The Leadership Review Team

Wright, Chappell, and Kirsten: Different Fates of Foreign Coaches of Team India

The Leadership Review Team

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For many expatriates, India proves to be one of their most difficult assignments. Some find unprecedented success here while many others suffer ultimate failure. More often than not, the core factors that drive these successes and failures are people related and rooted in understanding of cross-cultural differences or the lack of it. Contrasting stories of three expatriates, employed by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) as coaches of Indian cricket team, highlight this.

John Wright, Greg Chappell, and Gary Kirsten were all top order batsmen. As the statistics show, Greg Chappell was the best player among the three, but his legacy as the coach of Indian cricket team was the worst. While John Wright took the Indian team to the 2003 World Cup final and Kirsten helped India win its second cricket World Cup in 2011, Chappell bore the ignominy of India’s first round exit in the 2007 World Cup.

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What Sachin Tendulkar, most respected Indian cricketer of all times, had to say about the three coaches is testimony enough to the degree of success they enjoyed:

– “I think when John  Wright was there with the team, the team was I felt, in a terrific space and we had done well.”

– “There was not enough transparency and I have no doubt that out of 15 members odd, may be two players might be with him (Chappell) and then the rest 13 players would agree with what I am saying, and cricket was least enjoyable, I’ve never had that experience in my life.”

 – “Gary and the rest of the coaching team deserve all the credit (for the World Cup victory).”

Metamorphosis of Indian Cricket with John Wright

The year was 2000 and in the new millennium, Indian cricket was emerging from the shadows of the match fixing scandal and readying itself for a giant leap from being an ‘also ran’ to ‘the World Champion. It was the first time when the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) was ready to recruit a foreign coach, partially because some of the senior Indian players were pressing their board to hire one. With the names like Greg Chappell and Geoff Marsh doing the rounds, John Wright was surely an underdog who not many expected to bag the job. However, as destiny would have it, Wright had made a good enough case for him to be named the first foreign coach of the Indian cricket team.

India was of course a whole new ball game from Kent, the county side in England, which Wright had coached before the Indian job. There were a lot of things that didn’t go Wright’s way or were denied to him. For instance, he was denied a dedicated physical trainer (for the initial years of his tenure) and a stable team manager; such were the times that even the jobs of selectors and board president were changing hands. But Wright took it all in his stride and worked with whatever little he had.

To begin with, his mandate was to turn Indians from a bunch of lazy cricketers into an athletic team. And traditionally, the senior players in most south Asian teams expand in their mid-section and do not tend to remain very athletic. Getting the younger ones, to get up early in the morning and make them run was not difficult. But in a collectivistic society, one needs to be mindful of remaining relationship oriented and not interfering directly with the hierarchy. And John Wright was too wise not to know that.

Source - ESPN Cricinfo

Source – ESPN Cricinfo

In his book, Indian Summers, he reminisced, ‘My relationship with Sourav (Ganguly) was obviously going to be critical. I thought I could help him tactically, but I began with the basics, suggesting that he get a new watch as it was important the captain was on time. I talked about setting an example and the importance of body language and how those sorts of things were more pertinent to leadership on and off the field than what you said. We came from different backgrounds but had plenty in common. We were both ambitious and desperately keen to succeed in our respective roles; to do that we’d need each other’s help. And our destinies are linked: we’d sink or swim together.’

John Wright came to push the Indian cricket team into a fighting athletic unit, and he never let his focus go off of this task for a second. But he forged relationships to drive the task, something Greg Chappell failed miserably at. The emergence of young match-winning players like Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh, and Mohammed Kaif was largely attributed to the Ganguly-Wright duo. Under their leadership, India achieved many firsts: right from achieving their first Test win outside the sub-continent in 15 years (Zimbabwe, 2001), to a first Test win in England (2002) and Australia (2003-04), to reaching their first World Cup final in 20 years (South Africa, 2003) and the ultimate one — becoming the first Indian team to win a Test series in Pakistan (2004).

To sum up John Wright’s approach, Aditya Tare, whom Wright coached at Mumbai Indians, said in a 2013 interview “He is soft-spoken, but not soft.”

The Greg Chappell Disaster

After John Wright’s departure, Indian cricket was looking for a person who would take it to newer heights. Greg Chappell – ironically with strong backing by then India captain and another alpha Sourav Ganguly – was chosen for the job over other greats like Dave Whatmore, Mohinder Amarnath, Graham Ford, Tom Moody, and John Emburey.

Soon after joining the Indian side, Greg Chappell started becoming the favourite of the Indian media for his outspoken ways and domineering personality. This was quite the opposite of John Wright, who would remain in the background. Though predictions about an eventual personality clash were being made, but not many would have guessed that the trouble in paradise would start only in the second tour that Greg Chappell took with India. To this Zimbabwe tour Ganguly was going after serving a four match ban and not having scored a test match century for two years. Although the first test saw Ganguly score a hundred against a very weak Zimbabwean attack (after the exodus of its white players under Mugabe regime) it is now better known for the beginning of the end of Greg Chappell.

After rumours of Ganguly faking an injury started doing rounds in the Indian media, Ganguly publicly accused members of team management – without naming anyone – of trying to pressure him to resign as captain. During the same tour Greg Chappell also sent an email, which got ‘leaked’, to the BCCI saying that Ganguly was unfit to lead.

Source - Yahoo Cricket

Source – Yahoo Cricket

In the next home series against Sri Lanka and England, Ganguly was in and out of the team and India continued under the new captain Rahul Dravid. To worsen the affairs, a debate started in the media as to who should get a slot in the test side – Ganguly or Yuvraj Singh (who was a Ganguly protégée himself). But Ganguly wasn’t picked for the England’s India tour, despite Yuvraj Singh’s injury.

Chappell was an Australian and coming from a society with more objective frame of reference, might have considered it being ‘only business’ but Ganguly felt betrayed. And that’s how most people in the cricket crazy country saw it. Parliamentarians raised the issue of Ganguly’s omission in the Indian parliament and his fans blocked rail transport in West Bengal.

 Moreover, in a relationship oriented hierarchical set up of Team India, the ‘youth first policy’ was bound to backfire. It was foolhardy of Chappell to pit youngsters like Yuvraj, Kaif, and Raina against their senior colleagues like Ganguly and Tendulkar. For them, Ganguly was always going to remain dada and Tendulkar paaji, both the words mean elder brother in two different Indian languages. Just like an elder brother is supposed to do in India, Ganguly had yelled at them during the matches but he had also stuck his neck out for them when the selectors thought of dropping them during a lean patch in their careers. Moreover, to young Indian minds rooted in fatalism, success did not come to them only because they were worthy of it. They genuinely believed that for the success they had tasted, they were indebted to the support of senior players. No wonder, Yuvraj Singh did openly back Ganguly’s inclusion in the England series and Harbhajan Singh accused Chappell of double standards and creating an environment of fear and insecurity in the team.

Another of his folly was a sheer disrespect for the established hierarchy that had deep roots in the social structure of the country. Although a sharp focus on physical fitness was also given during John Wright’s time, Chappell got a little heavy handed in his treatment of the senior players like Ganguly, Tendulkar, Lakshman, and Dravid. He also interfered with the natural playing style of the cricketers which the juniors accepted given the Indian ‘reverence for authority’ but the senior players who traditionally were authority figures themselves did not like it one bit. Chappell also loved to hog the limelight and in India – where senior cricketers are akin to demigods – this was never going to work.

Chappell failed exactly where John Wright succeeded. He alienated the senior players, he alienated the junior players, and the masses were burning his effigies. No wonder, the Indian team had to face back to back losses in the next two overseas tours to West Indies and South Africa. Soon, Greg Chappell was unceremoniously fired after India’s first round exit from the World Cup in 2007 on losing to Sri Lanka and the minnows ‘Bangladesh’.

His legacy is best summed in the words of the swashbuckling Indian opening batsman Virender Sehwag, “Worst coach India ever had”.

World Cup Win with Gary Kirsten

After Greg Chappell’s departure, in November 2007 Gary Kirsten was signed as India’s new coach. His first tour with the team was to the home country South Africa where India had lost every single match when it toured the last time with Greg Chappell; only this time India could draw the test series 1-1. And this was the beginning of the resurrection of Team India. Under Kirsten, India won Border-Gavaskar trophy at home against Australia, went on to win its first- bilateral series in Sri Lanka against Sri Lanka, and its first one-day international series victory in 40 years against New Zealand in New Zealand. He also took India to the number one spot in the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) rankings of test playing nations. Above all, he helped the Indian team lift the World Cup in 2011, after a wait of 28 long years. On the shoulders of young Indian players in a victory lap Kirsten bid a dream farewell to a grateful nation.

3 - CopyThis dream run of a tenure that Kirsten had did not come easy but he had examples of John Wright and Greg Chappell to learn from. In a 2011 interview to ESPN Cricinfo, he said “It took time. But me and Paddy (Upton- the assistant coach) – realized very soon that we needed to spend time to understand the Indian way as cricketers and as people.”  Contrast it with what Greg Chappell said in 2012, “Indian culture doesn’t foster a sense of team spirit”. This brings to our notice the most important differentiator between those who succeed in a cross-cultural set up and those who fail.

Kirsten saw the need to understand the ‘Indian way’ and that is why he focused on building relationships. That is why he remained patient. That is why he tried to make his team members feel secure that even if they made errors the authority would not come hard at them. That is why he stayed away from the spotlight. And that is why he chose to influence his team members by saying the right things, supporting them, and believing in them. John Wright had a similar approach. And their willingness to understand a different culture, without judging it with a frame of reference coloured in the ethos of their homeland, helped them to relate with their teams better and brought them success. Greg Chappell, on the other hand, failed to do just that. If only he could understand that while he thought he was trying to understand the culture of India he was actually sitting in its judgement.

John and Gary Way


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