Kumble-Kohli gate: A thought experiment


Oh dear, what can the matter be? Image sources: 1 and 2.

In case my inflated sense of self-importance is not ridiculously high and you are Anil Kumble, Virat Kohli, or a BCCI office-bearer who has stumbled into this article, please do not read it further. Your collaboration and focus on the Champions Trophy is paramount to us. This article is for the rest of us who are wondering how on earth could there be trouble in paradise. As a country, we are inexplicably forgiving of the corrupt, shockingly indifferent to the violent, shamefully accepting of the discriminant, so unsurprisingly, this is the one thing that leaves us numb, feeling unreal.

As the public, I hope we have set enough precedent with our spiteful intolerance of your failure on a cricket field. Don’t you dare assume the right to question our perpetual mediocrity just because I question the sporadic mediocrity in yours. If you’ve benefitted socially and financially from the adulation of fans like me which have added mythology to your workplace and made you a superstar, the criticism comes with the territory. But I see your point. I do burn your effigies and pelt stones anyway, so you might as well have a verbal shot in the dark.

Alright, minor digressions on the Indian primer of hypocrisy aside, what could possibly have belied our conviction that this was a match made in heaven? What were the events that unfolded? Let us indulge in some thought experiment and reconcile all the parameters, balance the probabilities and backtrack to what the triggers may have been. More importantly (and sadly), this role play might tell us how this is going to end.

As a consumer of content in today’s digital era, I cannot overemphasize the importance of sieving the ground truth from all the noise. Elections and regimes are won and lost by the noise, after all. So let’s start with the most credible piece of information we have. In fact, let us confine ourselves to just the synopsis – “BCCI is inviting applications for the head coach post”.

If we didn’t see this coming, the first and foremost reason is that team India has been performing well. This is completely contrary to the degeneration loop that often leaves us wondering about the starting point – was it bad performance, team disharmony, ineffective enablement(coaching) or was it just poor selection to begin with. However obvious it be, there goes a huge parameter in our equation of scrutiny.

To the young Indian public, Ravi Shastri sports the image of a playboy-binger-rhetoric-howler, ad-nauseum. But Ravi Shastri the player, was the champion of champions, always punched his guts above his weight, and Ravi Shastri the coach-cum-director stepped in during every crisis. There is no doubt he should be revered in the context of Indian cricket. But Kumble is always the man who bowled with the broken jaw who also put Australia in their place. There are no multiple personas, no chinks in the armor, no joke is on him (except perhaps his famous dives/slides during his heyday). Every member of the Indian cricket team will start with utmost reverence.

Let’s start our roleplay on that note. You are now a player in the Indian cricket team that is in transition. You started off by embracing his modus-operandi in pure awe, but you do not see it as constructive anymore. You pick up the vibe that your confidants share your empathy. If you are a strong character, you brought this up directly with Kumble. If you are someone shy, you funneled it through those who can voice your opinion. Either way, it looks like he put his foot down. He has publicly defended Pujara’s strike rate, he’s put his money on using a bowling-led approach in tests, and having an emphasis on match fitness. The individual merits in each case may be debatable, but the results aren’t.

Over a period of time, discontent of the methods brewed dislike of the person. You wonder if the leader of the pack shares the same empathy. You bring it up with him. This is when things get tricky. If Virat heard you out and didn’t find your concerns justified, he shut you down. If he had shut you down, this is a smaller matter. You are eventually feeling disconnected from the scheme of things and working towards your non-selection. But the headline didn’t read – “Player ABC is dropped due to reason XYZ”. So, your performance, fitness and mental conditioning has been good. In this case, you are a convert for good—from awe to knee-jerk skepticism caused by the change, and back to awe. Also, the positive reinforcement is there for the entire team to witness. But, neither of these was the outcome. Were you injured then?

Based on the outcome, it does seem like Virat feels you are right because he either wasn’t a believer of Kumble’s methods, or that you were an exception. Imagine you are Virat Kohli. You have put your body and mind through hell and come out clean for the betterment of your performance. It is hard to believe though that the fitness freak that you are would find Kumble’s methods to be gruelling. If anything, you now have a coach who is willing to play the bad cop in enforcing the fitness regimen you truly believe in. But that clearly wasn’t the case either. Cleary, the outcome suggests that you have taken the player’s case and attempted negotiation with Kumble. And Kumble has either attempted to address them and failed, or perhaps shunned it, and there begin the escalations—a potential power struggle of coach vs captain, only, in this case, you have the team’s backing and are one of the first names on the team sheet in all 3 formats.

As this reached levels of intolerance, you possibly reached out to those you could trust, empathize and fix this. BCCI personnel are too volatile, and approaching BCCI makes it too formal. Despite your escalation, you wanted containment. Your objective was not nuclear. That brings Saurav and Sachin, who truly believe in you and truly understand Kumble- the best mediators to handle these powerful personalities. Irrespective of how the permutations played out, their skype calls failed to reconcile. It failed so badly.

Kumble isn’t staying as the coach for the next term. It would need someone to pull off a mass psychological miracle. Let’s fast forward to where speculations began. If you are running the BCCI, what is the first thing you do when this escalates to you? You try to contain this and scheme a PR spin on this matter, announce that Kumble leave is set to leave due to “personal” reasons, retain him on a per-series basis, find a replacement and announce gratefulness for his willingness to extend for a few months despite his “situation”. This is the most graceful way to handle the situation—albeit farcical—as it begs to make it into an autobiography. Nonetheless, that is what you do as an organization. But your hand is forced and you are asking for applications during the Champions Trophy. You couldn’t take this up until after because of contractual obligations with Kumble who wants to leave in his own terms, or you have already made the decision to sack Kumble, either of which has the same implication – his being with the team in England is the actual PR exercise. Thus, the premature end to Kohli-Kumble alliance.

But the mess doesn’t end here.

Irrespective of Kumble’s credentials, the premature end to his tenure directly implicates the committee that contrived to have him in the first place. There is also the little matter of the public fallout between Ganguly and Shastri, which some say showed a semblance of improvement as Ravi Shastri howled out “Dada, the prince of Bengal” during the IPL inauguration. I just think that was Shastri doing his job. So, that pipe is still clogged, fresh wounds yet to heal, so calling in the crisis man would be unlikely. Oh, and this also thwarts the attribution of Greg Chappell’s failure to his tough-guy Australian-ness. The members of the panel preferred a coach in background in the mould of John Wright and Gary Kirsten. Going by history, it seems that the only question that counts in the matter of Indian coach is this: “Where does a candidate personality lie in the dictator-sycophant spectrum?”

Let’s not trust whatever we hear, but trust based on what we didn’t. And that brings us to the lone shining light in this dark episode. We didn’t hear any rumor of a spat or factions within the team. We didn’t hear of any power struggle either and that is a critical piece of information. We didn’t hear a fallout between Kumble and Dhoni, or Dhoni and Kohli. That Dhoni is staying under the radar shows how he controlled the compelling urge of throwing himself into the mess to “fix” it. That tells you a bit about the man and bodes well for the unit.

The false hope that I am clinging onto, is that this was all plotted and schemed by the BCCI to get rid of the most vocal member who was throwing down the gauntlet to increase player and coach salaries, and that this connivance would hit the light, and Kumble would continue to coach happily ever after.

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