Champions Trophy: Anil Kumble’s uncertain future dominates build-up to India v Pakistan
Any time India and Pakistan clash at a global event, especially with bilateral contests having gone the way of the dodo in the past decade, the narrative is usually based around two different strands.
The first concerns the on-field contests that could shape the game. The second deals with the all-pervasive jingoism that tends to accompany these matches — what George Orwell referred to as “war minus the shooting”.
On Sunday at Edgbaston, one of the most intense rivalries in sport will embrace its next chapter.
But instead of discussing Virat Kohli against Mohammed Amir, and Azhar Ali’s chances against Bhuvneshwar Kumar, or the likely composition of a capacity crowd, so much of the pre-match talk has centred on ructions within the Indian camp, and a coach, Anil Kumble, whose tenure looks certain to end when the tournament does.
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Indian cricket needs to ask itself how things were allowed to unravel to such an extent in the days leading up to such an important event.
The last time Kohli, the captain, and Kumble shared a dressing room, in Dharamshala at the end of an enthralling Test series against Australia, the impression given was one of sweetness and light.
India had come from behind to win the series 2-1, even with an injured Kohli sitting out the final Test.
That was the perfect time to take a call on Kumble’s future, with the Board of Control for Cricket in India — or the detritus that is left of it after the Supreme Court-inspired purges — fully aware that his contract would expire in June.
Not a finger was raised during the six-week-long Indian Premier League, though, and it was only as the team journeyed to England to defend the Champions Trophy that it was announced that applications had been invited for the coaching job, with Kumble automatically part of the mix.
Given how things have deteriorated in the days since, with little attempt to scotch the rumours and innuendo, it is highly unlikely that Kumble will want to carry on.
In nearly two decades of chronicling Indian cricket, this writer has not met a straighter shooter. With Kumble, what you see and hear is almost always what you get. Behind-the-scenes machinations and intrigue are not for him.
When former Australia captain Greg Chappell, who coached India between 2005 and 2007, tried to change the dressing-room mindset, the more paranoid suggested that he was part of a conspiracy to undermine Indian cricket.
Anyone who accuses Kumble — Indian cricket’s greatest match-winner by the breadth of the Pacific Ocean — of the same would be in immediate need of a psychological evaluation.
But if Kumble has indeed lost sections of the dressing room, it says far more about those individuals than it does of his methods.
Kumble is old school, no doubt about that. Having slogged nearly two decades while others with more eye-catching skills fell by the wayside, he values discipline and commitment above all else. His steadfast support for Cheteshwar Pujara — cut from the same khaki cloth — is indicative of that.
The problem could lie in how similar captain and coach are. When it comes to his work ethic and desire to win, Kohli is the batting equivalent of Kumble the bowler.
Both have very strong philosophies on how the game should be played and the standards teammates need to maintain.
But unlike Ravi Shastri, the previous coach who enjoyed an excellent rapport with Kohli, Kumble perhaps is not far removed enough from the sport to take a more detached view.
When two strong personalities work together, it seldom ends well. The perfect sporting illustration of that was Alex Ferguson and Roy Keane, two dogs of war who dragged Manchester United to the pinnacle of European football. We know how that story ended.
In this case, though, it will be Kumble who has to walk away. How India deal with the distraction of his impending departure, especially in the marquee clash against Pakistan, could well define the next phase in their cricket history.
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Updated: June 3, 2017 04:00 AM