May 23, 2007

Dav Whatmore – the right man to succeed Greg Chappell

By H Natarajan

Macedonia was Mother Theresa’s janambhoomi, but she made India as her karmabhoomi. Sir Arthur Clarke is a Briton by birth, but the father of science-fiction made Sri Lanka as his abode for the greater part of his magnificent life. Dav Whatmore’s life is similarly intrinsically linked with Asia, although as a nomadic Aussie with no fixed address. The Sri Lankan-born Victorian first coached the country of his birth to the World Cup title in 1996 and, more recently, Bangladesh to the Super Eights of the 2007 World Cup. As he prepares to bid adieu to Bangladesh, two other Asian nations - India and Pakistan - evinced interest in hiring him as their national cricket team’s coach.

India may not be the kind of force Australia is on the field of play, but off the field, it’s a powerhouse in more ways than one. India has been the El Dorado of international cricket, by virtue of which it has flexed its financial muscle in no uncertain terms in the past. The passion for the game in India remains unparalleled resulting in huge media, corporate and public interest. The tag of having coached India is the pinnacle of a coach’s career because the job brings with it unique pressures that goes beyond the realms of knowledge and teaching skills. It’s thus not surprising to find Whatmore unconcealed interest in taking over the job from Greg Chappell after the legendary Australian’s unceremonious exit.

Whatmore may not have been an outstanding success – his international career was restricted to just seven Tests and a single ODI for Australia and those opportunities, too, were primarily due to the flight of the top player to Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket. With just two half centuries, Whatmore did not do much to be remembered as a player.

There is a saying that the best of players have not made the best of coaches and the best of coaches have not been the best of players. The likes of Whatmore, Duncan Fletcher, John Buchanan, Bob Woolmer and Tom Moody, to name a few, exemplify the point.

The job of a coach, besides knowing the skills and teaching it, also involves the art of man-management. And that is where Greg Chappell – a highly accomplished player and a coach who was in tune with modern science and technology related to the game – failed.

Whatmore may have been a World Cup-winning coach of Sri Lanka that had strong and star personalities like Arjuna Ranatunga and Aravinda de Silva. He may have also successfully coached Lancashire where just about everybody in the team had played for their country at some point of time. But coaching India is never easy. It’s not simple man management. Coaching India means necessarily getting tangled into board politics, managing super egos of the superstars and knowing which player is aligned to who in the corridors of power. It’s complex and it’s unique that will test the professional nerve of the best.

Many of the Indian superstars are at the fag end of their careers. There will increasing pressure on them to retain their places in the side. If Whatmore is to be the next coach, and his professionalism is in conflict with the personal interests of these players, one may well see another chapter in strained player-coach relationship.

I have witnessed the emphasis Whatmore laid on fitness and stamina when he was coach of Sri Lanka. Like most modern coaches, he believes that top fitness is mandatory at the highest level of the game. The Indian team that was picked for the 2007 World Cup was one of the worst ever in recent times when it came to fitness and, as a result, in fielding. And the presence of so many ageing players is doing no good to the team. Therein lies one of the many challenges for the new coach.

Had it not been for Greg Chappell, Whatmore may well have got the job as India’s coach. In fact, Brijesh Patel – when he was chairman of the national selection committee – was very keen to seek Whatmore’s services, even if it meant only as head of the National Cricket Academy. Sadly, that was not to be.

Whatmore has since grown in stature as a coach, during which he marshaled an unsung Bangladesh from whipping boys of international cricket to a level of respectability, with victories over Australia, India and South Africa.

Unquestionably, Whatmore will be a better man manager than Chappell. But Whatmore is also honest like any typical Aussie. And that’s where things could get ticklish when it comes to dealing with star players.

Personally, I feel he is the best man India can get at present. He has a proven track record as a coach, is aware of the geographical and political climate in the Asian region and believes in getting things does while choosing to stay in the background. If the new coach needs anything, it is total support from the Board of Control for Cricket in India - something that John Wright and Greg Chappell did not get.

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