A coach who believed in youth

Greg Chappell shares his thoughts with a few youngsters at a practice session.-

Greg Chappell was an honest, straight-talking coach who wanted to make a difference to Indian cricket. He was unfazed by the challenges, but was up against massive roadblocks in a system built around "star culture", writes S. Dinakar.

Sweat streamed down his thinly lined visage on a blazing Karachi afternoon. Mercury was soaring, so were a coach's levels of commitment. At the sprawling National Stadium, Greg Chappell was spending quality time with a bunch of young Indian cricketers. He walked up to Suresh Raina and displayed to him the advantages of an early inclination to get on to the front foot.

Soon, Chappell was with Rudra Pratap Singh, showing the left-armer the benefits of a straight wrist position. The paceman corrected his grip.

"Get the seam position right," boomed Chappell's voice as the bowler ran in. Then, between swigs of mineral water, he shouted further words of advice and encouragement.

Chappell, then, shifted his gaze to the adjoining nets, where Mahendra Singh Dhoni was driving on the rise. More instructions were heard from the coach.

Chappell took great pride in coaching the Indian cricket team. He often dwelt on the passion for the game in these parts and how it spurred him on. Cricket, he noted, was a blaze of colour in the sub-continent. Yet, scratch the surface, and cricket in the sub-continent assumes a much darker shade. Here, commercial interests have a stranglehold on the game, in an unhealthy nexus.

An honest, straight-talking coach who wanted to make a difference to Indian cricket, Chappell was unfazed by the challenges. But he was up against massive roadblocks in a system built around "star culture".

When the 58-year-old former Australian skipper, despite last-ditch efforts to convince him otherwise, chose not to seek a renewal of his contract with the BCCI, it meant Indian cricket had taken a step backwards.

Given his technical attributes and the ability to influence mind and thinking, Chappell was definitely putting a "process in place." For a coach with long-term goals, a 22-month tenure is too short for a fair assessment.

If the country seeks to embrace changes, then it needs to rally behind personalities with the necessary ability, vision and drive. Chappell was not lacking in any of these qualities.

Sadly, Chappell did not quite receive the kind of support required to carry his plans forward. Here was someone keen about youth and transition, was prepared to transform the system. He met with stiff resistance when it mattered the most — in the run up to the World Cup.

If there is a thorough assessment of India's early elimination from the World Cup — Chappell's report to the BCCI highlights certain key issues — the country's cricket might survive the crisis.

Happily, some of Chappell's suggestions, about the adverse effects of excessive endorsement contracts and their impact at the various levels, from selection to performance, have forced the Board to act.

The BCCI offer to Chappell, to guide the hopefuls at the National Cricket Academy, will be seriously considered by the Australian. He relishes grooming cricketers, enjoys the feeling.

In youth, he sees the future. "We have to reach the next level," Chappell often said during his tenure. India, he observed, had to elevate itself to a point where it could compete and win consistently against Australia.

In this endeavour, Chappell was misunderstood. The coach never meant to undermine the seniors but strove to create the bench strength that would keep the seniors alert and ready. Here, performances mattered more than reputations. This was the Australian way.

The logic was simple. If young cricketers push the established players for places, it would not only get the best out of the seniors, but also allow the youngsters to bloom.

The Australian mantra for success has been depth and development. In other words, a side without replacements stagnates. There is also the strong possibility of complacency creeping in.

Chappell methods, typically Australian, are aimed at building a side for the future and India would do well to follow the path. The Australian legend himself departed from international cricket with a majestic 182 against Pakistan in the Sydney Test of 1984.

Allan Border, Mark Taylor, and Steve Waugh had more cricket left in them for Australia when they bid adieu. A highly competitive domestic circuit on sporting tracks throws up viable replacements for Australia. Players are only picked on form and there are no short cuts. This is precisely why the Aussies are champions.

Chappell stressed attitude and commitment. "These are non-negotiable issues," he said. When India nailed 17 straight chases in 2005-06 — an ODI record — the youngsters of a flexible Indian team kept the seniors on their toes. Irfan Pathan and Dhoni were promoted in the order; India was finally surprising the opposition, forcing teams to alter plans.

Chappell and Dravid spoke in one voice, shared mutual respect. The emphasis was on putting the right kind of team together rather than on results alone. As the World Cup loomed, this strategy met with severe opposition.

Leaks about team selection to the media did not help matters either. After all, in every such deliberation there are bound to be certain differences before a conclusion is reached through voting. It did not help Chappell's cause when his name was dragged into every omission or inclusion; the Board should not have changed the selection panel close to the World Cup.

Despite the hurdles, there were some significant achievements for India under Chappell and Dravid. The team triumphed in a Test series in the Caribbean after 35 years, a feat achieved without an injured Sachin Tendulkar.

Chappell reworked the Indian pace attack. Santhakumaran Sreesanth and Munaf Patel, both raw and largely untested, were the spearheads. The Indian pacemen had struggled in the second innings of the decider in Pakistan earlier in 2006 — the left-arm trio of Zaheer Khan, Irfan Pathan and R. P. Singh lacked in speed and incision — and Chappell reacted quickly.

"I was criticised for inducting Sreesanth and Munaf in the Test XI, but had we gone with the same attack that went to Pakistan, we would have lost the series in the West Indies," argued Chappell. To a large extent, he was right.

India, then, won its maiden Test in South Africa. The historic victory at the famous Wanderers was orchestrated by Sreesanth's exemplary outswing; the paceman's wrist and seam position were close to perfection. Chappell recognised the potential in the paceman, provided him avenues. The defeats in the third Test against Pakistan in Karachi and in the Mumbai Test against England would rankle him. In both matches, India missed gilt-edged opportunities.

While the decline in Pathan's left-arm pace is often attributed to his handling by the team-management, the problem actually lay in a mind clouded by doubts. The coach attempted to unlock Pathan's mind, with limited success. "You all have to realise that he will never be fast. He is a swing bowler in the mould of Chaminda Vaas. You have to be patient with youngsters," pleaded Chappell once.

Virender Sehwag's slump in form may have been caused as much by dwindling reflexes as his dipping confidence. Actually, the think-tank cannot do more about a hand-eye coordination player apart from backing him. It is too late to change Sehwag's game.

Yuvraj, however, has age on his side. Chappell worked on the left-hander's thought process, made Yuvraj a better-balanced batsman with surer footwork. Dinesh Karthik's body weight, both in front and behind the stumps, is better distributed now; Chappell sees leadership possibilities in the youngster.

Chappell had his differences with Sourav Ganguly and Zaheer Khan on the issues of attitude and discipline, but felt the matter was blown out of proportion by the media.

When Ganguly joined the India squad in Potchefstroom during the South African tour, Chappell was the first to greet the left-hander with words "Welcome back mate." When Ganguly delivered in South Africa, Chappell acknowledged the former India captain's improved technique and focus.

Not surprisingly, Chappell trained his attention on the quality of pitches in India.

"Pace and bounce help everyone, the batsmen, the pacemen and the spinners. Unless you make sporting surfaces, India will struggle overseas," pointed out Chappell.

Mercifully, the BCCI has not made Chappell a scapegoat for India's World Cup failure. But this does not suggest that Chappell was given a fair deal in the country.

* * * It's an honour: Shastri

Former India all-rounder Ravi Shastri was a tenacious customer at the crease, who comprehended his limitations. An in-built determination and a keen cricketing mind should serve Shastri well as India's cricket manager during the tour of Bangladesh, beginning on May 10. India plays three ODIs and two Tests.

These are testing times for Indian cricket and the side will be up against a resurgent Bangladesh. Shastri is likely to have youthful team under him, since the Board has instructed the selectors to pick youngsters for the trip.

Shastri called his appointment an "honour." Though busy with his commitments to the media, Shastri said he could not say "No" when the offer came from the BCCI.

Shastri was among those who saw the early ability in Rahul Dravid, who has been retained captain for the series in Bangladesh, Ireland and England.

The Indian team to Bangladesh will also have bowling and fielding coaches. Former India paceman Venkatesh Prasad will guide the bowlers, while former India all-rounder Robin Singh will work on the side's fielding.