India made a fine choice for a coach

2007-12-01 00:00

EVERY cricketing country ought to take its domestic game seriously. It is the nursing ground, the arena in which promising players are hardened for battle. Talented players are as thick on the ground as dandelions in a paddock. A thousand pretty shots can be played, a hundred probing deliveries can be sent down, but without judgment they will not amount to much. Unless local cricket is a true testing ground, sooner or later the game will falter. Every militarist knows that supply lines must be kept open.

South Africa depends upon its sources in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and so forth. Every province must be run by dedicated servants determined to produce a competitive team and also a system that works. Ultimately sport is as strong as its administration. West Indies survived for 15 years despite flaws in the backroom. Eventually the game suffered in the region. Basking in the glory, lacklustre officials ignored the need to rebuild at the top. Once the fall came, it was horrible, a tumble from the sunlit uplands to the valleys of despair.

As was inevitable, the Australian model has been examined and copied. It is not always as simple as that. Most countries have been reducing the number of teams so that every match offers a proper examination. But Australia has six teams because it has six states. Its greatest strength lies in the attitude of the players and the culture of the game, and they are difficult to replicate. Defeat is regarded as instructive. Locals responded to setbacks in the 1980s by opening an academy. Club cricket remains the cornerstone of the game. From an early age boys play alongside and against men. It is a tough breeding ground that produces hungry fighters.

So dominant have been the Australians that the main surprise of recent months has been that India managed to find a candidate worthy of appointment from another country. In the past anyone looking for a fast bowler whistled down a pit. Recently anyone seeking a coach has blown a bugle on Bondi Beach. Some of the appointments have been sound and others have been optimistic. Greg Chappell was wrong for India because he talked too much and lacked warmth. Trevor Bayliss will be hard pressed to succeed with Sri Lanka because he lacks international exposure. No matter how well he handles himself, John Dyson will fail in the Caribbean. West Indies ought to sack most of its posturing senior players and build a side around the remaining youngsters and Shiv Chanderpaul.

But India have chosen well. Gary Kirsten is a fine man and a capable coach. As a batsman, he was a scrapper for runs, an unpretentious, battle hardened practitioner who did not give an inch and asked for none. Since he was not blessed with exceptional talent, he had to think about his game and work hard at it. Along the way he took nothing for granted, not his place in the team, not his next run. In short he belonged to an honourable tradition of warrior batsmen appreciated by team-mates, respected by opponents but unlikely to fill the stands. He was a survivor. Not such a bad quality in an opening batsman.

Often players of this sort make the best coaches precisely because they had to build their techniques block by block. Hardly any of the great men in any sport succeed as coaches or as captains. Ask them how to play spin and they will shrug and recommend hitting it out of the park. In most cases they have examined their own talent but not anyone else’s. Also they tend to lose patience with less gifted players. Once they have provided an answer they expect their charges to carry it out in five minutes. They find the game simple and therefore assume it is easy.

Kirsten was right to accept the position overseas. A man at his stage of his life cannot duck a challenge or else he will be dismissed as a lightweight and the label will stick. It was the same with Geoff Lawson in Pakistan. Much to his credit, he had the courage to apply for the job in the aftermath of Bob Woolmer’s unresolved death. Sometimes a fellow must forge ahead. It is no use waiting for the perfect opening. Apart from anything else the plum jobs are hotly contested and as far as coaching is concerned these contenders have not put many runs on the board.

Kirsten inherits a strong but ageing team and a new but respected captain, Anil Kumble. His older players can hear the clock ticking and will be desperate to perform against Pakistan and afterwards in Australia. Greg Chappell’s fall from favour with players will also help, granting the newcomer popularity by comparison. It is a start, and as a former opener Kirsten will understand its worth. He has also been lucky to begin with a team that has plenty of ability and spare capacity. It is not much fun trying to make cheese with water. Moreover, none of the senior players any longer seek the captaincy and the next leader has been identified and put in charge of the one-day team where fresh ideas and legs are essential.

Kirsten has had one other stroke of fortune. India’s star players have been taking domestic cricket more seriously than previously. Rahul Dravid has just scored 200 for a Karnataka side for which Kumble took a stack of wickets. Virender Sehwag has been searching for form with Delhi. Increasing respect has been shown to the domestic game. In this regard Australia has never waivered. Now gaps in the programme have allowed the leading players to represent their states. On Sunday Ricky Ponting put on 200 with young Michael Dighton. On Wednesday the emerging Victorians had the chance to face Brett Lee and Stuart Clark.

Sometimes these fellows also appear in club cricket. Here is a part of Australian cricket worth copying.

Kirsten and company must reinforce the lines of communication in their countries, must resist the notion that the top players must be protected. Everyone serves the game.

*Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent and is based in the KZN midlands.

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