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Beware of An Own Goal!

Chilling out after an early supper, I went back to my favorite pastime of checking out Twitter and the trending  topics therein. It was hardly surprising that India’s cricketing ignominy was the talk of the town. Generally the  feeling was one of angst though a few happy souls did manage to see the funny side of things.

Studiously avoiding the expert comments, I went after the comic ones. One commented that Pakistani cricketers at  least took money to lose while our guys were doing it for free! Another felt that captain Dhoni was working hard  to capture the ‘spirit of cricket’ award while an irate fan thought only Mahatma Gandhi could help India now!

A few LOLs later, I switched on the television to catch the last rites of the match. The first thing that I observed was the sheer defeatism in our team’s body language. It was almost as if they wanted to give up their crown because the collective heads on which it rested was uneasy. Maybe, Team India does need the services of  Gandhiji to overturn this British Raj!

Gotta Go There Now!

Before going into the team’s current predicament, let’s hark back briefly to the time when a first-time coach had taken on, what is often described as the most difficult job in the world of cricket. The man came with noting more than a chequered history of playing for a team that was reinventing itself. As a batsman he was good, but not the greatest and none knew of his strategic ability as he had never captained any team in senior grade cricket.

However, when Gary Kirsten took over as coach of the Indian team in December 2007, even his staunchest supporter wouldn’t have given the South African a semblance of a chance, given the diverse social, cultural and age profile of the group that had ignominously
exited the 2007 World Cup. But, what followed in the next four years was nothing short of a miracle!

Under his stewardship, India moved up from number five to the top spot in the Test rankings after winning eight series. They also won six of their seven bilateral ODI series in a steady rise that culminated in the World Cup win earlier this year. Time and again, the team came back from the dead to win. Impossible was Nothing!

So, what differentiated coach Gary from say coach Chappell or coach Wright? I recall reading an article about how ‘Guru’ Gary got the job. During his interview with the BCCI mandarins, Gary actually asked what expected of him. “Win the World Cup and be the Top Test nation” was the response to which Kirsten set the course for his journey. (Read his interview).

The one thing that favored Kirsten was his willingness to experiment. He was lucky that so were his wards. Each had a personal goal. The senior players were keen on a ‘Last Hurrah’ while the younger ones wanted to prove that the T-20 triumph in 2007 was no fluke. The youthful exuberance combined well with the strategic experience.

Kirsten used this combination to telling effect. He never told the seniors what to do because there’s no way he could teach Sachin the art of cover-driving or Dravid the technique of leaving the ball. He also refrained from advising the youth because he liked their unbridled passion. “Ten years later (after realizing his potential as a coach), I realise you still can’t give specific advice. It’s a matter of weighing things and reaching a decision for yourself,” Kirsten says.

When Kirsten bade adieu as he had achieved the goals set out for him. Team India too felt a sense of Deja Vu. They had achieved all that there was to achieve. What followed was not a sense of complacency but a feeling of ennui – a listlessness that generally follows a period of heady excitement or activity.

Into this scenario came Duncan Fletcher, the man credited with turning around an English team from no-hoppers to fierce competitors. The immediate problem he may have faced was the lack of clear goals, both from his employer and for his wards. The youth brigade was on a high while the older ones were contemplating a ride into the sunset, having laid several of their ghosts to rest.

Age old wisdom tells us that it is far easier to get to the top than staying there. And the BCCI probably forgot to set this as the goal for Fletcher, especially since his last successful job too involved turning around a team and not sustaining the turnaround. He had to inculcate the need for tempering exuberance and replace it with some consistency. Before he could grasp the new demands, India’s cricket calendar took over.

A test series in the West Indies wasn’t thought of highly by some who preferred to stay back and those who made the trip didn’t contemplate inflicting crushing defeats. The intensity that was saved for bigger battles sadly got lost. Someone forgot to mention that like electricity, intensity too cannot be stored for later use! And, players had to be coached to do things differently to sustain the intensity within and collectively as a team.

What happened here is not an aberration… it is a natural corollary to success. When Roger Federer feel off the pedestal in 2008, tennis legend Martina Navratilova had described it as the result of ‘coasting’. “I thought he needed a coach last year. When you don’t have a coach you just coast. You cannot improve. You improve a little, but everyone else improves a lot,” she said (read article).

This is where India is at present. They’re coasting and their coach is probably allowing them to. Whether India loses its top ranking or not, coach Fletcher will soon have to sit down his wards and help them fix themselves. As Martina says, “You can’t fix yourself. You can only do so much fixing yourself because you can’t see yourself.”

Our mentor Krishna Kumar says the same in a rather more catchy way. “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there,” he had said, quoting the Cheshire Cat of Alice in Wonderland (read article here). It’s time Fletcher turned into one and set meaningful goals before embarking on a coaching expedition.

Else, we may score an own goal!!!

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