It’s worth taking a look at the events that may have led to one of India’s finest cricketing minds calling it quits.
There is a joke doing the rounds in Indian cricket at the moment: apparently there is only one person in India who Virat Kohli cannot have removed, and that is Narendra Modi. Indian cricket has always afforded its stars a special status, usually reserved for film actors, politicians, heads of state and the like. But, as George Orwell put it so succinctly in Animal Farm, all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others. No cricketer in India has ever enjoyed the carte blanche that Kohli insists is his right.
Being captain of the Indian cricket team does come with some privileges, of course. After all, when the team loses or is going through a bad patch, it is the captain who cops the most flak. Therefore it makes sense for the captain to have the final say in many cricketing matters, because the buck does stop with him.
However, Kohli’s understanding of these privileges is a touch different than others. The warning signs should have been obvious when Kohli ensured that Harsha Bhogle, a commentator with experience and pedigree, well-respected around the world, was removed. The reasons for Bhogle’s ouster from television screens was never quite made public, but it essentially came down to Kohli’s belief that the commentator was talking more about pitches than India’s performances in the home series against South Africa. Now, in Bhogle’s defence, the pitches served up in that series were rank turners, and commentating for the world feed rather than an India-only audience, it was an obvious talking point. However, the fact that Kohli thought it was entirely reasonable to have Bhogle removed — and we are talking about wrecking a person’s livelihood here — was a dangerous sign.
Bhogle was only the appetiser. The main course came a day after India had been beaten by a magnificent Pakistan team in the final of the ICC Champions Trophy in England. Anil Kumble, who had coached the team to victory in every single Test assignment they had in his time in charge, and helped India get to the final of a global tournament, simply had to go. The manner in which this happened was beyond appalling. A man who has been one of India’s greatest match winners had delivered pretty much all the results that could have been asked of him. And yet, a campaign of Chinese whispers conducted through the media, by the Board of Control for Cricket in India and others, ended with Kumble being told, officially, for the first time, that Kohli had a problem with his methods — a day after the Champions Trophy final.
Former Indian cricket team head coach, Anil Kumble, during a press conference in Bangalore, India, 29 June 2016
Indian cricket team head coach Anil Kumble smiles during a press conference in Bangalore, India, 29 June 2016. India will be touring the West Indies to play four test cricket matches in July under newly appointed former Indian cricketer Anil Kumble. EPA/JAGADEESH NV
Kumble, who was meant to travel to the West Indies with the Indian team, instead quit, putting out a statement that did not hide behind personal reasons and suchlike. “I am honoured by the confidence reposed in my by the CAC, in asking me to continue as Head Coach. The credit for the achievements of the last one year goes to the captain, the entire team, coaching and support staff,” Kumble said in his statement. “Post this intimation, I was informed for the first time yesterday by the BCCI that the Captain had reservations with my ‘style’ and about my continuing as the Head Coach. I was surprised, since I had always respected the role boundaries between Captain and Coach. Though the BCCI attempted to resolve the misunderstandings between the Captain and me, it was apparent that the partnership was untenable, and I therefore believe it is best for me to move on.”
Kumble further explained his reasons for stepping down. “Professionalism, discipline, commitment, honesty, complementary skills and diverse views are the key traits I bring to the table. These need to be valued for the partnership to be effective. I see the Coach’s role akin to ‘holding a mirror’ to drive selfimprovement in the team’s interest,” said Kumble. “In light of these ‘reservations’, I believe it is best I hand over this responsibility to whomever the CAC and BCCI deem fit.”
The manner in which Kumble handled what can only be called a humiliation, something he certainly did not deserve or invite upon himself, was in stark contrast with the way the BCCI and even the players handled the situation. The official release from the BCCI (littered with errors) began thus: “The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) confirms that Mr Anil Kumble has withdrawn his services as the post of the Head Coach for the Senior India Men’s team.” Since then, several players have been active on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms, but not one has come out either in support of Kumble, or thanked him for the work he put in towards their success.
Kohli’s silence is the most disingenuous. There were multiple opportunities for him to be honest and take a stand, during the Champions Trophy, where he addressed at least 12 press conferences. At first, Kohli said there was absolutely no issue between him and Kumble. “There are no issues whatsoever,” Kohli said on on June 3. “See, there has been a lot of speculation, and a lot of things being written by people without actually being a part of the changing room, which is very strange. There are no problems whatsoever. The team is totally focused on the Champions Trophy.”
When asked pointedly about Kumble, and his contribution, Kohli obfuscated, saying that the journey of the Indian team in the past year had been a memorable one. Not once did the captain acknowledge the coach’s role. “In any walk of life there are agreements and disagreements always. If you don’t have knowledge of something, unless I am there myself in a particular situation and I am aware of what is happening, I will not pass any comment. I will not pass any judgment,” said Kohli. “I think in India there is a lack of patience. People speculate from a distance. They apply their own idea. And when that thing does not happen nobody admits his mistake. That is why I do not focus on these issues. If you write something you should take the ownership that I was wrong. These are normal things. Even at home you do not agree on everything with your family. The people who speculate should also think do you agree on everything in every situation. It is not possible. All I can say is if you do not have the knowledge about something, do not spread rumours, do not speculate and focus on the cricket.”
Clearly it was not a lack of knowledge or speculation that fed the reports of a rift between captain and coach. And, given that he then demanded an apology for some of those reports, or at the very least an admission of error, he should now step up to the plate and apologise for completely misguiding the Indian public (even lying to them), in an official press conference in his capacity as captain of the team.
While it was Kohli’s hand that signed the warrant, the BCCI is far from blameless in this process. A senior BCCI functionary told me that there was nothing unexpected about Kumble’s resignation. “At least 10-11 players had a problem with Kumble. The problem is that he is not a good listener,” said the functionary. When it was put to him that I had interacted with players, on the record and otherwise, and that none had expressed the concerns he stated, the reaction was unusual. “This is a problem that has been around for a long time. Kumble should have stepped down as soon as the process for picking the coach began. He re-applied, even when he did not need to, and many of us in the BCCI thought it was a dirty trick. Clearly it backfired.” That Board officials should feed the media these lines about a cricketer who represented the country with distinction, and then did a solid job as coach, shows how ugly the campaign against Kumble really was.
Till the time of going to print, however, there have been no specific complaints about exactly what the problem was. Apparently, Kumble was overbearing and demanded such exotic things as punctuality. If the players felt too much was being asked of them, and wanted a more pliable coach, this is exactly where the BCCI (or the Committee of Administrators, or the Cricket Advisory Committee) should have put their foot down. Inmates don’t get to choose their warden, after all.
With a complete leadership vacuum in the BCCI, it seems that Kohli has become more powerful than any Indian captain in history. He should be warned that wielding this power carefully would be to the benefit of all concerned. Abhinav Bindra, one of India’s most successful sportspersons, put it in perspective in a Twitter post – “My biggest teacher was coach Uwe. I hated him! But stuck with him for 20 years.He always told me things I did not want to hear.#justsaying,” Apparently, the wisdom of doing what is good for you, rather than what is most convenient, is not something Kohli subscribes to. Bindra may have extended this courtesy to Uwe Riesterer, and reaped the benefits, but Kohli would rather get on with life without the benefit of Kumble’s experience and knowledge.
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