Category Archives: Cricket coach

Dealing With Greg Chappell’s Culture Argument

I’m generally not a fan of cultural determinism, which is why I don’t think much of Greg Chappell’s latest evaluation of the Indian team. Remember the days when economists dismissed the economic potential of Asia because of Confucian and Buddhist asceticism? Remember the ‘Hindu’ rate of growth? Or the many claims that Arabs, because of their tribal and ‘primitive’ ways, could not yearn for democracy?

The culture argument is also politically charged. A white Australian accusing the Indian team of lacking leadership because of the country’s culture — well, it’s designed for an incident at the United Nations. The problem is that Chappell can’t explain variances or anomalies — he says Indians can’t handle leadership because the country shoots down anyone willing to take responsibility; he then turns around and says he has nothing but respect for M. S. Dhoni.  Ergo, Dhoni isn’t Indian? He also can’t explain the relatively good run that India had until the England tour. Why did this deficient ‘culture’ kick in then, and not before?

Still, it’s important not to completely dimiss culture as a source for inquiry and analysis. Poverty researchers in America now kick themselves for ignoring the ‘culture of poverty‘ thesis after the 1960s, as they then ceded ground to conservative critiques of minority culture that lacked nuance and rigor. But I’m not even sure how to begin to analyze a team like India’s, with its motley collection of religion, regions, and languages. I suppose there’s also a larger question of organizational culture — a particular set of rules and customs inherent to a team structure independent of any external cultural origins.

But I wonder what it was like to be coached by Chappell. Did he secretly nurse every Orientalist stereotype of Indians — these effeminate, lazy, cheating, cunning boys who need strong discipline and education to become adults?


The Next Victim to Coach Pakistan

The search for the next Pakistani coach is like some sick reality television contest, but only in reverse: the fun only begins once the winner is actually crowned. Only then do you get to see the full range of machinations and conspiracies that are a specialty of South Asian cricket. Your administrators will stab you behind the back; your players may physically attack you; your heart may give out in a Caribbean hotel…But tune in next week!

Cricinfo reports the candidates to succeed Waqar Younis is nearly over; people think Dav Whatmore is the leading contender. As sorry jobs go, Whatmore knows how to do them well, as shown in stints to coach Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and, er, the Kolkata Knight Riders. His name did come up to succeed Greg Chappell in India, but — if I remember the rumors right — some Bangladeshi players warned their Indian colleagues that Whatmore can be a hard driver, never a wise decision when handling egos in this region.

So, what advice would you have for ol’ Whatmore? I think coaches make the mistake of thinking Pakistan can be a great cricket team. They have the right idea, given the quality of talent on display, but it’s not a realistic goal, given sheer craziness of the regime. Stay in the backroom, talk to the players, help them out with their techniques and be a calming presence. If it is so divined, then, the right Pakistani squad will emerge, hopefully at the right moments. When you’re dealing with a team that saw two of its best bowlers (ever?) and a former captain sent to prison, you have to start at a relatively low bar, sort of like those cheesy trust games that corporate retreats force on employees. There’s nothing more you can do, I imagine — the waste of potential is forever maddening, but forcing the issue may not work.

Your weekly assignment: What should the next Pakistani coach do, and who was the most successful Pakistani coach?

When Bob Woolmer Used Gary Kirsten As A Mannequin

I recently started to play cricket again and, not surprisingly, I’m terrible at it. In desperation, I turned to the Internet and found the ghost of Bob Woolmer to guide me. He did a series of videos — from the graphics, I’d say during the mid-1990s — and the ones that focus on batting have a starring role for Gary Kirsten’s perfect technique. Watch:

It’s not surprising that these videos have more than 100,000 views each. Woolmer comes across as exceptionally clear, brief and personable; the tragedy of his untimely death in 2007 becomes that much more poignant. I shudder when I think of all the politics and rivalries and bureaucracy this man had to deal with in Pakistan.

One more note: watching these videos, I also gained a finer appreciation for just how difficult “batting technique” is. This is the difference between Virender Sehwag and Ian Bell; the former relies chiefly on instinct and hand-eye coordination, while the latter relies on years and years of practice and forcing the human body into textbook shapes and figures. There’s obviously room for both models at the crease, but I now see what all the fuss is about.

How Americans Measure The Value Of Fielding

Regular readers know that I’m generally skeptical about “fielding hype” — i.e., the notion that a team should invest in good fielding as an equal asset besides batting and bowling. Part of my problem is that I’m not sure how to measure the worth of fielding, which doesn’t fit into defined categories like batting or bowling (runs and wickets, respectively).

From the Wall Street Journal comes a few valuable insights into the Yankees and their “defensive tactics” (what baseball players call fielding, apparently):

One of the best ways to measure team defense is defensive efficiency—a measure of how often balls in play are converted to outs. It accounts for range, errors and strong fielding all at once. Last season, the Yankees were the fifth-best defensive team by efficiency, converting 72% of balls in play into outs. This season, they’re further behind—the Yankees are a middle-of-the-pack 18th in defensive efficiency to this point, converting 71% of balls in play into outs.

The four best defensive teams in baseball by efficiency rating are the Tampa Bay Rays, Anaheim Angels, Florida Marlins and Texas Rangers. Not coincidentally, all four are fighting for their division leads. Meanwhile the Yankees are making errors at an uncharacteristic rate.

Earlier this year, Simon Briggs discussed how England fielding coach Richard Halsall keeps track of his fielders:

Richard Halsall, who works with England, keeps track of four key indicators: catches, obviously, but also clean takes, successful throws and diving stops.

These statistics have some interesting things to say. When Halsall took his job, back in 2007, England were lagging behind the world’s leading teams in both close catching and diving stops (they have since caught up.) And they say that Ian Bell, rather than the more celebrated Paul Collingwood, is England’s best all-round fielder.

A Tale Of Two Medias: Duncan Fletcher As India Coach

Andrew Miller has a balanced take on Duncan Fletcher’s appointment as India coach. He focuses in particular on Fletcher’s strained relationship with the English press:

[S]o much of this went unappreciated throughout Fletcher’s often fractious England tenure, ironically because his single biggest failing was one of communication – not within the squad, for his man-management was by all accounts superb (at least among those who bought into his approach), but through (and to) the media. The advent of central contracts aided and abetted the creation of what became known as the England “bubble”, and Fletcher simply did not see any reason to prick the surface tension, and serve up his thoughts to anyone beyond the inner sanctum.

That obstinate attitude made for some memorable battles of wills with the British press in the course of his seven-year tenure. To his lasting credit, Fletcher invariably fronted up when his team had suffered one of their intermittent stinkers in the field, although those dreaded “Duncan Days” had become a self-parody long before his time in the job was up, with every new transcript an exercise in forensics.

So what will Fletcher face in the Indian media? For my part, I have increasingly little respect for India’s broadcast news industry, and just a smidgen more for its biggest English newspapers. The Times of India, the biggest game in town, has become utter filth — the writing is awful; the rah-rah India tone unbearable, and the news judgment largely absent. And when you think of some of the controversies that dogged Greg Chappell — namely, did he or did he not give the middle finger to Indian fans? — you have to fear for Fletcher’s heart.

But on the other hand, as Miller notes later in his piece, it’s become accepted practice for smart foreign coaches — that is, everybody other than Chappell — to keep the press at arm’s distance. And I think most Indian reporters accept this practice, even though they no doubt hate it. Gary Kirsten gave almost no interviews during his term, and only consented after the World Cup victory (when coverage was unlikely to be hostile, to say the least). Now, Kirsten pulled that off for two reasons: 1) Dhoni can handle the press well, when he wants to; 2) India did well — really well. If India falter in the next two years — more specifically, if they fail badly in Australia — Fletcher will need to be prepared to answer questions like, “Uh, why aren’t you Gary Kirsten? Oh, and also, did you just give us the middle finger?”

On the whole,- and, please, correct me if I’m wrong, it seems much tougher to control the English press, rather than the Indian one. Indian journalists can be invasive, they can be prickly, and they can often times be foolish, but when the BCCI wants to ignore them — or, at the very least, say that Fletcher is off-limits — I don’t see what recourse Indian cricket reporters have.

What Duncan Fletcher Thinks About India

Read Duncan Fletcher’s last column for The Guardian (written about the time he must have been approached by India). Full of great tidbits: a) a summary of his long, long relationship with Gary Kirsten and Eric Upton and Paddy Upton; b) his dissection of why Greg Chappell failed as a coach (“He was abrasive and always spoke his mind”) and c) his feelings about M.S. Dhoni:

I have studied Dhoni closely over the years, and these days I am impressed with every single aspect of what he does. Technically, he is not a very good cricketer, but mentally he looks as though he knows how to work with the ability he has got. Just like Kirsten.

You get a sense now why the BCCI liked Fletcher. Basically, if you wanted someone just like Kirsten, the feeling must have been — well, why not someone who coached Kirsten, then worked with him in South Africa, knows the current Indian supporting staff and shares the same philosophy (learn how to advise players without berating them). I.E.: Duncan Fletcher.

Duncan Fletcher Rises

Samir Chopra is skeptical about the Duncan Fletcher pick:

Fletcher is a big mouth, prone to talking too much about his wards to the press. This has the makings of a disaster in India’s media scene.

Well, actually. The Guardian has details on the contract Fletcher signed, which includes some interesting clauses:

Fletcher has been employed to work as a head coach, not a manager. He will not act as a team selector and he will be working alongside a team manager who will be in charge of disciplinary matters. A clause has also been included in his contract stating that he will not necessarily have to talk to reporters in an official capacity or attend press conferences, though it gives him the option of doing so if he wants to. Given how fractious and distracting his relations with the press became in England – media-management was not one of his strong-points – he saw this as another sign that he would be allowed to get on with what he is good at. [Emphasis added.]

All things considered, it appears the BCCI has learned from the Graham Ford fiasco. They didn’t air a shortlist publicly (at least not officially; those leaks must have come from somewhere), and when they picked a candidate, they made sure to make him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Don’t want to manage the team? Fine. Don’t want to talk to the press? We hate them too. Don’t want to start in the West Indies? Who does?

But two questions: The Guardian says Fletcher was impressed with BCCI’s modernization, an improvement he noticed over the past decade. True? Second: Fletcher wins praise for knowing technique, and knowing how to coach these skills. But in his previous incarnation as English coach — and in his Guardian columns — he came across more as a master strategist. Is this the right pick for Dhoni?

Cricket Headline Of The Day

From the Daily Nation in Kenya:

Finally, Baptiste given out after poor innings

Baptiste = Kenya’s coach. The poor innings = 2011 World Cup.

The Uniformity Of Modern Cricket

Harsha Bhogle has an interesting new column in Cricinfo about the rote-learning at Indian cricket “academies”:

Ten-year-old kids are going to academies of various hues, largely dubious, to learn the forward-defensive stroke and the cover drive. They must learn almost by rote, and therefore not too differently from the way they study history; they are taught about where the front foot should be, about how bat and pad must go together, where the elbow should be, where the toe should point, about how the follow-through must end with the bat over the left shoulder. All perfectly correct, except that they don’t learn to hit a ball; instead, they become obedient pupils.

Bhogle’s point mainly deals with the danger of “mollycoddling” coaches, but I think there’s a bigger problem in store with cricket if most of its recruits learn at the hands of textbooks and manuals. Because of its geographic and ethnic diversity, cricket has always produced its outliers and eccentrics — Murali and Mendis; Jack Russell and his strange wicketkeeping stance; Paul Adams and his unbelievable bowling action.

More broadly, there are different types of players (consolidators, Michael Bevan-type pinch-hitters; Jayasuriya/Sehwag openers). I’m not saying Bombay alleys are the ideal breeding ground for cricketers, but I think there should be a fair enough space left for experimentation and fun. Rahul Dravid is beautiful to behold, with his classical shots, but we all need a little Dilshan scoop now and then.

Good Fielding Isn’t That Important

Harsha Bhogle reviews the Bangladesh team, and like me, sees much to like. But he finds them — and the rest of South Asia — wanting in one respect:

Pakistan’s fielding too has been woeful and while India catch well at most times, their out-cricket still gives you the impression it is a generation behind time.

OK, fine. Reasonable point — players should focus on the simple things (catching dollies, running, stopping the ball by bending your knee, maybe even tag-team throws back to the wicketkeeper). But beyond that, I don’t think fielding is all that important. That’s right; I said it — catches don’t win matches.

Forgive the heresy, but say you had to pick 11 players. Six excellent batsmen (averages above 50!) and five excellent bowlers (five-wicket hauls abound!), but they’re all terrible fielders. Wouldn’t you still fancy their chances to win most matches?

I sound stupid, but I’m trying to make an important point: yes, we all want to see players catch the simple ones, and yes, direct hits usually make the difference. But resources are finite and players can’t do everything. So, after coaches focus on the simple stuff — the stuff Bhogle wants — they should step off. Not everyone needs to be a Jonty Rhodes, or even a Yuvraj Singh (and I’d rather have Yuvraj the Batter than Yuvraj the Fielder, especially if he’s going to hurt his knee every time he dives).

Because good fielding rarely wins matches. Unlike good bowling or batting, it’s purely reactive (catches need to be caught, yes, but they must first be offered; same with run-outs). That’s even more true in the world of Twenty20, when batsmen are now regularly hitting out instead of through, and behind (the wicketkeeper) instead of, um, in front. In high-scoring situations, you don’t want a good fielder; you want a hitter.

Conclusions: if you’re a coach, follow the law of diminishing marginal utility returns: the payback of teaching a fielder how to catch properly is immense (and relatively easy to do). But as training goes on, the payback begins to fall: diving in the covers properly isn’t easy, and the utility isn’t all that much (you saved 4 runs. Big deal).

Let me put like this: someone once argued that Dhoni had nowhere to hide Ganguly, Dravid, Laxman and Tendulkar (all old legs) on the field, but I never had a doubt: put ’em in front of the stumps, padded up, facing a bowler.