances of the people taking the field. I am sure both Mickey Arthur and Duncan Fletcher know that.  

With the Indian team winning the Champions Trophy, following their comprehensive decimation of Australia 4-0 at home, the volatile Indian fan and media might finally accept Duncan Fletcher as a good coach, having raised a united call for his axing after India went down 2-1 in the home Test series versus England last year. In sharp contrast to Fletcher, Micky Arthur, who had presided over Australia's 4-0 'whitewash' of India in 2011-12 - and a not far from honourable 1-0 loss to the number one-ranked South African team at home in 2012 - finds himself ousted, allegedly for things deeper than on-field results. If things had been smooth on the field, however, it would be difficult to see Cricket Australia sacking their head coach, especially two weeks before the Ashes, regardless of certain players' off-field shenigans. My take, and it is a commonsense one, is that the ebbing and flowing of the Indian and Australian national teams' fortunes have had far more to do with the fact that these teams are in transition rather than the credentials or the capability of the men coaching - or, if you like the corporate-sounding football term, managing - them

First, consider India's showing Downunder in 2011-12 - assuming , rather preposterously, that their 4-0 Test series loss in England was an aberration caused by the injury to one Zaheer Khan - which was a non-showing, except for Virat Kohli's belated less-than-consolation hundred at Adelaide, and Zaheer Khan's incisive spells with the new ball throughout the series.  During the course of it, Laxman forgot he was playing (in) Australia for a change. Dravid found new ways of getting bowled.  Tendulkar, for all the sweet contraries his fans would sell you, did not look like getting anything substantial after his tantalising piece at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Sehwag got out more than he batted. Gambhir, except for a counterattacking 80-odd at Sydney, kept courting first, second, third slips and gully, in turns. 

A contest that was billed as the battle between India's batting masters and Australia's young battery of fast men was reduced to an Australian parade, just after the third afternoon of the Boxing Day Test .You could argue that it was Fletcher's fault that the team never played Rohit Sharma, who has been backed by Ian Chappell for years, and who could not have returned worse performances with the bat than Dravid, Laxman or Sehwag did during the series. However, to suggest that that non-decision was responsible for India's hiding is like saying that an absent star in the sky was responsible for someone's breaking up with their spouse. The point is this was a team whose batting spine had displayed clear signs of frailty and ineptitude in England; in Australia, the spine was clinically dismantled by a set of young bowlers who were mean, accurate and genuinely quick. 

If India's problem in Australia was a batting engine approaching its last miles, Australia's problem when they reached India in 2013 was a batting engine, whose parts were still getting adjusted towards working together: even Michael Clarke was not sure what his best position was in the Hussey-less, Ponting-less batting order until the third Test came around. And lo, how the Indian and media fans loved to see the Australian batsmen fail - revenge they called it, never mind M.S. Dhoni does not believe in revenge in sport - and how we tittered when the 'homework-gate' added to our fun! 

The series in India was, in almost every way, the hosts' perfect reply to the series they had played in Australia: Clarke's hundred in the first Test at Chennai was Australia's only three figure score just like Kohli's was India's lone ton in the 2011-12 Australian summer; all the big scores - including two double hundreds - were recorded by Indian batsmen here, while Clarke had plundered a double hundred followed by a triple to add to Ponting's double there; and as James Pattinson toiled alone in the Indian heat, one remembered Zaheer Khan's masterful swing bowling which came to no avail, thanks to some ordinary back-up bowling and defensive field placements from a captain who looked like he had the flight home in mind half-way into the series. Australia failed to win /draw a Test in India like India had in Australia. However, to blame Mickey Arthur for the capitulation of an Australian team without the services of two of its premier batsmen, both experienced in subcontinent conditions, any experienced  spinner and, in hindsight, fast bowlers who knew how to restrict local stroke makers on Indian patches, is grossly unfair.

Ironically, the two teams had found opposite paths to disaster: the Indians had taken too old a team to Australia - thanks to the Kris Srikkanth-led selection committee which was blind to the portents sprinkled during the England summer in 2011 - and lost badly. The Australians, compelled by retirements, had fielded a team with many fledglings an India, a formidable assignment even in this age of great hotels, dependable food and the IPL, and were served a taste of their (once) own medicine. One team suffered due to lack of succession planning; the other languished because of the lack of skill and wisdom in players who replaced Ponting and Hussey, especially in conditions so different from home. Even Shakuni, I think, would have struggled to have much impact as a coach under such circumstances.

Those in favour of great coaches may point to moments such as V.V.S Laxman's promotion in the Eden Test - the match that redefined Indian cricket for many - in which John Wright reportedly had a say. However, not often are batsmen with a Test average of under 35 promoted from number 6 to first-drop on the basis of a first-innings half century, and not often do they come off in as spectacular a fashion as Laxman did. While Wright must indeed be credited for trusting his instinct in a sport where everything is sadly becoming organised to the point of appearing pointless, it is Laxman who vindicated his coach's gamble. In essence, coaches and man-managers can appear like messiahs if their players deliver on the field. On the contrary, they can be made to look stupid and alien, as Mickey Arthur has been, even as the unsmiling Duncan enjoys an extended run with the men in blue. I wonder what Shane Warne thinks about it all. 

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