November 29, 2007

Kirsten suspense after BCCI mystery

By H Natarajan

The choice of Gary Kirsten as the coach of the Indian cricket team is a typical example of the Indian cricket board saying something and doing exactly the opposite. Niranjan Shah had said in unambiguous terms that the Board is not going to look beyond the list of those who had applied for the job because the Board did “not want to give undue importance to anyone”.

The BCCI secretary’s statement meant the eventual choice had to be between Martin Crowe, Kepler Wessels, both men with copious Test playing experience, Richard Done, (formerly of Queensland Academy of Excellence), Tim Boon (coach of Leicestershire), Terry Oliver (coach of Queensland) and Dave Nosworthy, (coach of Canterbury) and former New Zealand captain Martin Crowe. Curiously, the only Indian application for the job was Chandrakant Pandit, the former India and Mumbai wicketkeeper and now coach of Maharashtra.

But within hours of Shah’s official statement, Kirsten told the media, “The most important thing was they approached me, I didn't approach them.”

It’s open to speculation – as many matters are in Indian cricket – who is speaking the truth. But it does not require an Einstein to unravel that obviously one of the statement is untrue.
It’s quite possible that Shah deliberately chose to put the media off-course after the embarrassment it had to cop in June earlier this year when it announced Graham Ford as the new Indian coach only to find that the South African had a change of heart on going home, preferring to continue as Kent County Cricket Cub’s Director of Cricket. It was only natural that some believed that Ford had used the BCCI to gain bargaining strength with Kent.

Nobody can say for sure if the same will not happen again. But Kirsten’s statement to a national newspaper made interesting read. Before taking the plane back home, he told the paper: “One half of my mind immediately said ‘yes’ but I will have to go through the contract carefully, look at it from a family point of view, and get back within seven days.”

That means the chances of Kirsten becoming the next coach of India is 50%. Viewed negatively, there is a 50% chance that he may well refuse the offer which will then drag the BCCI back to square one. It would also mean that the process to find an alternative choice would take longer and, possibly, not for the forthcoming tour of Australia. That, of course, may actually be a blessing in disguise. But more on that later.

Kirsten has very little coaching experience and none with an international side. In that sense, his abilities as a coach at the highest level remains a matter of conjecture. Why the BCCI ignored the interested candidates - which included at least one world class player and others with proven coaching experience – in favor of Kirsten remains shrouded in mystery. Kirsten, however, runs a cricket academy called the Gary Kirsten Cricket Academy in South Africa.

The timing of the BCCI offer to Kirsten is unfair to Lalchand Rajput when he is in the midst of an important series – even considering the fact that it’s a stop-gap role and that his designated job is that of a “cricket manager”. I have known and interacted with Rajput quite closely for over 25 years and I have known him as a very serious student of the game who brings about the kind of commitment that is not often seen among Indians. Like Venkataraghavan, he has served Indian cricket in many capacities – as an India player, national umpire, National team manager, India under-19 coach, secretary of the Mumbai Cricket Association and as chief coach of the National Cricket Academy. He has been tremendously successful as an India under-19 coach and now as the manager of the national team that won the Twenty20 World Cup, the ODI series against Pakistan and the ongoing Test series where the side is one-up. The BCCI could have been a little more sensitive and gracious in thanking Rajput for his commendable showing.

A new coach takes time to settle down with the team as much as the team takes time to understand the thought process of a new coach. It’s not fair to the coach – or the team, for that matter - if he is asked to take over just days before what is arguably the most demanding of all cricket tours in modern cricket.

The Indian team has done pretty well under stop-gap men filling as “team managers” in the void created by Greg Chappell’s exit and it would have been in the larger interests of the team if the settled back-up support were to continue undisturbed till the conclusion of the Australian tour.

The 14,000 international runs that Kirsten scored over a decade and 286 matches will certainly command respect from the players, some of whom like Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly have even played against him. But being an opponent is one thing and being a coach is something else. The unceremonious exit of Greg Chappell, the reluctance of Graham Ford to take up the job, the resignation of Dravid as India captain and the refusal of Tendulkar to take over the leadership are all pointers that being an India coach or captain is not envious as it may seem.

Kirsten did not jump at the offer and took a long time mulling over it. Whether he eventually takes up the challenge or not will be known in a few days time. But if he does take it up, he will go in with the knowledge that it will be the biggest challenge of his cricketing career.

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