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March 3, 2001

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Blame it on the boss

Rohit Brijnath

Somebody better ask John Wright about his ears. Are they sharp, clean, cocked, tilted, alert?

Because if they are he must have heard it. That sound, somewhere between a screeching and a sawing. A sound that occurs when a fellow on a half cycle takes a piece of metal and presses it against something that looks like grindstone in motion and sparks fly.

It's called sharpening knives and John Wright must know they're readying for him.

White man huh, come to teach us how to play cricket, huh, I can hear some of the old timers ( i.e. people who have played for India and wonder why that doesn't make them good enough to be coach) saying. What, we donít know cricket, boss, just because our English isnít so good, what.

Great result in Bombay, biddu, good work. Motivational lectures, new tactics, tough camp, and see the result: Team still canít field, bat, bowl, catch, run, think, fight. Fantastic.

Welcome to the world of coaching. If you canít produce a miracle why are you here?

You think playing sport is tough, try teaching it? Victory, failure, forget, there's only guarantee: a renewed relationship with your cardiologist. Ask Johann Cryuff..

Mats Wilander In six months ask Mats Wilander. Word is already out that heís coaching Marat Safin. Would you? Mats played like he was on Valium, Safin like he chomps dexedrine during changeovers. It gets worse. Safin says, "He thinks in Swedish, I think in Russian, and we speak in English. It's tough." Like thanks for the explanation, dude.

Coaching's fun. If you win it's because you had a great team; if you lose it's because you suck. And therefore you deserve to be stoned. When Brazilian soccer coach Tele Santana returned home after one World Cup disappointment, he was met with black flags and required police protection.

That's nothing. Sometimes even if you win, you lose. Every time one of soccer coach Nayeemuddin's teams won the league in Calcutta he got sacked. Why? He was too tough. (But isnít that why his teams won in the first place?).

It's the worst job in sport but everyone wants it. And you thought all the lunatics were in the asylum. (Unless of course youíre Paul Annacone. Pete Sampras's coach walks around with a beatific smile, saying, "I've got the best job in the world." He's got a player who's focussed, disciplined, and needs no tactical advice and thus is never given any. Heís also an exception).

Coaching is a job of singular despair, simply because you canít get on the field. Because you've sweated one year to forge a team, construct a plan, and then watch helplessly as it unravels on the pitch. At Atlanta 1996, Cedric DíSouza would suggest one penalty-corner, then watch as his team would do something quite to the contrary.

But there is also a deep, almost desperate passion for the game, that is both beautiful and agonising, a belief both tragic and shining that hope always must defeat hopelessness. When India drew the last match against Pakistan in Atlanta, and was out of the competition, I found Cedric sitting high up in the stands feeling, as he said, "deflatedĒ. What was he doing there? Studying the two other teams playing for future reference.

Coaches have to be tough, but they've got to be gentle; they've got to rock the boat, but ensure it doesnít capsize (at one point when Arthur Ashe was Davis Cup captain, he and John McEnroe did not speak to each other, but they won the Cup together eventually); theyíve got to soothe million dollar egos and then bench them if they donít perform (at the Asian Games 1998, when Nayeemuddin once benched Baichung Bhutia, the Sikkim boy started coaching the team from the sidelines till Nayeem reminded him who was in charge).

They've got to watch cassettes and shadow other teams, read up on tactical history and devise their own, be constant but inventive, steady but inspired. And they have to explain every move they make and player they drop to the team, the management, fans, critics, their local shopkeeper, and on occasion their demanding mothers, and be sure not all will be pleased at the same time.

Phil Jackson Everyone talks about Phil Jackson and his book 'Sacred Hoops'. About Zen Buddhism and Sioux lore. But the Chicago Bulls coach also had courage. In David Halberstam's glorious biography on Michael Jordan, he writes that Jackson, in his early days with the Bulls, mentioned that great basketball players were those who made players around them better. He was told to tell that to Jordan whom he did not know well; and though reluctant to face off against the great man, he did. The rest is basketball history.

India too often is history, instead of making it, because inexplicably weíve never invested in our coaches. Every day sport changes, every day we get left further behind. Athletics coaches in India are often the men who recommend drug use; the weighlifting Indian and foreign coach donít speak to each other; judokas going to the Olympics didnít know who their coach was going to be; MK Kaushik won India's first Asian Games gold in 32 years and was rewarded with such a kick in the pants that he titled his autobiography "Golden Boot"; a tennis official, posing as a coach/manager once interrupted a World Youth Cup match to ask his player what racket to buy for his son.

The need to learn, to be graded, respected, paid more. When I asked a Sports Authority of India official once why he didnít send coaches abroad to be educated in their craft, he said they did. But then stopped. Coaches, he said, were going there, having a good time and learning nothing. So much for faith.

It's a word John Wright better delete from his dictionary. The only person on bad days who has faith in him will be the reflection in the morning mirror. Ajit Wadekar, Sandeep Patil, Madan Lal, Anshuman Gaekwad, Kapil Dev will testify to that.

Forging a team, making an impact, takes years, that's a logical presumption.

No worries, Wright has time too. Like two more Test matches, before the knives come out.

I just hope he's got a strong heart.

Rohit Brijnath

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