28 September 2007

A Coachable Coach

John Wright’s Indian Summers
With Sharda Ugra and Paul Thomas
Pages 243
Rs 495

Indian cricket, with its cultish mix of power and flash, would be no small culture shock to a man just out of the staid, tradition-bound, crusty world of county cricket. In this jaunty yet insightful book, John Wright, former New Zealand captain and coach of the Indian cricket team from 2000 to 2005, gives an engaging account of the many such shocks offered up by his life inside the Indian team’s huddle.

Wright’s tenure as the Indian team’s first foreign coach saw the post-match-fixing, halo-deprived Indian cricket team’s fortunes anomalously mounting, and some of its best performances, like the rare Test victory Down Under in 2003-04. If one overlooks his nostalgia for county cricket, Wright’s austere outlook -- combining the old-world suspicion for money, power and fame with a religious reliance on discipline, hard work and application rather than raw talent -- lends him a spirit-level perspective against which the skew of the complex, pragmatic, pacey, underachieving world of Indian cricket becomes apparent.

The picture that emerges is of a beehive frenetic with activity, with not the game of cricket but money as the honey. And if new money is the background score, then the default theme of Indian cricket, as Indian Summers captures it, is insecurity. Wright himself felt it all the time, fearing a brusque, arbitrary dismissal. The anxiety that the going is too good to last and the largesse might cease afflicts everyone who lives off the lucrative game. And this inglorious uncertainty, Wright feels, causes rivalries, heartburn, scraps, bitchiness and dismal performances.

Wright deeply empathises with the small-town boy, who learns the game watching the telly and, passing through the most arbitrary selection process, makes it to the big time. He is equally appreciative of the insecurities that drive cricketers to distraction beyond redemption by way of overnight stardom and fat advertising contracts.

Wright learnt early that the job of coach is what the coach, the coached, or the paymasters make of it. Still, he is clearly bitter about the times he was sidelined. The incidental status of the coach in Indian cricket, wherein following his counsel was optional, is confirmed as Wright relates instances when Sunil Gavaskar, once apparently on Sourav Ganguly’s invitation, made himself an alternative unofficial power centre in the dressing room, with disastrous results.

Indian Summers is a wise and eminently readable book that dares reflect on the state of a strand of our national identity -- something the frantic media coverage and Mandira Bedi’s spaghetti-strapped tops are wired against.

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