Coach-captain combination: Forging a winning combination

The coach-captain association is a lot about understanding each other, burying their egos, and giving each other space to perform their respective jobs to the best of their abilities.

The right combination... Sourav Ganguly and John Wright. The partnership between the two saw many successes, the historic 2-1 Test series triumph in Pakistan being the foremost among them.   -  SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

The chemistry between the coach and the captain has to be right for the team to move forward. It’s a lot about understanding each other, burying their egos, and giving each other space to perform their respective jobs to the best of their abilities.

Even if differences persist, it is always possible to carve out a working relationship in the best interest of the team.

Greg Chappell was perhaps the most knowledgeable coach to guide India. The Aussie legend had major differences with Sourav Ganguly but forged a productive partnership with Rahul Dravid. But then Chappell, always the one to speak his mind, ran into serious problems against some senior cricketers in the side; the issue snowballed into a major controversy following India’s debacle in the 2007 ODI World Cup.

The BCCI had backed Chappell in his face-off with Ganguly, but when the Aussie was confronted by an influential bunch of cricketers, led by Sachin Tendulkar, the Board sacrificed the coach.

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But then, there have been several successful captain-coach associations too. The one between Dav Whatmore, a tough-talking former Aussie cricketer, and Arjuna Ranatunga, a proud and ‘hands on’ captain of the Sri Lankan team, seemed destined to fail. Many predicted a clash between the two strong personalities. However, the partnership between Whatmore and Ranatunga landed Sri Lanka the 1996 ODI World Cup, the island nation’s greatest achievement on the cricket field.

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On the sluggish wickets of the sub-continent, Sri Lanka’s spinners and an alert inner ring of fielders choked the batsmen. The off-spinners, in particular, were well protected in the area between square leg and mid-on. Muttiah Muralitharan led a parsimonious spin pack that hunted in combinations. And then Sri Lanka employed, in a calculated fashion, Sanath Jayasuriya as an aggressive opener. In the middle-order the majestic Aravinda de Silva and the cheeky Ranatunga made valuable runs. Whatmore’s inputs and the manner in which the plans were executed by Ranatunga enabled Sri Lanka ambush Australia in an epic final in Lahore.

Whatmore returned for a second stint with the Sri Lankan team; he was in charge from 1999 to 2003. He teamed up effectively with Jayasuriya.

The highlight of Whatmore’s second term was Sri Lanka’s nine-Test winning streak, from August 2001 to March 2002, that was capped by a win over Pakistan in Lahore. John Buchanan had a difficult job in hand when he replaced Geoff Marsh as the coach of the Australian team in 1999. He had never played international cricket, was a below average player in the Australian domestic scene. And he was now the coach of a team comprising some giants of the game.

But then, Buchanan brought with him several path-breaking ideas. And along with Steve Waugh and later Ricky Ponting, he made Australia a ruthless, all-conquering machine. On two occasions, Australia won 16 Tests in a row: from October 1999 to January 2001, and from December 2005 to January 2008.

Buchanan was guiding a side that included players such as the Waugh brothers, Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath — all phenomenal cricketers.

Talking about the captain-coach association, Buchanan once said, “The relationship between the coach and captain must be built on trust and respect. It doesn’t mean continual agreement but it does mean a public display of unity within and outside the team.”

He added: “What I am clear about is that a coach’s principles should never vary, regardless of the situation, culture or personalities.”

Elaborating on his methods as coach, Buchanan stressed inclusiveness. “It is a dynamic process which requires constant revisiting to ensure that the team’s vision is relevant, meaningful, exciting and impactful. The vision though must be shared and owned by the team — it cannot be the province of any one person like the captain, coach or senior playing group.”

The Buchanan-Ponting partnership gave Australia the 2003 ODI World Cup.

In his own right, Buchanan was a tough coach who had Cricket Australia’s backing. He never allowed himself to be dominated by either Steve Waugh or Ponting, two exceptional cricketers and strong personalities. Some of Buchanan’s methods were unorthodox and appeared to lack cricketing logic, but many of them worked.

In several respects, Buchanan was cricket’s first ‘Super Coach’, someone who built a lasting bridge between himself and the captain. He departed in a blaze of glory with Australia winning the 2007 ODI World Cup in the West Indies. However, in the years that followed, Buchanan’s legacy and his contribution have been questioned by many including the mercurial Warne. Buchanan though was someone who delivered and it is hard to question results.

John Wright made history when he took over as the first foreign coach of the Indian team in 2000. The side was still recovering from the trauma of the match-fixing scandal. Contrary to popular belief, Wright was not a soft coach and came down pretty hard on cricketers during training sessions. This led to flare-ups and Virender Sehwag, on one occasion, became particularly annoyed with the coach.

Wright was a tough task master during practice, but once off the field, he had a friendly and likeable side to him. He got along well with the cricketers.

The New Zealander had his share of problems with Ganguly early on; Wright wanted Ganguly to push himself harder during practice. Gradually, the relationship between the two blossomed. Ganguly would be aggressive in-your-face skipper, while Wright remained in the background. Crucially, Ganguly was receptive to inputs from Wright and the coach never sought to impose his views.

The Kiwi’s understated demeanour and his man-management skills enabled him to guide the side for five years. He built lasting bonds with seniors, spent a lot of time working with youngsters and gradually learnt the art of putting his point across forcefully without offending anyone.

The Wright-Ganguly combination had many successes, the historic 2-1 Test series triumph in Pakistan being the foremost among them. The side also drew the 2003-04 Test series in Australia 1-1; in 2001 India scored a chest-thumping 2-1 victory over Australia in a titanic home series. India also reached the final of the 2003 ODI World Cup. Wright did get most things right.

So did Duncan Fletcher during his eight-year term with the England team that concluded in 2007. He joined forces with two captains, first Nasser Hussain and then Michael Vaughan.

The taciturn Fletcher and the dashing Hussain hit it off. The wily Fletcher was a good strategist and Hussain was receptive to his ideas. In fact, between 2000 and 2004, the England team, ridiculed for a string of defeats not too long ago, won four away Test series, in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, West Indies and South Africa.

Winning Test series away from home is the toughest test for any team and England exceeded expectations.

Then when Vaughan succeeded Hussain, Fletcher combined with the new captain to script England’s biggest heist; an Ashes triumph after 18 years.

When England, after all those agonising years, defeated Australia 2-1 in the summer of 2005 in Old Blighty, the victory unified a nation. England had game-changers in Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff but the Fletcher-Vaughan partnership got the best out of the duo. The host also zeroed in on the right pace attack to dismantle the strong Aussie batting line-up. Flintoff, Harmison, Hoggard and Simon Jones combined to rattle the Australians.

Flintoff and Harmison extracted sharp bounce, Hoggard moved the ball and Jones harried batsmen with his speedy reverse swing when the ball got older. At the heart of that English conquest was, of course, the strong dynamics between the captain and the coach.

It takes two to tango.