April 02, 2020
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Kiwi Ponders Flight

Is the end of the Wright era really nigh? Where else can we get that alchemising glint of steel?

Kiwi Ponders Flight
Kiwi Ponders Flight
It was no surprise to see John Wright balk at the suggestion of a profile. "No, no, no," he said, "but, yes, we can talk about this (the India-Pakistan) series." That is just the way the man is, a throwback to another era when the sky was bluer, the flannels whiter and real men were self-effacingly modest, much like the man who has flowered under him, Rahul Dravid.

In an age when national cricket coaches are fast acquiring the status and star value of football coaches, Wright remains unassuming and unobtrusive, without a media column or a capsule on television. He seldom saunters in to address a press conference after a triumph. Mostly, he walks in dutifully to spare the captain a potential grilling.

When Wright's stint with Team India is evaluated—and it will be pretty soon if he leaves, as he is said to be planning, after this series—the highlights would be the triumph over Australia in 2001, the trip to the 2003 World Cup final, the Test and ODI series victory in Pakistan.

Yet, that would be doing him gross injustice. Wright's contribution to Indian cricket is more in the territory that lies beyond batting, bowling and fielding, where cricket is supposed to be really played: the mind.

When Outlook caught up with Wright after the Mohali Test, he was nearly distraught—in as much as a man with a permanently expressionless public face can be—because India had failed to deliver the killer blow. "There must be an aggressive quality in everything we do. You have to ultimately win the contest," he said.

The mind has been the focus of Wright's efforts ever since November 2000, when he took over the reins of an Indian team that was left mid-stream by the previous coach, the great Kapil Dev. The team had recently lost 3-0 in Australia and 2-0 at home to South Africa. Match-fixing clouds hadn't quite receded. Azhar was gone. Tendulkar had resigned from his second stint as the captain. Saurav Ganguly, maligned as Lord Snooty, was at the helm.

The team had acquired a reputation for choking in crunch situations—a disorder perhaps inflicted by Miandad's last-ball six in Sharjah in 1986. They would win, it was assumed, only when all the variables—the pitch, conditions, crowds and the flow of the game—were constantly in their favour.

BCCI showed rare foresight in choosing Wright over Australians Greg Chappell and Geoff Marsh, both bigger names. The Kiwi was never a major star during his playing days. With 5,334 runs in 82 Tests at an average of 37.82 and 12 centuries, he fell just that bit short.

Yet, he was integral to the New Zealand team that he captained in the 1980s and early '90s that successfully blended its meagre star power—Richard Hadlee's, Martin Crowe's—with a bunch of solid performers. Wright had not arrived with a bang. But, mid-career, his Test average began to climb as he emerged as New Zealand's first choice to helm a grim battle. He was also the vice-captain of the 1992 World Cup team, which stunned the world by using opening batsman Mark Greatbatch as pinch-hitter and off-spinner Deepak Patel to open the bowling.

Wright successfully carried much of his learning into his second career and proved to be just the right man to handle a bunch of very talented stars who needed to make their individuality subservient to the greater goal of team performance. Plus, he brought along with him the ingrained concept of physical fitness so common in Australia and New Zealand.

Things changed right at the beginning of what will go down in cricketing lore as the Ganguly-Wright era. The 2001 series against Australia was only Wright's third in charge. In the decade preceding Wright, India won only 19 Tests, just two of them abroad, one in Bangladesh's inaugural Test and the other in Sri Lanka.The Ganguly-Wright era has so far notched up 19 Test wins. Nine of those have come overseas, including the one at Adelaide, where Australia amassed 400 for five on day one, and the one before that on a seaming pitch at Headingley in England.

Fresh talent, backed by the team management, has bloomed. Players of undoubted class have been persisted with even when form deserted them.

Yet, we have not always been kind to Wright. After a poor show in Sri Lanka and South Africa, Jagmohan Dalmiya, who had recently become the board president, asked the coach to submit a written explanation. There have been rumours of delays in payment. Akash Chopra, who the coach openly preferred, was dumped. To top it all, for last year's series against Australia, Sunil Gavaskar was appointed batting coach.

Wright had willingly taken on a bowling coach, Bruce Reid, on the Australian tour of 2003-04. But Gavaskar is not Reid. Arguably the best opener of all times, he is a power centre. One big name in cricket administration swears this is the reason the Kiwi wants to take flight.

Wright, of course, would have none of it. "The idea is to have a management team such that everyone has a little bit of knowledge. It wasn't a coincidence that Irfan Pathan and Balaji improved a lot in Australia. I don't have any problems with anyone coming in as long as it is for the good of the players. Sunny is one of the greats. It is important that players get to speak to people like him."

Interestingly, the best tribute to Wright in recent times has come from Shahid Afridi, who, otherwise, is not known for finesse on or off the field. Before this series began, Afridi said he could have become just as successful as Virender Sehwag (who, under Wright's stewardship, has slogged the concept of a traditional Test opener out of the ground) had he received the requisite confidence and backing from his team management.

The corollary also holds true and is thoroughly alarming to contemplate. But for Wright, V.V.S. Laxman might have ended up as a failed opener; Dravid a batsman who couldn't rotate the strike; Pathan a promising under-19 who could not graduate to the senior ranks; and Sehwag as another Afridi, a huge talent gone waste because there was no one to nurture it. It's a remarkable contribution to have made.
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