x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

From apprentice Kirsten to his master Fletcher as India's coach

Every time India appoint a foreign coach, the usual chest-beating and ritualistic debates over "us and them" follow.

Seems a bit like Groundhog Day. Every time India appoint a foreign coach, the usual chest-beating and ritualistic debates over "us and them" follow. Reason invariably takes a back seat and jingoism comes to the fore.

"Who is Duncan Fletcher?," Kapil Dev said. Err … he is the one who coached England to their first Ashes win in 18 years. He also happens to be the coach of the man who guided India to the No 1 ranking in Test cricket and the World Cup last month.

Gary Kirsten was a protege of Fletcher as a player; the Zimbabwean converted him from a player who batted at No 9 for the University of Cape Town into a highly successful opener for South Africa.

"He became one of the greatest influences on my life and career," Kirsten wrote in his autobiography.

And pray what coaching credentials do the Indian alternatives have? No disrespect to Mohinder Amarnath, he has probably been the toughest cricketer to ever play for India, but does he come with similar recommendations on his coaching CV?

Bigger legends of Indian cricket have been given the job in the past, including Kapil Dev himself and Bishen Singh Bedi, and we are all familiar with the tales of those tenures. There is a reason why the Board of Control for Cricket in India has not appointed an Indian coach since giving the job to John Wright more than a decade ago.

Wasim Akram, the Pakistan great, hit the nail on the head when he said foreign coaches are better for the teams from the subcontinent because "he is a neutral guy".

"Our homebred coaches have plenty of mood swings and preferences," Akram said. "But a foreigner will have no such things, no favourites. He just does his work, doesn't talk much with the media and remains focused on his work."

It is true that Greg Chappell, who took over as India coach after Wright and courted plenty of controversies, would definitely not fit that description. Fletcher, however, is a different person. He does not consider himself a hotshot like the Australian, who had an almost insatiable craving for attention.

Fletcher prefers to work in the background, away from the glare of the media. Unlike Chappell, Fletcher said very little in public during his eight years with England and that is what India needs: a methodical, back-room tactician, who will build on Kirsten's success.

According to Steve James, Fletcher's ghostwriter, India "only really had the apprentice. Now, with the appointment of Duncan Fletcher, they have the master". The truth of that statement will probably be known over the coming two years, but it is difficult to see India failing under his reign.

The challenges will be plenty and the pressures of expectations will be high. Culturally, India is very different to England, and he will have to be quick to adapt. Fletcher's age, 62, has also been mentioned and he will have to find ways to keep himself fresh despite the constant travels. Of course, he will have to learn a bit of the Indian languages as well.

Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, the former India captain, was once asked how difficult it is to lead the India team. His reply: "It's very easy … you just need to know 14 different languages."

An Indian coach would perhaps have had an easier time on the language front. To be fair, the domestic Indian coaching system has not done much wrong - all the stars of the past and present have come through this system, and they will continue to do so in the future.

At this level, though, the team needs a man-manager more than a coach, and Fletcher's past bears ample testimony on that front. He was intensely loyal to his players, almost to a fault if you remember the Ashes of 2006/07 in Australia.

Still, as Ravi Shastri advised, Fletcher should "have a long chat with Gary before taking charge" of the India team for their tour of England in July.

 

arizvi@thenational.ae