Exit autocracy, enter consensus

England coach Duncan Fletcher was assisted by Matthew Maynard in coaching batting and evolving game plans, based on the video-taped analyses of the strengths and weaknesses of opponents.

THE recent Ganguly-Greg Chappell altercation highlighted the potential for conflict which can arise when the coach and the captain of an international cricket side are at loggerheads about the merits, selection and performances of a team — especially when the principals in such a controversy are strong-willed, enjoy an outstanding playing reputation and are endowed with a strong appreciation of their own self-esteem.

Time was when the governance of a Test Team was uniquely in the hands of its skipper. He ran the whole show: he dictated the on-field tactics, prepared the squad for matches, had a large say in selection procedures, and even advised senior players on blemishes in their techniques — for he himself was generally a senior member of the playing caucus. His was the responsibility of handling the media, conducting press conferences, speaking on behalf of the team at social functions — and in a word running the whole shooting match!

There was no ambiguity about the role of the captain in a Test team — just as there is no doubt about the definition of a captain as spelt out in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: "One who stands at the head of others: a chief or leader: a general: a strategist: in cricket, the leader of a side." The origin of the word `captain' is to be found in the Latin word `caput' meaning `head'. By contrast the word `coach' comes from the Magyar `Kocsi' — which is the name of a town near Raab in Hungary. `Kosci' gave its name to the `Kosc cart' — a large closed carriage used to transport passengers — and by analogy a person who transports people from a state of ignorance to one of knowledge. In the dictionary a coach is defined as "someone who trains others for an athletic contest; prepares them for an examination or primes them with information." Nowhere in that definition is there a suggestion of the coach being a chief, a general, a leader or someone in a position of power — although many coaches believe that they are cast in the likeness of American or soccer coaches — and appointed to command.

The directional aspect of the coach's role has evolved with the increasing sophistication of elite sport. Recently a modern England player asked me how many administrative, medical and technical personnel made up the support squad of my 1954-55 M.C.C. Touring Team to Australia and South Africa. Support Squad indeed!. Manager Geoffrey Howard and Baggage man George Duckworth made up the administrative arm of the 18-man touring party and the sole concession to our medical needs was masseur Harold Dalton! Coaching and the organization of practice was left to the captain and the senior professionals in the side. Injury management was handled by the medicos used by our opponents.

Obviously, with elite cricket evolving into a multi-million dollar earner, such a Heath-Robinson amateurish set-up could not be allowed to continue. It was unfair on overburdened skippers, who had to maintain their own game and look after the rest of the team's welfare both on and off the field. Hence the myth — true in the first half of the 20th century — that assuming the captaincy of a Test side had a deleterious effect on the skipper's own performances. Then, following the business model of Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket, specificity became the "buzz" word around cricket dressing rooms. Within Test Squads certain specialist tasks were allocated to dedicated experts in their own fields. Amongst some of the first to be appointed were coaches: men whose job it was to oversee the fitness, skills and mental training of team members on the basis of a 12-month programme dealing with off-season, pre-season, seasonal and post-season routines. Away from the playing arena movement officers took charge of travel arrangements: booking plane seats, ticketing, taxis, accommodation, and organizing meal arrangements. Media officers arranged press conferences, releases, and guided players through the ordeal of television and radio interviews. Business and finance managers took care of the monetary side of the players' life.

All of these facets of the first-class and or Test game fall outside the supervisory responsibility of the coach. The management of players' injuries, however, is certainly within his remit. He has to coordinate the work of the specialist medical staff: the specialized diagnosis, treatment and the rehabilitation of injured team members, the timing of their return to competition and the publicity surrounding such re-emergence into the game. Other organizational duties of the coach include the integration of psychological preparation for upcoming matches into the training program: accustoming the players to performing under pressure and telling them how to counter sledging tactics: control arousal levels and inculcate mental toughness, positive thinking and self-confidence. Even nutritionists and exercise physiologists come within his sphere of responsibilities: he has to keep an eye on what his players are allowed to eat and how conscientious they are in running off their excess flab.

There are even specialists within the specific areas of the coach's skill remit. Coaches who are experts in general cricket technique and frequently delve deeper into coaching advanced fielding, batting, bowling, wicket-keeping and fielding. England in 2005 appointed Troy Cooley as bowling guru to its victorious Test team. Matthew Maynard assisted Duncan Fletcher in coaching batting and evolving game plans, based on the video-taped analyses of the strengths and weaknesses of England's opponents — as diagnosed by Tim Boon, a former first-class player with a gift for electronics. Even Test selection is a specialized skill usually reserved for former players or administrators who excelled in their own peculiar playing skills and who, in the passage of time, acquired the knack of listening, judging what makes a good player, counselling and communicating. Because of his involvement with the team, a coach often becomes one of its selectors. But whilst the information which he can provide on the players is essential to the selection process, his presence at the committee table is not. Unfortunately the ubiquity of the coach and his close association with most of its activities often conveys the impression that he enjoys a position of dominant authority over it. "Coach" to most people means "autocrat or boss": someone who commands a sportsman to perform a certain action and he has to do it. The truth of the matter, however, is that the "Good Guy" coaches guide their teams by a policy of "Softly, softly, catchee monkey" rather than one of hard-nosed authoritarianism.

The delegation of specialist skills to coaches expert in those areas of the game, leads to a comprehensive in-depth teaching of those skills — the sort of coaching which is of use to elite players. But it also produces a fragmentation of the coaching chore into what amounts to master classes of batting, slow and faster bowling, wicket-keeping, and fielding. In such a situation, the national coaches such as Australia's Buchanan and England's Fletcher assume the role of co-coordinator: men who draw all the various parts of a Test side together into one cohesive whole, competent in every aspect of the game. In this master plan, the captain has his part to play: he is the executive arm of the strategy: the general who implements the tactics previously agreed upon and understood by the team as a whole.

Increasingly, the campaigns of Test sides are based on the philosophy that major decisions should be taken co-jointly by the captain, the coaches and the senior players. The day of the autocratic coach is over; nowadays game plans depend on consultancy and consensus rather than authoritarianism. Australian skipper, Ricky Ponting confessed to leading his team through the 2005 Ashes series guided by decisions made after conferring with such experienced advisers as Shane Warne, Adam Gilchrist and Glenn McGrath. The counsel of Aussie coach, John Buchanan was, to some extent, based on the experience and knowledge of Matt Hayden, Justin Langer and Ponting himself. To have ignored such advice would have bordered on gross negligence; moreover decisions arrived at by democratic means and on the advice of senior players do not invite later blame. And no member of Ponting's side accused him of losing the Ashes of his own bat in the aftermath of the tour.

Indian cricket would do well to take a leaf out of Ponting's book — in its choice of a permanent future leader, the selection of its Test side and the manner in which it decides upon and carries out its game plans.