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Greg Chappell: An Unwitting ‘Shakuni’

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Greg_Chappell_Australia_CricketMuch water has flowed under the bridge since the public spat in 2005-06 between Sourav Ganguly, then the Indian captain, and Greg Chappell, the Indian coach at the time. Most fans who follow the game closely remember the “seniors vs. juniors” divide (and consequent disharmony) created by Chappell, and the lack of morale in the dressing room that we heard about at the time. And, of course, none can forget our loss in the World Cup in 2007. But over the passage of time, Chappell’s stint has become a fading memory. The next coach, Gary Kirsten, was loved and respected. During his tenure India delivered glorious results, including winning the World Cup in 2011 and topping the ICC ranking charts across multiple forms of the game, especially in test matches, the most coveted position. However, since then, things have gone downhill mostly. Most wonder exactly what Duncan Fletcher has done as a coach (with Ravi Shastri as the “team director,” a new post), and why the BCCI has allowed him to hang around so long. It is a fast changing world, so the Chappell era seems like something that happened in the distant past. Excerpts from "Playing it My Way", Sachin Tendulkar’s autobiography, have rekindled those memories. Importantly, by connecting the dots, now we can understand how Chappell unwittingly played the role of ‘Shakuni’ in the saga.

In the wake of India’s ignominious exit from the WC 2007, Ian Chappell wrote an article on March 30 2007 in which he suggested that Tendulkar retire. Soon after, he wrote another article defending his brother’s role as the Indian coach. It was odd, to say the least, but another incident involving two Chappell brothers is even more pertinent and insightful. On February 1 1981, in an ODI game, New Zealand needed six runs to win off the last ball. Greg, the captain, asked his brother Trevor to deliver an underarm ball along the ground. Such a ball was legal at that time but against the spirit of the game. Ian criticized the action, while Greg and Trevor were suitably embarrassed. However, the incident itself showed Greg Chappell as a ruthless person, for whom the end justified the means.

I have a confession to make. At the peak of the Chappell-Ganguly conflict I actually supported Chappell. How wrong I was! The results India delivered when Chappell was the coach were bad to average, at best . In contrast, the results during John Wright’s tenure (his predecessor) and Gary Kirsten’s tenure (his successor), were very impressive. This sandwich effect made Chappell’s results even more dismal. The team spirit through 2006 seemed to be at an all time low, as per media reports, and such results were not a coincidence. So what was Chappell’s motivation? I have heard many wild theories, the foremost being that he deliberately wanted to destroy the Indian team to help Australia; I find this too far-fetched. His motivation was, in my view, noble: to create a young, world-beating side. For example, his focus on fielding was much needed, especially in ODIs. But the way he went about it, he ended up almost destroying the team. The root of the issue, in my view, is that he wanted to be the boss of the team in a game where the captain is usually in charge. More importantly, he worked in an autocratic fashion.

Specifically, Chappell did not respect or appreciate how precious the ‘Golden Era of Indian batting” was and how much they could still contribute to the team’s success for a few years. He did not appear to have thought of a different approach for test matches vs. ODIs. If he had done so, he might have been more subtle in his treatment of the older players. Now that most of the senior players have articulated their views, most of the pieces are fitted in the jigsaw puzzle. It is clear that he made the senior players vulnerable. By design or coincidence, deliberately or unwittingly, he seems to have played the role of ‘Shakuni’ in trying to demoralize each of the ‘Pandavs’ of the Indian batting. Let us piece together what each has had to say on Chappell’s attitude and its impact during his era.

The most public is the spat between Chappell and Ganguly. What is new is Ganguly’s take on Rahul Dravid as the captain. He says, “Dravid knew what was going on but he could not control Chappell.” (Source: The Hindu, Nov 4). In Tendulkar’s book, we are told that Chappell wanted Dravid removed and Tendulkar made captain instead. Between these two accounts, this reinforces the impression that Chappell-the-coach wanted a greater say in team matters than Dravid-the-captain; very usual in cricket. Note: Dravid has denied what Ganguly has had to say and has no comments of Tendulkar’s revelation. Dravid’s situation is delicate and it is therefore understandable that he is likely to neither strongly support nor deny what the other seniors have to say of Chappell.

Sehwag has been vocal on Chappell’s stint even earlier, and shared the frustration. “Whatever we discussed between us as coach and player went to the media straight.” This is clearly not the way to build trust.

VVS Laxman is a man of few words and wholly devoid of any controversy throughout his career. So when he says, “Chappell hurt Indian cricket and took us backwards”, (Source: NDTV, Nov 4) it is both eloquent and damaging. He says Chappell was forcing him to open the innings (in tests) and threatened him that his career would be over if he didn’t agree to be an opener. Laxman had clearly indicated his clear preference to be a middle order batsman with good reasons.

In a role reversal, Chappell “successfully” forced Tendulkar to bat at number four in the WC 2007 despite the latter’s clear preference to opening the batting in ODIs. Personal preference in a team game is one thing; preference based on data, logical thought, and prior experience is quite another. Tendulkar had played four World Cups prior to WC 2007. In the 1992 and 1999 World Cups, he played as a middle order bastman (at least in some of the matches). India failed to enter the semi-finals in these two tournaments. In the 1996 and 2003 World Cups, Tendulkar opened the innings. He became the highest run scorer of the tournaments and India qualified for the semi-finals; in 2003, India played in the final. It is interesting, and relevant, to note that Ganguly, an opener himself, decided to drop down to number three in the WC 2003 so that Tendulkar and Sehwag could open the innings. He knew the importance of Tendulkar at the top of the batting order in driving India’s chances. Forcing Tendulkar to bat at number four in WC 2007 was a cardinal sin. With this context, we can understand why Tendulkar calls Chappell, “Ringmaster” in his book. To be fair to Chappell, years later he admitted that it was a mistake and that he regrets it.

Chappell won some battles during his tenure. On the positive side, he did give more chances for the youngsters. He even won a battle or two, for example, forcing Tendulkar to play at two down in ODIs. But he lost his war due to his role as ‘Shakuni’ in making the ‘Pandavs’ individually vulnerable rather than getting their enthusiastic support. Post Chappell, India won many important test matches and series with the seniors playing key roles. Under Anil Kumble, a real gentleman, India became #1 in the ICC test ranking just before the first of the five (Ganguly) retired. India won the WC 2011, with Tendulkar playing as the opener; he was the 2nd highest run scorer of the tournament.

I am sure that we have not heard the last of these words of war. But I am happy that Tendulkar wrote about his take on the Chappell era. As ardent fans of Indian cricket, we deserved to know.

 

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