On Kumble’s Appointment as India’s Head Coach

Anil Kumble, cricketer extraordinaire, has been appointed as the head coach of the India (men’s) cricket team by the BCCI for the duration of one year, today. From the original list of 57 candidates which was pruned to 21, the Cricket Advisory Committee, that included leading lights of the last 25 years of Indian cricket, Kumble has been chosen despite his lack of any previous coaching experience, and despite the prior coaching track record and pedigree of some of those 21 candidates.

Kumble’s appointment has been welcomed -based on perusal of social media and news websites -wholeheartedly by fans, journalists and ex-cricketers. There seems to be a general sense of positivity towards Kumble’s reintroduction to the Indian dressing room. Based on what? I do not know.

Kumble’s credentials as a cricketer are beyond any doubt. His toughness on the field, his dedication to his craft, his relentless pursuit of wickets in an uncompromising manner, and the dignity with which he led the side before he left the international scene in 2008 are all there for anyone to see, but how do all those qualities transfer to him being a successful head coach, I do not know.

Of course, modern day “head coaching” is more man-management than working with the players on an individual basis to correct any flaws in their game. There are assistant coaches for the technical aspects. There are analysts that provide the data and information on trends and tendencies. Gary Kirsten, former India coach himself and a terrific player in his time, said on the Couch Talk podcast that “[t]he ability to get the best out of people [and] skillful man-management” are the most important skills in the modern day cricket head coach.

Kumble, after his playing career was over, served as president of Karnataka State Cricket Association, mentor for two IPL franchises (RCB and MI), Chairman of National Cricket Academy, and also in the ICC Cricket Committee. In addition to that, he is also the co-founder of TENVIC, part management, part academy, part consulting company.

How do all of this transfer to his likelihood of success as head coach? I do not know. More importantly, how did all this catapult him ahead of the other 20 candidates in the short list? I do not know. Some of those 20 included people who had played the game at the highest level – just as Kumble had, served in various capacities within cricket and beyond, and more importantly have a track record as head coach. For the CAC to pass all of them and make Kumble the head coach, they must have seen something in him – beyond their personal relationships over the last two decades and camaraderie as cricketing team mates – and Kumble must have provided a vision for the Indian team and the ways to achieve them that blew the competition out of the water, but we don’t know.

This isn’t to say Kumble will not succeed in his new endeavor. Far from it. A long home season (of 13 Tests) that follows a 4-Tests series in the Caribbean, provides as good a chance to succeed in the first year on the job as any. However, that the BCCI chose to make the appointment for only a year can be seen as them taking a punt on Kumble to see how turns out rather than a confident, absolutely certain move. Ajay Shirke, the BCCI secretary said just as much about the duration of the appointment: “[I]t was to help Kumble acclimatise to the job easier and for the board to have the cushion to reassess their options.”

Some journalists – who cover the Indian team closely and have long been following BCCI and its processes – I interacted with after the announcement seemed to suggest that the stature of Kumble as a giant of Indian cricket made his selection to the job an inevitability once he decided to throw his hat in the ring, prior coaching experience or not. If that were to be the case, then the whole process of CAC, minimum requirements, applications, and pruning of list etc., were just a charade. If stature in the game and knowledge of cricket were to supersede any/all of the other requirements for the job, then Kapil Dev would still be coaching, and there wouldn’t have been the bitter break up of Greg Chappell from the Indian team, but we don’t really know.

Without any real details on why Kumble was chosen ahead of a long list of equally deserving and well-qualified candidates – and it is highly doubtful that we will ever be privy to that, we can all feel “positive” about the appointment but that is just living in hope rather than anything based in substantive evidence beyond the obvious facts of his extraordinary playing career.  I say this because there has been an overwhelming approval and embrace of the choice of head coach that the underlying processes in selecting the best available person have been thrown out the window. When support of decisions is made based on personality rather than actual vetting of qualifications, the scrutiny that will inevitably follow will also be based on “gut feelings” and “vibes” rather than grounded in facts and evidence, and that is a bad situation for Kumble – with all of his 619 Test wickets – or anyone else.

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