This cricket team ain't big enough for the two of us

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Anil Kumble did really well during his tenure as coach, but ultimately, he proved to be one boss too many for a cricket team.

Anil Kumble was always one to raise his hand and take up responsibility, as is Virat Kohli. But perhaps there isn't enough space in a cricket town for two strong-willed leaders. | Reuters

The story dates back to well over a decade. Anil Kumble was at the peak of his powers — picking up wickets by the bucketful and exuding dignity both on and off the field. The other character in this intriguing little episode, played out at the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru, was a young batsman — all spunk and style.

So here was Kumble, watching his Karnataka mates slug it out in the nets. And here was this upstart, hammering every ball with disdain. A curious (or should we say intrigued) Kumble decided to have a bowl. First ball: six; into the stands, according to a reliable witness. “This is not your father’s ground,” was Kumble’s incensed response. The rookie, clearly ‘stumped’, got quickly ‘back on his feet’ and came up with an even cockier riposte: “Well, this is not your father’s ground either!”

This anecdote is in no way intended to paint Kumble negatively. In another life, he could well have been ‘The Last Samurai’. He no doubt possesses the eight virtues listed in the Bushido, the unwritten code of conduct followed by those noble warriors of medieval Japan. Righteousness, courage, benevolence, respect, integrity, honour, loyalty and self-control are the very attributes that one would associate Kumble with. Which is why it wasn’t entirely surprising to see him step down as coach of the Indian cricket team.

Understandably, there has been a genuine outpouring of sentiment following his resignation. Yes, in one way, you could say that Kumble was hard done by: the team’s record in these past 13 months has been nothing short of stellar. That apart, many a player publicly praised ‘Anil bhai’ for his inputs during training sessions and with respect to match strategies. And that includes Virat Kohli.

 

So, where exactly did things go wrong? How did the relationship between Kumble and Kohli — the winner (so to speak) of this battle — go from sweet to sour to bitter to unpalatable? Were they actually not on talking terms for six months? If so, what on earth were the arbiters — including senior players, the BCCI, the Committee of Administrators and the Cricket Advisory Committee — up to? How could any of them allow this cold war to continue? And at what cost? If not for the collective form and work ethic of the players and the coaching/support staff, an atmosphere where the captain and coach are at loggerheads would usually lead to disaster. Somehow, though, India won all those matches to cap off a wonderful home season.

Whatever be the case, Kumble has been shunted out of the picture now. And there’s no way but to accept that. And Kohli is the undisputed king of Indian cricket. No, we’re not talking about his runs or records, money or muse, fame or frame. Just look at how he upended a can of soup on the plates of Kumble, the BCCI officials and — most importantly — Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman — the Holy Trinity that recommended Kumble to the BCCI in the first place.

Which is, perhaps, also why we must revisit the 2016 episode where it turned out to be Ravi Shastri, the successful and popular incumbent, versus Kumble, a heavyweight who became the heavy favourite the moment his CV and application landed in the BCCI’s inbox. Kohli and several others spoke in favour of Shastri, both during and after the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup in which India didn’t put a foot wrong until they bumped into eventual champions Australia in the semifinal. Nobody — and this includes the BCCI dispensation of the time — went with Kohli’s word back then.

For starters, Shastri was appointed Director of Cricket by N. Srinivasan after India suffered a torrid time in England, losing the five-match Test series 1-3. Taking charge of the team ahead of the limited-overs leg of the tour, Shastri breathed life into the squad and his highly productive stint ended with a commendable ICC World T20 campaign. To be fair, he deserved another term but there was no way the new dispensation, headed by Anurag Thakur, would allow that to happen.

Strange are the ways of the BCCI, you see. And for those of you who didn’t know, Kumble was “urged” to apply by the powers that be. The rest, as they say, is history. Shastri, who had 18 months of good work and players’ support, was no match for Kumble, whose credentials didn’t need seconding. Let’s also not forget the brickbats Shastri and Ganguly threw at each other in the build-up to and during the interview phase. In the midst of all this, Kohli’s request that Shastri be retained was turned down by all and sundry.

 

Kumble went sooner than expected but I would like to stick my neck out and say that he wasn’t suited for the job in the first place.

Because he’s ‘boss’ material.

Well, a little over a year down the line, the chickens have come home to roost. Kohli has had his way.

In any case, cricket is not football. And we have to accept that. Just like the Fergusons and Mourinhos and Guardiolas rule that stratosphere, it’s the Lloyds, Kapils, Borders, Imrans, Waughs, Pontings, Dhonis and Clarkes — the captains — who have always called the shots in this game. We may also do ourselves a favour by recalling how Kumble and the other players of his generation got rid of Greg Chappell. Nobody’s faulting them for that. And rightly so, because the legendary Aussie was trying to do both his job and that of the captain. He aspired to become what the great English philosopher Thomas Hobbes called the Leviathan — an absolute, undivided and unlimited centre of power. The Indian dressing room was the most depressing place on earth in those days.

This is not to suggest that Kumble was trying to be like Chappell. Not at all. But he too had had good intentions for Indian cricket while his methods were, perhaps, not suited to the Indian team. And that’s why he had to leave. Kumble went sooner than expected but I would like to stick my neck out and say that he wasn’t suited for the job in the first place.

Because he’s ‘boss’ material.

And the team already had Kohli (and Dhoni, prior to that). There’s never room for two bosses. Kumble would be a perfect fit in a team without superstars of his own stature. Say, a Sri Lanka or even England. He could inspire them to World Cup glory or any other top prize on offer. And he could produce great results across formats. Why, he could even do better than, say, Rahul Dravid does with the colts. But a change room overflowing with household names didn’t augur well for Kumble or his methods.

Those pinning the blame on Kohli would do well to read the anecdote in the first paragraph, and take a hint from the words BCCI officials used, speaking off the record over the past few weeks, to describe his style of functioning: headmaster, overbearing, bossy, intimidating.

All this is to assert that, politics aside, the team is the captain’s. If and when Kohli (the batsman and captain) fails to deliver according to the standards expected of him and of Team India, you may bring out the swords. Until then, it’s imperative that we respect the fact there is only one boss in any sphere of activity. In cricket, that boss was, is and will always be the captain. To put it pithily, Indian cricket was faced with a conundrum involving two indispensable superstars; in the end, the less indispensable one had to go.

(The author has clarified post publication that Ravi Shastri's stint as India Team Director ended not with the World Cup, as the piece erroneously stated earlier, but with the 2016 World T20 tournament. The error is regretted.)

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