THE ROLE OF THE COACH IN INTERNATIONAL SPORT

Interestingly enough, in London, the English way of football has slowly begun to corrode, to be replaced by a more continental, tactical form as espoused by Chelsea's Jose Mourinho (left) — and elsewhere, by the Champions' League-winning Liverpool's Rafael Benitez — even as Arsene Wenger hangs on grimly at Highbury. The role of the coach changes, as the coaches themselves change.

VIJAY PARTHASARATHY

Bob Woolmer...revolutionarycoach.-AFP

GREG CHAPPELL'S recent appointment as Indian cricket coach follows perhaps as a logical progression from the short time he spent handing out tips to an out-of-form Sourav Ganguly when India toured Australia last. As if on cue, Ganguly had smashed an authoritative 144 in the opening Test and we gushed; credit was given where credit was due.

The straight-talking Aussie was incidentally a serious contender for the position in 2000, until John Wright was picked; his reputation as one of cricket's finest thinkers has only grown in the interim. But can Chappell work another miracle for Ganguly, who has, since that authoritative innings in Brisbane, inexplicably endured another torrid patch as a batsman? (After all, what words of wisdom work for one innings should ideally work for at least a few more, or, like the batsman, they risk being discarded.) Can Chappell lift the flagging fortunes of the team? It depends - the variables are simply too many to evaluate.

The coach is seen as an important cog in the functioning of modern cricket, and indeed modern sport; but sometimes it does seem as if we overestimate his role. At the junior level, a good coach will crucially instil in his pupils a good work ethic; he will also correct potentially crippling flaws in technique. At the international level, however, technique usually needs only fine-tuning, so the coach's main job is to methodically analyse and interpret data obtained from actual match situations. He could draw a bowler's attention to the tendency to stray onto middle and leg over a sustained period; he could advise a batsman on specific tactics to upset the rhythm of a particular opposition bowler. This is where science & technology take over — except, curiously enough, researchers are yet to fully grasp the physics of swing bowling, just as they have failed, equally bafflingly, to find a cure for common cold. Nevertheless, cricket on its part has been quick to appropriate for itself the respect accorded to a cultivated skill; it has wilfully transformed from an amateur sport, from one so shamelessly enjoyed, to something altogether more serious.

Anyone, who has played cricket at any level — whether with an improvised bat and ball in cramped gallis, or with the standard apparatus on turf wickets — would know that in practice the game goes with the flow as it were, and that batting, in particular, is, more than anything, a purely instinctive reaction. It takes just one good ball to dismiss the finest number three, which only goes to prove the fine art of batting cannot be perfected. But instinct can be honed, rashness can be cut out to a great extent, shot selection can be worked upon. One could approach knowledgeable ex-cricketers; star-commentators with an opinion on everything are always forthcoming with advice in any event. Why, even the coach is welcome to suggest something — it doesn't matter as long as something is gained in the process.

Greg Chappell...top-rate strategist.-V. GANESAN

Cricket is a slow game with enough time to think through tactics; so while the coach is closely involved in dressing room and post-match manoeuvres, his contribution to the proceedings on-field is limited to the advice sent out with drinks, although Bob Woolmer did admittedly try and change that a little with South Africa. The captain is more or less in charge.

In football, on the other hand, the role of the coach is plainly linked to actual play. Particularly where the movements are fast and fluid, a coach observing proceedings from the sidelines is in a better position than the captain to analyse the immediate match position and to decide on the tactics to be employed. Club teams command a broader fan-base than national sides; something unique to this sport (if you disregard Major League Baseball and the NBA league). Coaches double up as managers for many top clubs; part of their responsibility involves optimising on the allocated budget and planning transfers. The captain's job is primarily to motivate his men out on the field; and while his role is by no means ornamental, the coach is inarguably the one who runs the show.

Interestingly enough, in London, the English way of football has slowly begun to corrode, to be replaced by a more continental, tactical form as espoused by Chelsea's Jose Mourinho — and elsewhere, by the Champions' League-winning Liverpool's Rafael Benitez — even as Arsene Wenger hangs on grimly at Highbury. The role of the coach changes, as the coaches themselves change. Meanwhile, at Old Trafford, Alex Ferguson has been manager for nearly two decades and in this era must be considered as something of a fossil — or at best, an anachronism; but remarkably his vision for the team is anything but outdated. The Scotsman at any rate is no tactical ing�nue; although, his method does appear at times like an updated version of the hand-on-heart style of coaching.

Sport today is clearly not so much fun as it is a penance. Take the case of tennis: gone are the carefree times of Don Budge and Suzanne Lenglen. Move over Rod Laver, we live in the world of the single-minded professional. It is now standard practice for coaches to travel the year round with their star wards on the pro tour. At the highest levels in a severely individual sport like tennis, the coach acts as more than just a hitting partner or a bouncing board to discuss one's forehand technique: he will also watch his ward's rivals in practice and report on potential flaws in an opponent's game that could be exploited during a match.

Earlier this year, Peter Lundgren's inside information unquestionably aided Marat Safin in overcoming Roger Federer — the Swedish coach's former pupil — at the Australian Open in a high quality five-setter that is destined to go down in history as one of the classics. The coach as mercenary, perhaps; but pro sport is not a pulpit to preach morals from. Of course, unlike in football, coaching between points in tennis is banned; so Lundgren was only offering moral support through his presence. But where others have failed, Lundgren has succeeded: he has had a sobering effect on the remarkably gifted yet often fiercely temperamental Russian, who for years looked in danger of ending his career as a tragic one-Slam wonder. (That Safin has not managed to replicate his hardcourt success in the run-up to the French Open is an altogether different matter.)

REUTERS

But is the coach indispensable? Federer seemed to disprove that notion last year after enjoying the most remarkable run since Mats Wilander's in 1988, when he won three Slams. Federer was the only player in the top 50 to travel without a coach in 2004, and still he won every Slam except the French; he only lost six matches the entire year. Then again, it can be argued only Federer could have done without a coach and besides, as must be pointed out, he formally hired Tony Roche at the start of the current season.

Professionalism in sport is a very good thing: its introduction has vastly improved the quality of entertainment. (No discerning individual after all likes to watch an incompetently directed play or read a badly written book, so why should he be subjected to a match on television between two rank amateurs?) That science can be of much use is beyond doubt; but there is such a thing as overanalysing. Ultimately, a coach would, in addition to an in-depth knowledge of his sport, also need to possess excellent communication skills.

Returning to Chappell, as a strategist he is considered top-rate; he ranks among the finest bats of his generation. But the saying, `a captain is only as good as his team' applies equally to the coach. Chappell's expertise would arguably be of far greater benefit to batsmen at the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore. The best cricketing brains are needed not merely at the international level, but also at the domestic and junior levels where cricketers must be carefully groomed for the future. The position of national coach is grossly overpaid anyway; and the BCCI would have derived more value-for-money by hiring Chappell to share his special insights also with talented but raw recruits.

Ironically, the former Australian captain, Ian Chappell — Greg's brother — has always pooh-poohed the concept of the international coach. "Despite my oft-expressed failure to understand the need for coaches at the international level we argue very little about the concept," he wrote recently. "Greg takes a holistic approach to the job and is constantly on the lookout for long term improvements rather than any quick fix. However, one thing the BCCI should understand; he is well aware of his worth and will never undersell himself."