Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Book Review: John Wright's Indian Summers - II

Continued from First Part

Indian cricket was very interesting during John Wright's tenure. More interesting than it had ever been in the past (or will be in the future). It was a joy to watch a good team. I enjoyed watching Sachin Tendulkar bat during the 90s. I didn't know I was seeing him at his peak and he would never be the same again. I truly enjoyed how one man stood a cut above the rest of the team. However, that was clearly an attraction towards the skill and artistry displayed by one man. I had scant regard or respect for the 10 idiots who surrounded him. And if Sachin got a 100, I mostly did not care if India won or not. Sometimes, such choices are a result of there being 'no other choice'. In the first half of this decade, Saurav Ganguly and John Wright put together a team that can be reasonably assessed as the best Indian team ever. For a brief moment in history, we had a team that could do anything. Even show signs of winning a series in Australia. That moment has gone and may never come back again. That is why I was so curious about this book. What made the team tick. Who was responsible? I truly wanted to find out.

Was he genuine? John Wright would probably go down as the best Indian coach ever. The current circus surrounding coach selection reinforces this belief further. There was a good reason for Wright's success. He saw Indian cricket from a perspective that the people surrounding him took for granted. He saw the Indian cricket fan. Paid attention to the fan. Acknowledged their presence and expectations. A little more than the fan deserved, in my opinion. To me the unique aspect about this book (where a chapter is dedicated to this) and Wright's tenure was his constant focus on (a) repeating that he was honored to coach India, which had such a passionate fan base (b) doing 'whats best for the team'. Immediately after appointment, when Wright said that he was truly honored to coach India, no one but Ian Chappell asked him the blunt question - 'Why?'. That's because Ian and the rest of the world aren't the same. The rest of the world, with a reasonable bit of cynicism, thought Wright was either doing 'lip service' or was behaving like a foreign tourist. I never wanted to know why a New Zealander, would be 'honored' to coach India. But the book made me curious. Wright spends one big chapter on it just say 'because that's the kind of person I am'. Also one thing clearly comes out. Everybody involved with Indian cricket had/have their own agenda, which did not always translate to 'whats best for the team' - even if this book is Wright's own perspective, there is enough evidence in it to convince the reader that Wright always kept asking this question to himself and others. A question that was uncomfortable to the selectors, Dalmia, sometimes even Saurav, ex-players, and most certainly Sunil Gavaskar.

Was he Tough? Wright says Javagal Srinath is the heart beat of the team. Clearly holds Srinath in high regard. Mentions how Srinath had been ill-treated by Kapil Dev and how the set-up had robbed Srinath of two good years and valuable coaching. Srinath was the first to get 'fired' by Wright in his time as coach - "Srinath was what they called a senior, most senior in fact, and it was his misfortune that I decided to start at the top, with someone I knew who could take it". Wright recollects several instances where he tells - Harbajan to stay out of the dressing room, a senior player that he should be dropped to which the reply he gets is "tell it to the selectors". His last chapter which is more of a philosophical discussion on several issues puts all this 'toughness' issue into perspective "it annoyed me when pundits questioned whether Dravid was aggressive or tough enough to lead, as if perfect manners off the field reflected the qualities he brought to the contest. Toughness is on the inside; its what you are made of, not what you display; Anyone can walk with a swagger or turn their collar up"

The ex-players This is an interesting aspect of the book. Most ex-players were on the Indian-flag bandwagon, claiming that an Indian coach could do what a foreign coach can. At that time, I strongly believed this was untrue. After reading the book, I don't feel the need to change my mind. Ravi Shastri is the only ex-player who comes across as professional and sincere in Wright's book. And Wright writes a book, which has nothing bad about Dalmia. Every player had his own agenda, which annoyed not just the coach but the team as well. Sunil Gavaskar comes out as the most conniving, scheming selfish person in the circuit. John Wright's take on his 'Batting Consultant' positions runs like this; On the logic of his appointment "I'd asked for some help for our young bowlers; I ended up getting a consultant for our experienced batsman.". On Sunny's manners - "I known Sunny for years didn't care that he cracked jokes with the team in Hindi". On how it affected the team - "I was far from happy. As a head coach, I should have final say on support staff issues and not had personnel thrust on me; the more people in the room the more shoulders to cry on, the more chance of mixed messages, and more potential for players to go off in different directions." "if a player talked to me he'd feel obliged to talk to sunny, and vice versa. On the captain - "But if the captain decides to bring someone into the camp two days out from a test against the best team in the world, there is not a hell lot you can do about it". I had undying admiration for Sunny as a player. But off-late I feel he'd sacrifice Indian cricket to win a few of his schemes. Anushuman Gaekwad, Sidhu, et all come across as Dalmia lackeys. After India beat Pakistan in the World Cup, the players named beer cans after ex-players and stamped the cans to their hearts content. One does not need to say anymore.

Heady Success: One thing that is surprising is the lack of education the players get on success. More importantly, the 'getting to the head' part of success. The whole book is about players 'getting the airs' after a few successes. Wright tries to quote examples of 'one hit wonder' rock bands to motivate Irfan Pathan. He builds the setting to explain this to the reader. He talks about the different scenarios and backgrounds from which Indian players come from. And the remuneration they get as a result of success. He explains how the players are unable to handle it. In his words, the current mess of the Indian team is a result of the 'high' they experienced during the Australia and Pakistan tours. Wright is adamant that a feeling of being indispensable is what led to neglected fitness regimes and casual attitude. This is the reason why he wanted a say in selection. He wanted to drop a few players for their attitude. He wanted to use selection as a way to teach lessons on attitude. Many times when he threatened to drop players, he'd be mocked on the face because the player was well represented in the committee. Wright claims to have a list of people in the team who weren't fighters. I suspect the list would have Sehwag, Zaheer Khan, Yuvraj singh and Ganguly for sure. Although Wright takes great care not to reveal those names.

To conclude, Wright comes across as a sincere and dedicated person, who ignored the cliche and believed he could change things. This book is the only window into those four years. Since Ganguly and Sachin aren't eloquent enough to write their own books (really write it - not have some one write it for them), I suspect we will have to wait for Dravid's or Laxman's version whenever it comes out. In my mind, the success is attributable to the fluke combination of having the right players (Ganguly, Sachin, Dravid, Laxman, Srinath, Kumble), the right coach, the right captain, the right administrators and the right circumstances. Basically a bunch of people who thought and did good things that resulted in more 'whats best for the team' activities than ever before. This combination is unlikely to get repeated easily. The selection circus, which Wright tried hard to change is unlikely to change. It is interesting to note that the only selection anomaly he mentioned in his summary was when he mentioned Sadagopan Ramesh's exclusion as unfortunate. Sometimes it takes guts to do the obvious. It seems like a big process. Take Sachin's opening slot for instance - It is a coach like Wright who'd ask the right people like Srinath or Kumble on what they felt was going wrong in the 2003 World Cup. When their answer was "the best batsman in the team should bat wherever he wants", we need a coach like Wright who'd spend hours trying to ignore Sachin's lip-service "I'll bat anywhere the team wants me to" and get to the heart of what he really wants.

There is a self-awareness and attention to detail about Wright that sometimes leads him to the mind-numbingly obvious. But he is acutely aware of the 'real' help a coach, especially himself, is doing for the team. He is candid in questioning the efficacy of a coach in a cricketing set-up. Ian Chappell disapproves of 'a coach'. Sometimes he is just the cone man. Sometimes he is a shrewd tactician. It all depends on whether the captain ignores or implements his messages to the middle. But as Dilip Vengsarkar candidly admits later - he has been a good coach. In doing whatever duties, a coach is responsible for, he has done well. It is sad that he didn't retire in 2004, when he should have. Although Wright did not know about Bob Woolmer's fate at the time of writing this book, he does capture an apt phrase from Woolmer. Two games before Wright retires as the coach of the Indian cricket team, Woolmer pulls aside Wright for a chat and tells him "There are no happy endings John. There wasn't for me in South Africa and there is going to be none for you here". Little do we all know.

5 comments:

Babu said...

Excellent write up machi....feel like reading the book now...

Nilu said...

Did he mention anything about Murli Kartik? Or the keeper circus and how Parthiv Patel cost the series win in Australia?

Hawkeye said...

babs,

thanks dude. its a good read. i am not sure if its available in amazon.au though.

nilu,

surprisingly, no mention of murali karthik in such a context. only mention murali karthik gets is on his good bowling during mumbai test 2004. on left arm spinners - he does say that rahul sanghvi had been unfairly dealt with in/after the bombay test. interestig side note: he also criticizes the bowling change from sanghvi to sachin after steve waugh's wicket.

he takes a soft view on parthiv. almost treats him like a baby. which was only mildly irritating (instead of mega irritating) because he only mentions parthiv twice or thrice (sidenote: and balaji once in the context of saying that balaji wanted wright to mention his name if/when wright wrote a biography). He mentions the instance where parthiv dropped hayden/langer when they were on zero and the respective batsman went on to get a century. In another instance he says "poor parthiv couldn't hold on to anything".

i searched for the passage in the book to get the exact quote on parthiv... but i can't find it. non-technical books should have an index.

GreatBong said...

Looks like a must-read. Thanks for the review.

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