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April 4, 2000


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Mentor magic

Harsha Bhogle

Many years ago, when Bob Simpson had started making a big impact with his Australian team, and when the methods of Micky Stewart with England were being questioned, there was a debate on whether cricket would go the football way; on whether there would be an overpowering authority that would decide how a team played.

It brought out the power of the status-quo brigade. These were the traditionalists, the “if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it” school of theorists and to be honest, there was some merit in what they were saying. For years, cricket had thrown up outstanding talents, there were some great captains in charge of their teams and the game had evolved at a fairly comfortable speed. Television’s made-to-order Packer Series had been one of the very rare instances where somebody had picked the game by its ears and turned it around.

Ironically, I think it is television that has brought some success to those that foresaw a greater role for the coach. Television not only brought more spectators into the system (and for even the most resolute, the fear of being watched all the time is a very real one), it brought in a hitherto unknown species. Suddenly, advertisers were all around, cricketers were getting rich and the ability to handle affluence became almost as important as the ability to face different bowlers or to adapt to foreign climates and cuisines.

Now, it wouldn’t have mattered much if it was hardened men at work; men who had taken a few knocks and knew their way around life. The media was closing in on young men of impressionable ages; it was glorifying their success but it was also flaunting their failures. Cricketers increasingly didn’t have time to overcome their early failures in anonymity, they were failing in full view and that can lead to a fierce assault on the mind.

And so coaches who were traditionally good, even gruff, game-doctors needed to be very good mind-doctors as well. They needed a touch of the feminine; they needed to be gentle and understanding and encouraging in what had been a boy’s rough and tumble world. It would have been impossible for the captain alone to do it all.

Nobody in the nineties did it better than Dav Whatmore who had a team of passionate and complicated Sri Lankans to work with. He had to impose an alien work ethic on young men brought up in a deeply traditional society. He was strong and yet, he was subtle and under him, Sri Lanka showed the great power of bonding. Shy introverts like Jayasuriya and Muralitharan became match-winners. Their later experiments with stars as coaches failed because while Duleep Mendis and Roy Dias were wonderful cricketers and proud Sri Lankans, the role of the coach had expanded so greatly that they found themselves touched by inadequacy.

South Africa were confronted by a similar situation when they had to choose between one of their legends, Mike Procter, and a younger, less gifted cricketer in Bob Woolmer. Ali Bacher picked Woolmer and it couldn’t have been an easy decision to let go of his one-time match winner and the man who had been part of South Africa’s dream return to world cricket. But Bacher knew that in the modern game, the coach who would gain greater respect would be the one who understood the insecurities of ordinary cricketers and gave them the tools to succeed.

Procter was the fiery, charismatic superstar, Woolmer the understated academic. Bacher made the right choice and in doing so probably provided us a little glimpse of the kind of captain he must have been; an average cricketer leading one of the most talented set of players the game has ever seen.

Woolmer did not have the talent at his disposal that, among his contemporaries, Simpson and later Geoff Marsh did; or indeed, whoever Pakistan fancied at that moment as their coach. His success lay in creating systems that made cricketers over-perform. He made them a very shrewd, tactically smart team. Under him, South Africa were more boa-constrictors than vipers. He was proof that man-management and tactical acumen counted for more than a place in the record books.

Woolmer was the torch-bearer but there are several examples in other countries as well of cricketers whose performances showed stunning transformations once they were made to feel secure. It was a point that came vividly home as I watched Chris Cairns play some fantastic cricket against a very high-quality Australian attack. In the early nineties, Cairns was an outside bet to be one of the stars of the decade. But the fertile land bore no more than a few buds till he came to India in late 1995 and played some sensational cricket. Surely, this had to be the making of Cairns but before the tour had ended, he had become embroiled in a tussle with his coach Glenn Turner, a respected cricketer but a man of very strong views. Soon after the World Cup of 1996, he left his team midway through a tour of the West Indies and chose to play county cricket instead.

The story of his return to international cricket, and his emergence as one of the top two all-rounders in the game today, is fascinating for it tells us why the battle needs to be won in the mind. During the World Cup, Martin Crowe wrote a beautiful, sensitive piece for one of the official souvenirs. Cairns had a troubled childhood loving both parents in a separated family. A step brother and a sister were killed in tragic accidents and, Crowe says “ is not surprising that there was some enigmatic behaviour… . Chris entered the development phase of his career at age 22, having to learn to behave under a coach (Geoff Howarth) who had no idea either……Nearly everyone suffered. In his own words there were times when he was indeed a boofhead. He was at this time cruelly exposed, rudderless.”

He drifted along in the brief Turner era as well. Crowe respected Turner’s analytical knowledge of the game but felt his ability to communicate with players was abysmal. “Turner believed that doing as you were told wasn’t the important thing in cricket. It was the only thing. He outlawed anyone with opinion….Cairns was the first to react against this dictatorial regime..and it was extremely difficult to stomach being led by a puppet (Lee Germon). The basic appeal of the unique game of cricket, the opportunity to star individually in a team environment was gone…”

Crowe thinks a more sensitive coach would have made Cairns “New Zealand’s prime real estate”. But “the gap in his mentoring has been a lack of consideration, a failure to encourage, to motivate him. No one has really listened to him,.. (tried) to draw out his demons and to purify his own faith in himself. Oh, what a great player he might already be if Bob Woolmer had been around six years ago.”

Call him what you will, a mentor, a father figure, but the role of the coach is increasingly critical in the development of young cricketers and, as a consequence, in the performance of the team. It makes you wonder though if that is where a couple of wonderfully talented young Indian players lost out. For all of Ajit Wadekar’s care, would Vinod Kambli have made more runs if he had been better understood? And surely Subroto Banerjee would have taken a a lot of wickets for India if someone had injected more ambition into him. Does Nayan Mongia’s troubled mind need to be soothed a little better? Is there a story behind why Srinath bowls like the best in the world in one spell and just loses himself a couple of hours later?

It is a very difficult combination for one man to possess; the ability to straighten out a bowler’s action in one session, to hunt for flaws in a batsman’s technique and to be the benevolent patriarch of the joint family that a touring team must be.

That is why there are very few such men around.

Harsha Bhogle

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