The Fallacy of A National Cricket Coach

The Fallacy of A National Cricket Coach

Synopsis

Ramiz Raja has managed to reduce the role of the coach even as he struggles to eliminate it.

The Fallacy of A National Cricket Coach
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What is the common denominator among the successful, domineering, skilled and celebratory teams of Australia 1946-48 & 1972-76, England 1950-1959, West Indies 1960-66 & 1976-86, South Africa 1965-70, Pakistan 1976-1979 & 1982-88, India 1983-86?

Answer: They had no national team coach.

In these teams played such legends as Don Bradman, Lindsay Hassett, Len Hutton, Fred Truman, Garry Sobers, Lance Gibbs, Graeme Pollock, Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee, Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards, Michael Holding, Imran Khan, Javed Miandad, Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev.

Most of them led these sides and have gone down in history as perspicacious planners, brilliant strategists, shrewd tacticians, honers of talent and inspiring leaders both on and off the field, in and off-seasons, with time on their hands or on spur of the moment.

Yes, some of these and almost all who played for their country before the advent of respective national coaches, had admittedly been coached, formally or informally, at school, university, club levels. Master Aziz who coached the Mohammad brothers and Abdur Rabb who was the coach and mentor at Atchison for Burki and Khan cricket clan come to mind.

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Other than that, these cricketers had been given tips in passing or guided or mentored by a senior or retired player, even while they were playing internationals. When out of form or failing, they would work on their technique in the nets or play domestic matches or have a talk among themselves and sort it out. At most, they would visit those who had coached them in their younger years and get a few tips. Or seek advice from past greats.

Like Azharuddin did from Zaheer Abbas at the start of his first tour of Pakistan in 1989. Azhar had been getting out early over the past few months. Looking at him practice, Zaheer asked Azhar to change his batting grip slightly, something that led almost immediately to bigger knocks, especially in England next summer.

Some 27 years later, Azharuddin saw Younus Khan struggling on the tour of England in 2016. He called him up and told him to play the ball closer to his body and more from the crease. Younus took his advice and scored a double hundred in the fourth and final Test at The Oval, acknowledging publicly in the post-match ceremony how Azhar’s guidance helped him in achieving the milestone.

Neither Zaheer nor Azhar had at the time nor since coached formally, nor done any certification. That’s just how it worked then and ever since the 1870s when countries first started playing against each other. It was always the captain who was the strategist, tactician and decision-maker, at times even the disciplinarian. At most he would be helped by senior players for cricket matters and of course, the manager for ensuring everyone remained in line with agreed policy.

As such the introduction of a formal cricket coach is said by some great minds in cricket to have complicated matters more than simplifying them. And I believe the reason more contemporary or recently retired cricketers either remain silent or disagree with them is that they themselves want a piece of what has become an attractive second career.

As recently as last Sunday, former Australia captain and now a famous commentator Ian Chappell, wondering what all the fuss is about Justin Langer’s leaving, came out saying it is the captain and players who win or lose matches, not the coach. He believes there shouldn’t be a coach at all, just a manager.

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In fact, I’m quite certain the first cricketer to publicly say cricket is not suited to having a coach at a national level was Imran Khan. I clearly remember him saying this while doing commentary at one of the Sharjah games in the late 1990s when Wasim Akram was captaining Pakistan and Javed Miandad was the coach. He was persistent in claiming that the game of cricket is different from all other sports that have coaches even at the international level because it is the only team sport where decisions have to be taken on the field almost every minute.

There is weight in Imran’s assertion. In a game of cricket, the captain on the field has to be in total command as he is constantly strategizing through field placements and bowling changes as well as changing gears mid over.  Every partnership or incoming batter brings on a new challenge for him. He is the man the other 10 players look toward for any instructions or guidance. Or just for inspiration especially in worrying times for the team.

In other team sports like football or hockey, the coach is actually the one planning and strategizing before and during the game, in which he can substitute players as well. He remains the sole decision-maker. In some sports, the coach is also the sole selector with of course a coaching and fitness team under him. In cricket, by contrast, there is a panel of selectors even for home squads. The coach and captain are advisors, at most influencers. For a captain imagine having to then negotiate with the coach which ten players he wants to go within the game from within that squad.

Since cricket is a unique team sport in which there are multifaceted decisions to make in quick time, having two decision-makers also causes ambiguity over who makes the final call on each decision. And considering that coaches are now hanging out code numbers from the balcony during play, it has become even more befuddling.

When there is a big loss or the team looks in disarray – as happened in the just concluded Ashes with England – no one can figure out whether it is the fault of the coach(es) or captain. In the end, both head coach Chris Silverwood and batting coach Graham Thorpe were sacked. Joe Root would have gone too if there was another captaincy option within the team. Or if he hadn’t scored almost 1200 runs more than the next English batter in 2021.

It has happened several times in fact when the coach has been enforcing his thinking and philosophy on team selection, yet the captain has had to depart when results went south. The best example closest to home was when Sarfaraz Ahmed was shown the door when Mickey Arthur had reportedly leaned on him over the years to get his way with the selection of the final eleven and the tactics. It is believed that simply assenting in good faith left Sarfaraz exposed on the field where it all played out.

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Conversely, it was Misbah who paid the price when Pakistan could not deliver on results or a positive team culture under the captaincy of Babar Azam. In short, the axe falls on which of the duo is comparatively less high profile and at that point indispensable. In Pakistan, it depends on who enjoys greater backing from the Patron or Chairman/CEO or any outside influencer.

Ramiz Raja, a dedicated subscriber to Imran Khan’s belief that the captain is the king, has managed to reduce the role of the coach even as he struggles to eliminate it. I manifestly believe that if he were to have his way, there wouldn’t be even a selection panel, let alone a coach; the captain would be the singularly most powerful man. I remember in an interview while talking of Imran as a leader, he said (figuratively of course), that when Imran was captain they didn’t even know who the selectors were. It was Ramiz who was quite candid and open in wanting Babar Azam to be the sole decision-maker in picking the final eleven for every game.

While such confluence of power is neither recommended nor likely, it does highlight what the cricketers who played in the days before the full-time national coach thinks of this role in modern-day cricket. Ramiz is not wrong in postulating that coaches would be more effective if limited to academies, or high-performance centres as they are now branded to carry more impact. That is where they work on areas of improvement of the players; where there is no urgency and where the players’ mind is not on the next day where he has to go out and perform on the international stage. On tour, it’s a lot like being tutored during an exam than in the weeks before it.

Possibly the best form that a national cricket coach can take while travelling with the team is to just simply be there if some player wants to talk about whatever is troubling him. He should be one of the advisors of the captain whenever asked. If unsolicited at most a gentle, friendly, well-meaning prompt when it is absolutely necessary. A mentor to the young, a shoulder to the seniors.

For that to happen, it is imperative that either the personality of the coach is less ostentatious and more accommodative or that he has been such an inspiring figure in whatever he has achieved. Most importantly, he must effuse positivity even if covertly. A recent example has been Saqlain Mushtaq, recently renewed for a year as Pakistan coach. Though he is in many ways similar to his immediate predecessor Misbah ul Haq, he espouses more cheerfulness. And is apparently less frequent in the ear of Babar Azam.

Saqlain has quietly worked on the nuances of optimism and self-belief among the Pakistani cricketers. Though the match still has to be won on the field where the coach has no physical presence, the mental strength he imbues also has an impact. Not bringing religion into it entirely, Saqlain has nevertheless gently accentuated the philosophy of the mind’s dominance over all things physical. Small acts like planting of the flag during practice sessions have invoked the spirit of patriotism, even nationalism; the players seem more aware of their purpose.

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Back at the Gaddafi Stadium, Ramiz has been talking of short term objectives and strategy in selecting coaches. Horses for courses to use the cliché. Pick the assistant coach for the business at hand so to say. Bringing in former Australian speedster Shaun Tait as a bowling coach is one such move.

Being part of the highly successful Australian side from 2005-2011 and playing BBL till 2017, he knows better than anyone else the Australian psyche as well as the weaknesses of Australian batters and bowlers. That experience will be most useful considering Australia play Pakistan in a series of red and white ball games next month and the next ICC T20 World Cup is on Australian pitches later this year.

Further specific is the appointment of Mohammad Yousuf for the coming home games. In his days displaying a batting masterclass, especially on Asian pitches, as well as being technically strong, he will be a good guide in executing short-term strategy against the Australian bowlers.

While batting coach at the National High-Performance Centre, Yousuf has been instrumental in making Faheem Ashraf more focussed and brought about some minor improvements in his batting technique. Faheem is now an impactful batter in Test matches. You can’t change techniques during a full-blown series but you can make the batter calmer and make them aware of what the Australian bowlers are aiming at.

So yeah, no three-year terms. For now, it’s like taking a six-month certification course in managing cryptocurrency rather than a four-year MBA with Banking as a major. Short stories on a theme rather than a 650-page opus. After all, it’s the time of two-Test series, flying in and out over a 15-day stretch rather than the traditionally longer four-month tours encompassing several side games as well.

Whatever the staffing strategy, the job description nevertheless needs to be finalized if teams still want to go with having a national coach. And here the debate continues as to how interfering should the coach be and how much power he should wield when it comes to the final selection of the playing eleven or deciding what to do at the toss. More importantly, who should open the bowling and who should bat at which position.

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Coming back to what Ian Chappell has said last week. He has suggested that instead of the coach, there should be a full-time manager. What he pertains to of course is the position that has always been there when he toured as player or captain and is occupied even today. The manager then would handle everything except on-field strategy. In fact, he would often be a co-opted member of the tour selection committee which would comprise of captain, vice-captain and one senior player. The manager would even have a casting vote in some cases.

Having said that, ever since Mushtaq Mohammad became Pakistan’s captain in late 1976, the role of even the manager downgraded. Till then, skippers like Intikhab Alam and Hanif Mohammad would be ambivalent and allow for the manager’s weight to fall on their decision-making, especially if it was a former cricketer. But even someone like Omar Kureshi, who did not play for Pakistan even though he played club cricket in England, would have enough influence to suggest Majid Khan step up to open the innings on the 1974 tour. That move led to him having the most lucrative run-scoring years in his entire career.

Coming back to Mushtaq and then Asif Iqbal, that role became purely pedestrian. And absolutely listless under Imran Khan. No wonder it went so often to Intikhab Alam, the most laissez-faire of them all, who would not dare to interfere or step in if any player was being unfairly treated or not given a fair chance. Having said that Inti’s soft-spoken nature was an effective counterfoil to the hardnosed captaincy of both Imran and Miandad, and later Wasim Akram. He would be a good listener and sometimes that alone would alleviate tension in the squad even if he was always seen as having no influence.

The title of coach would often be attributed to him on tours but it was just that; a title. Knocking over a few balls in the air for catching practice was what his coaching stretched to. He can point to him being the manager on most of Pakistan’s successes at home and abroad, like in the 1992 World Cup. But in all fairness, it was Imran who made all the decisions that led to Pakistan becoming champions.

So is having only a manager on tour enough if he doesn’t enjoy the powers that can counter any totalitarianism by the captain? Can he challenge the captain on any decision that reeks clearly of nepotism or bias that is affecting the team adversely? Or coming in the way of the team winning?

In the end, it’s about the mutual respect between the captain and head coach. Not just for each other but for the position each enjoys. In the modern world, it is imperative to have support staff for key aspects of the game and functions like data analysis, fitness, media management and logistics.

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Just like any corporate environment, there will be politics and self-preservation in each role. This is because functions that were once seen as notional and honorary are now seen as professional, with monetary benefits and perks. These occupations are therefore here to stay. They can nevertheless be under the manager.

Ian Chappell and Imran Khan may well be right in their contention that cricket doesn’t need a coach at the top level. But Ramiz may just have stumbled on the right mix.

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