Possible reunion of Ganguly, Dravid and Laxman is continuation of a trend
- Smith-Boucher, Raja-Mushtaq, Giles-Silverwood, Snedden-Stead are other examples of former players returning in different roles
Eight years ago in Bengaluru, at what seemed a routine press conference till then, Anil Kumble read out a statement declaring he and his group of cricketers-turned-administrators wouldn’t seek another term in the next Karnataka State Cricket Association (KSCA) elections. With Kumble as KSCA president, Venkatesh Prasad and Roger Binny as vice-presidents, Javagal Srinath as secretary and Rahul Dravid as managing committee member, this was an all-star cast that had other state associations scrambling to play catch-up with their radical changes for three years. It set up 10 new grounds, brought first-class matches back to forgotten cricket outposts like Hubli and Shimoga, gave the top-flight Safi Darashah tournament (now called the Dr (Capt) K Thimmappiah Memorial Tournament) a much-needed makeover and made day-to-day administration more technology friendly. The three-year term had its share of controversies, bickering, allegations and counter-allegations but Kumble & Co didn’t express malice while stepping aside. Their work was done, said Kumble, leaving many longing for an encore.
It’s here in an avatar that is bigger and more promising. Twenty-five years after they lit up Lord’s with gleaming debuts, Sourav Ganguly and Dravid will be behind the wheels of another potentially engrossing partnership driving Indian cricket. And if VVS Laxman too agrees to take over the reins at the National Cricket Academy (NCA) in Bengaluru, it will be a rare alignment of stars who we never thought would again be so intrinsic to Indian cricket like they used to be as players. This has nothing to do with intention. It’s difficult to keep Indian cricket administration politician-free at any level because of the recurring need to facilitate tax reliefs, security clearances and police deployments. And with the constant glare of “conflict of interest”, there are few examples of administrations boasting former players in influential positions. So when the BCCI circumvents its own system to come up with a workflow chart that has illustrious former cricketers boss the supply line, the senior team and the administration, it’s worth applauding. Yes, Dravid, Ravi Shastri and Ganguly have already been there, done that. But this could be, in near-freaking exciting probability—Ganguly, Dravid and Laxman. Again. The names alone should suffice.
Former players in administration and coaching is a template already in vogue. Pakistan has Ramiz Raja as chairman with Saqlain Mushtaq as interim coach before Misbah-ul-Haq and Waqar Younis were chief and bowling coaches; England has Ashley Giles as managing director with Chris Silverwood as chief coach; South Africa has Graeme Smith as director of cricket with Mark Boucher as head coach, Australia has Justin Langer as chief coach with George Bailey as chairman of selectors while New Zealand has Martin Snedden as chairman with Gary Stead as coach. As these appointments also show, there has been a conscious effort to go local with coaches, something BCCI insisted on when Shastri’s contract was nearing its end. Barring Sri Lanka (Mickey Arthur), Bangladesh (Russell Domingo), Afghanistan (Lance Klusener) and Ireland (Graham Ford), no Test-playing nations has a foreign head coach.
Appointments of this nature are often tricky if the name doesn’t pull enough weight. When England chose Silverwood over Gary Kirsten as successor to Trevor Bayliss in 2019, there were murmurs if he had earned his stripes despite impressing as England bowling coach after guiding Essex to back-to-back Division Two and Division One County Championship titles. It probably stemmed from Silverwood’s brief coaching career and briefer international stint in the late 90s but Giles, a fine England spinner in his day, didn’t have any of it. “I don’t really understand it,” Giles had said in a media interaction. “If you’ve got the right man, you’ve got the right man. I would ask the other question. When were we going to break this cycle where someone who is English isn’t good enough to coach our own country? Why is knowledge of your own system so negative? I’m pleased the right man is English because it helps break that cycle we were in where we couldn’t employ an English coach and I think we’ve got a good one here.”
Be it appointing or sacking selectors, coaches or captains, the reasons—however audacious or abrupt they might seem—always make more sense when it comes from a former player with considerable international experience.
South African cricket witnessed a similar situation in December 2019. Shortly after Smith was named Cricket South Africa (CSA) interim director of cricket, Boucher was appointed head coach of the side almost 10 days before England were to tour for a four-Test series. Coach with the domestic Titans side with a Level 2 coaching certificate, Boucher was a battle-hardened, no-nonsense leader but the decision seemed arbitrary, especially after interim team director and South Africa’s first black coach Enoch Nkwe was demoted to being Boucher’s assistant, triggering questions if more qualified coaches (like Cape Cobras coach Ashwell Prince who had a Level 3 certificate but was appointed coach of the A side) were even considered before appointing Boucher. Having played 257 games together for the Proteas, Smith and Boucher reuniting made sense in many ways but corporate cricket structure prefers powerpoint presentations, roadmaps and stepwise elimination of candidates, not gut feeling. Smith, however, was undaunted in his response.
“I felt at this stage, the Proteas needed a really hardened, experienced international guy,” Smith said. “I feel that Mark, from a cricket perspective, is very knowledgeable. We all know what qualities he has as a man as well. I felt those were the decisions best needed for the current Proteas set up.” Asked if Nkwe’s demotion could be construed as a move that made the top management all white, Smith stuck to his guns. “My job is to create cricket excellence. I feel I have made the right decision for the Proteas. I think for Enoch’s future as well it is the right appointment. I am very aware of transformation. I led my country for 11 years and had to be very much a part of managing those processes. A number of discussions need to happen behind the scenes but I disagree with the statement.”
The appointments of Jacques Kallis and Paul Harris (both played under Smith) as batting and spin bowling consultants for the England series too were questioned. “I can understand where people are coming from, but I think this narrative of a clique taking over is really unfair,” Smith was quoted as saying last August. “If you are asking me whether Jacques Kallis was one of the best batting coaches and batting cricketers we've ever had, I'd tell you, yes. Do I feel he has a role to play in South African cricket? Jeez, it would be stupid of us not to involve our most successful cricketer, and the batting experiences he could bring to our young batters.”
Running a team is more difficult than playing in one, as former Major League Baseball outfielder Billy Beane (of Moneyball fame) found out in his initial days as general manager (the only former player at that time) of Oakland Athletics before reinventing the game with sabermetrics. After winning three NBA Championships with Boston Celtics, Larry Bird drew blanks in different stints as head coach and lead executive of Indiana Pacers but he is also the only man in NBA history to be MVP, Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year. When Sebastian Coe was done dominating middle-distance running, he decided to become a Conservative member of the British parliament who went on to head a successful London bid to host the 2012 Olympics before being elected president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). Closer home, former 100m national champion Adille Sumariwalla is not only current president of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) but was also elected member of the IAAF council at its 50th congress. Football is dotted with some of the most inspiring examples of player-turned-administrators. Franz Beckenbauer spent almost his entire senior career with Bayern Munich before becoming their manager. He was also coach of the West Germany team to World Cup success in 1990 before leading Germany's successful bid to host the 2006 FIFA World Cup. Bayern legends Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge have been president and CEO, a position now held by former Germany captain Oliver Kahn. Ajax and Barcelona thrived on former players in different administrative positions including but not restricted to Johan Cruyff.
While the common cricket fan may not pose tough questions at the onset, results will definitely shape the future of many of these experiments with former players. Some are already struggling. Almost two years since Boucher’s appointment, he and Smith are still taking hits for South Africa’s performance and a general lack of consensus over how to deal with the racial transformation with a black captain in Temba Bavuma. Earlier this year, Giles was under the pump trying to explain England’s player rotation policy in the aftermath of a sobering Test series loss to India before having to deal with threats of players pulling out of the Ashes tour of Australia if families weren’t allowed to accompany. Langer, on the other hand, has often had to be defended by Bailey after Australia failed to recreate the magic despite having stalwarts like Ricky Ponting and Steve Waugh coming on board to help. Despite being one of the best Test teams over the past few years, India are yet to win an ICC event since 2013. The BCCI rakes in thousands of crores but can't sustain IPL bio bubbles in India. Learning and adapting is often the best course of action, something most nations are hoping their former stars can figure out soon.