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Mr Wright, Never In From The Cold

John Wright transformed the Indian cricket team. So why should his Indian Summers have a wintry feel?

Mr Wright, Never In From The Cold
Mr Wright, Never In From The Cold
John Wright Indian Summers
By With Sharda Ugra By Paul Thomas
Viking/Penguin Rs: 495; Pages: 243
He was the first foreign coach of the Indian cricket team, and is credited with its amazing transformation. From not winning a single Test outside the subcontinent for 15 years, it went on to nearly beat the world champions, Australia, on their turf. His team, which inherited players more concerned about individual records, became spirited and confident, and reached the World Cup finals for the first time in two decades. For someone who commandeered India during such exciting times, John Wright’s reminiscences are a damp squib. Like his batting, his writing is about patting full tosses back to the bowler and offering a defensive bat to the long hops.

He comes across as a person who feels the world is against him. He finds the English Cricket Board (ECB), which was searching for a coach in 1999, "a little unprofessional, not to mention discourteous", because it removed him from its shortlist without him having "a single conversation with anyone at the ECB". His home country, New Zealand, was worse, as its board made him travel to London at his own expense for an interview, only to be told he had been "unsuccessful in your application" for the job. "I was shocked and bewildered.... And simply hadn’t entertained the possibility that I’d be written off on the basis of a fuzzy teleconference interview...."

Although India fared better—it made him fly business class for a face-to-face interview—it goofed up with the visa and, months later, confirmed his appointment only through a fax. The one thing that turned the tide in his favour for the coach’s job was his honest answer to a pointed question by the BCCI officials. Would he drop Tendulkar? "...without hesitation, I said yes, if I had to...." But, after his appointment, the critics got after him and the BCCI. Most felt that the Indian cricket board "had taken leave of its senses; they could have had anyone, but they had gone for a little-known, wet-behind-the-ears foreigner".

What is astonishing is that Wright has little to say about the historic moments in Indian cricket during his five years’ tenure. Take the case of the 2001 home series against Australia, where V.V.S. Laxman and Rahul Dravid led an impossible fightback after India was asked to follow on in the second Test at Calcutta. All he says about Laxman’s innings is that "he played the greatest innings I’ve ever seen". All that he mentions about the mood in the dressing room during that partnership is that "we just watched and kept telling them, ‘see you after the next session’." About the famous Ganguly shirt-waving incident at Lord’s, Wright’s only insight is that while Bhajji wanted all the players to do the same, Dravid’s cool head nixed the idea in the bud.

Even while he is talking about his contribution to the team’s makeover, the solutions are unappealing and unconvincing. Bhajji became a match-winning offspinner because Wright drew a rectangle on the pitch and asked him to bowl in that area. Virender Sehwag became an opener because none of the other established batters—Sourav Ganguly, Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman—wanted to do the job. But then no one gets to know how the coach later coaxed Ganguly to open. How did Ganguly agree to Tendulkar’s upgradation as an opener? Was it just because Tendulkar told the coach that if given an option, he would prefer it? If this was indeed right, how can Wright maintain earlier in his book that Tendulkar did not want to open at all?

Nor does the book delve deep into the official lives of colourful—and controversial—cricket officials like Jagmohan Dalmiya. Although he was told by Tony Greig that the BCCI chief "is the most powerful man in Indian cricket", and Wright himself describes Dalmiya as "a former BCCI powerbroker", Indian Summers shows only one side of the deposed supremo. Consider Dalmiya’s reaction to the ball-tampering allegation against Tendulkar. "The way Dalmiya handled the row sent out a very clear signal to the rest of the cricketing world that from here on India wasn’t going to take any crap from any quarter.... From the team’s point of view it felt as if our integrity was being defended and our interests protected." Dalmiya was a pro, thoroughly briefed, all business. "He grasped the issues and his questions cut right to the core of the matter."

In the same vein, Wright is all praise for the Indian crowd. But then, aren’t the Indian cricketing fans the ones who will buy his book?

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