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Truthful Tuesday | Greg Chappell’s tenure as India coach unsymmetric but it had spunk and logic

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Perspective on Greg Chappell

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Truthful Tuesday | Greg Chappell’s tenure as India coach unsymmetric but it had spunk and logic

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Bastab K Parida

06/02/2020

It was a chilly winter afternoon in 2007 when I thronged to the Bhubaneswar Airport to catch a glimpse of Indian team arriving for the second ODI against Windies in Cuttack. The joy of the team's arrival, however, was greeted with despair that made everything gloomy and me ashamed of my state.

With the Indian team approaching the Odisha Tourism Bus on their way to the hotel, a young man broke the barricade and whacked Greg Chappell on his face, a slap strong enough to invoke a nightmare in isolation. That incident happened literally a meter from me with me falling down on the barricade after the mentally-demented person pushed us to angrily ask Chappell, “Why are there no Odisha players in the Indian team?”  

Not defending the incident, I can attest to the content of his rant like many others standing close to the bus barricade can do, but certainly not Chappell, who claimed later, "As I said to the BCCI in a letter, had it been one of the players who was attacked there would have been an outcry, but because it was me no-one seemed to care. The reply came back talking about my racist comments. There was a cover-up. Everyone went into cover-up mode. It was quite obvious it was a serious assault. It wasn't just a push in the back as the media was led to believe.” 

Surely it was not a push in the back, it was a serious slap and the BCCI did no good by doing what they did but it was not racist either. It was a frustration of a mentally-demented person, an opportunistic one on a person who threatened to disrupt the established order. In a bigger picture, the incident actually spoke about the frustration that both the Indian public and Chappell had for each other during his tenure as the Indian team head coach. From the Sourav Ganguly controversy to the excessive affection for chopping and changing even in the direst of times, from unsettling the batting order to creating an insecure atmosphere inside the dressing room, Chappell knew that he had made himself more than a few enemies. 

In retrospect, the Aussie’s two-year stay with the Indian team can be viewed in layers. Take the Ganguly case for example. The former Indian skipper was an absolute star in the cricket-mad country for the way he resurrected the Indian side in the aftermath of the match-fixing scandal and walked alongside the seniors while giving chances to juniors. Many careers like Harbhajan Singh, Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, and Mohammed Kaif prospered under Ganguly while the skipper also gave chances to MS Dhoni to come good at any possible cost. The trust factor and the comfort zone that Ganguly created was so good that breaking the norm became irresistibly difficult for the Indian stars. And Chappell wanted to break that norm, which worked against him massively.

Chappell’s appraisal that Ganguly’s batting had declined massively with the captaincy burden had a measuring amount of truth to it. Chappell took over as India’s coach in the 2005 Indian Oil Cup against Sri Lanka, with Ganguly being out of the squad for the first four matches due to slow over rates during the series against Pakistan in early 2005 after which he also missed the South Africa series. When Ganguly eventually returned to the side, as the skipper in the Zimbabwe series, it had already been two years for him of scoring a century since that majestic ton in Brisbane.

Chappell had asked him to step down as captain to focus on his batting but Ganguly’s ego stopped him from doing that and the clinginess took a huge turn when he made himself ready to leave the tour mid-way. Better sense prevailed for everyone involved and Ganguly continued to lead the side but that was only damage control. Be it about leaked emails or Ganguly speaking to Bengali media and BCCI intervention, so many things were beyond the control of what can be termed as a happy team. Hovering with an average of a shade over 34 against Test nations, save Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, for a five-year period, Ganguly didn’t do any favours to his own god-given talent that oozed class every time he drove one through cover. Ganguly, in all honesty, should have done better and none of his achievements could have been forgotten in the annals of Indian cricket history.

Chappell’s presence also challenged the ego of a number of superstars in the Indian side with VVS Laxman and Sachin Tendulkar being given reality checks from time to time. It was a problem not only because of the star culture prevailing in India, but it was also a product of the lack of understanding of India’s diversity. Chappell failed massively in that count, having no knowledge on how things operate in India, where cricketers come from various places with totally different upbringings. But does that really define him or are we making a scapegoat out of him to define an Indian side which was not even the second-best team in the world despite having some of the greats of the game? Doesn’t the role of the coach not stand to the whims of a captain riding a surge but show them a mirror when the train goes off-track? Was it really that uncomfortable? 

In a cricketing sense, under Chappell’s tenure, when Rahul Dravid became the full-time captain, India started chasing more often than not despite knowing that it was not their strongest forte. India had lost 17 of the 22 games they batted second just before the Aussie’s arrival, but under Chappell, that changed massively. They chose to chase with an insane regularity and came to a point where they even won 17 games on a trot while batting second. In modern-day cricket, with chasing becoming a necessity rather than a choice, Chappell was perhaps ahead of his time, chucked off by those who held convention dear. In Bollywood parlance, it was perhaps Andaz Apna Apna in the time of Deewana and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. Chappell was Rajkumar Santoshi in the time of Aditya Chopra. An anomaly, a new ring-master to the world of romantic stars and heroes, quickly to be labelled as a flop.

Even the allegations of Irfan Pathan losing his sting found strong support among Chappell haters, with the pacer clocking in early 130s in the series against Pakistan, but it was conveniently forgotten that a typically injury-prone character Zaheer Khan had some of the best years under him after first pulled up to work on his fitness. Zaheer called Chappell a maniac and control freak but never ever do stories of how Chappell made the Indian side bowl well on unresponsive wickets find a mention in any of those numerous interviews dished about the man himself. 

There's the story of how Irfan Pathan was victimized, with his fall from grace being considered tragic, but no one ever questioned his fitness and own work ethic, for him missing umpteen Ranji Trophy matches due to injury before suddenly getting fit for the Indian Premier League. For the polarised Indian fans, it was a matter of choice and perception, used at the most opportune of time - partly due to the perception itself and partly due to the lack of perspective on the matter, even with the benefit of hindsight. 

It hasn’t happened 13 years after his sacking as India coach and it is futile to expect if the public opinion about the elegant Aussie, upright and beautiful in his stance, will ever change. The smearing of the issue will be felt in the DNA of Indian Cricket, just like it did during the Virat Kohli-Anil Kumble issue three years ago, but the reality of the Chappell tenure will never be realised. That is the saddest part of it all for a man who promised so much. 

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