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Break a leg, Kumble

By Kartikeya Date

Does Anil Kumble's appointment as the top man in Indian cricket by a panel of his former teammates indicate the BCCI's desire to tackle the court's recent scrutiny and repackage itself behind a modern and homegrown mascot?

Anil Kumble has been appointed Head Coach of the BCCI’s senior men’s team by a three member cricket advisory committee comprised by Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman. Depending on your point of view, this is either a truly great decision, or just yet another addition to the incestuous web of conflicts-of-interest that animates the Indian cricketing firmament.

Kumble has been appointed by a committee constituted by three former players, two of whom captained Kumble. All three also played under Kumble’s captaincy. Kumble, Laxman, Tendulkar and Ganguly played 65 Tests together for India. Three of them picked the fourth as India’s head coach from among 21 other candidates even though Kumble did not meet the very first parameter of the criteria laid down by BCCI for a successful candidacy.

^ VVS Laxman, Sourav Ganguly, Anil Kumble and Sachin Tendulkar (in addition to Rahul Dravid) have played enough games together to have developmed a special rapport and understanding of each other. | S. Subramanium

An attempt to understand the merits of the BCCI’s choice entails two difficulties. First, it is difficult to understand how the committee chose one from 21 options. For now, let us leave aside questions about whether the committee was well-constituted. Second, it is difficult to understand what the head coach is supposed to do. Ask other head coaches, as Subash Jayaraman has in his podcast series Couch Talk, and they will all give more or less the same answer.

The head coach is an overseer and a man-manager whose job is to ensure that elite, high-performance athletes are able to play their game as best they can without worrying about day-to-day match results. The received wisdom about head coaches is that they must put in place systems and methods which ensure that good habits are cultivated. If this is done, results take care of themselves.

Cricket is changing rapidly and this makes understanding what a head coach must do even harder, even for head coaches. With big data, psychology, physiology, marketing and a few other fields directly involved in the game at the highest level, the head coach of an elite international cricket team is managing not just highly-motivated, highly-talented young players, but walking, talking incorporated business concerns.

^ Anil Kumble's deportment has always been that of a respectable gentleman. Add to that his friendship with the coach selection committee members, and he was a shoo-in for the job. | PTI

John Buchanan has discussed how new methods of measuring and assessing team and individual performances have introduced new modes of accountability for players (which has not always been well-received) and transferred power in a cricket squad towards the coaches. This shift has been resisted the world over. Once it is complete, the game will probably look nothing like it did 10 years ago.

The image of the older man in a tracksuit at net practice does not fully describe the job Kumble has been appointed for. A more realistic image is that of a man in a suit who supervises other men in tracksuits. The head coach today is more managing director than headmaster. By virtue of his record as a player and his record at the National Cricket Academy, Anil Kumble is one of the few figures in India today who is a perennially acceptable figure for the job. Every advanced sporting culture (and Indian cricket is certainly one of the world’s elite sporting cultures even if Indian sport — more generally — is not) has such figures at hand.

Instead of being seen as a significant appointment for the Indian cricket team as it transitions from the MS Dhoni era to the Virat Kohli era, this appointment ought to be seen as the BCCI’s attempt to burnish its reputation. The elaborate process of advertising the job, appointing a selection committee which, while not above criticism, is certainly above reproach, and then finally appointing an Indian coach indicates the BCCI’s desire to surmount the difficult scrutiny it has recently endured from the Supreme Court of India.

Kumble’s involvement with so many different parts of the game — from player management to coaching, cricket academies, and administration — makes palpable conflicting interests inevitable. Should India begin to lose, you can be sure that fans and reporters will pounce on these. But this type of criticism is routine. It will only mean that things are back to normal. The Supreme Court’s attention represented an existential crisis and the method of Kumble’s appointment is a nice way to show that the BCCI is listening.

^ While Anil Kumble has done intensive and extensive coaching post his playing days, he has not coached a major team. Something that should have let him down as a candidate for Team India head coach. | Special Arrangement

Usually, people who rise to this level in any sport have done the hard yards working as batting coaches or bowling coaches or as other specialist coaches on the staff of a major team. Even Zinedine Zidane, who is arguably one of the 5-6 greatest midfielders in football since World War II, trained Real Madrid’s 2nd team before being promoted to the first team job. The implicit understanding about anybody who becomes the overall boss (which is what a head coach is), is that they have experience of doing the lower jobs, and could do them better (or at least as well) than those currently doing them. This is probably why the BCCI listed the criteria that it did when it advertised the job. The first two criteria referred to prior experience and credentials. On these criteria it is clear that Kumble was not the best available choice (he fails on the first).

Still, Kumble is a figure of the establishment. He is proficient in English and he unquestionably knows not just his cricket but also the world that today’s superstar players inhabit.

^ If any Indian sportsman has a work ethic, it is Anil Kumble. He should look to impart his approach to disciplined practice to the current crop of players. | The Hindu Archives

The appointment of the head coach is one of those mysterious things through which national sporting establishments signal to the world what they stand for. The appointment of the foreign coach, starting with John Wright, was a sign that the BCCI was ready to embrace modernity and set aside the squalid regional insecurities inherent in any representative set up. It is in this light that Kumble’s appointment as well as the manner in which it came about ought to be understood. This new step signals to the world that the Indian establishment no longer requires foreign help in order to be modern.

One wonders what might have ensued had Tendulkar, Ganguly and Laxman recommended that the job be offered to someone other than their old friend “Jumbo”.


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