Giving Anil Kumble only one year might make things tough for coach and team

Trust the BCCI to complicate what should have been a straightforward process.

On Thursday, the board announced that Anil Kumble would be the Indian cricket team’s next head coach. On the face of it, his appointment elevates the stature of the team. After all, Kumble is a legend, one of India’s greatest ever cricketer’s with an unquestionable record. He was a tough, pragmatic cricketer who made the most of his ability and was always willing to push himself for the sake of the team. Those are qualities that should stand him in good stead as the coach of a young side.

But the board has stopped short of hedging its bet entirely on Kumble; by giving him only a one-year contract because he has never been a head coach before, they want to “have the cushion to reassess their options”. Board president Anurag Thakur said that Kumble provided the best blueprint for taking Indian cricket forward. But the board seems to also be saying there is many a slip between presentation and execution, and they might yet decide this was a mistake.

In other words, the appointment is not a ringing endorsement of Kumble, but appears to be more of an it’s-worth-a-punt-and-lets- se-what-happens sort of appointment. It’s a short-term decision that sends a signal to the players that “this guy might be our guy but then again he might not”. That in turn could make it more difficult for the players to buy what Kumble is selling because they can’t even be sure he will be around in the long term, especially after their experience with Ravi Shastri.

By all accounts, Kohli and the players were in favour of Shastri being appointed head coach, but that appears to have cut no ice with the committee or the board. Even if the players back Kumble a year from now, who’s to say they won’t make a different choice again?

The short duration of the contract also comes with the potential to create a dilemma for Kumble himself. Much like the chief executive of a public company, Kumble could find himself facing a choice between implementing a long-term vision that will put the team on a firmer foundation but might not pay off in a year, and making short-term decisions to ensure the best possible chance of getting an extension (assuming he wants one). Will he feel comfortable backing players if they struggle for form or will he feel pressure to recommend they be dropped because he needs to show results in a short space of time?

The other question that hangs over Kumble’s appointment is the track record that great players have as coaches. As Joy Bhattacharjya pointed out in the Economic Times, “There is a long list of high profile cricketers who were complete flops as coaches.”

That’s not to say Kumble can’t handle such a situation. He was a no-nonsense and thoughtful player and will likely be the same kind of coach. But given India is playing 17 Tests over the next nine months — a record 13 of them at home — much will depend on how Kumble gels with Kohli and how quickly he can get the team to buy into his vision, something his predecessor Ravi Shastri did brilliantly.

The chemistry between Kohli and Shastri was fantastic, with a former India captain telling me that he thought they were soul-mates. Those are tough shoes to fill, especially since Kumble is a different personality from Shastri and Kohli. That said, the former leg-spinner is second to no one when it comes to steely determination and the desire to win, which is to say he and Kohli want the same thing and that should help create a bond between the two.

Kumble’s relationship with MS Dhoni is potentially less fraught and has less at stake. Not only have they played together, India will play many more days of Test cricket than limited-overs cricket over the next year. At this point, Kohli is the future of Indian cricket and the prince will one day be king of the limited-overs sides too.

Kumble is the third head coach/director of cricket that India have had in the last three years. Changing coaches again next year would not be in the team’s best interest. A young team needs a consistent message and a strong voice in the dressing room. Kumble has the potential to be that voice, especially since he has been there and done that and knows what it takes to win, especially away from the sub-continent. His words will carry weight. Though his methods as a coach are untried and unknown, a three-year contract would have been a strong statement that the BCCI believes in them.

Instead, Kumble is effectively on probation for a year. Whether that year is long enough to put his ideas to the test remains to be the seen. The hope is that it will be but the fear is that it won’t be. If the latter comes to pass, Indian cricket will be the loser and the board will have no one to blame but itself.

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