Sunday, September 24, 2006

Right man, Wright time

Tehelka, 24 September, 2006

The recurring themes that turn up every so often in John Wright’s Indian Summers — the realisation that a desk job is dour, the lure and the challenges of cricket, the demands on patience made by an often confounding country — bolster this story about the country’s first foreign cricket coach. “[In India, you see] much that is admirable and uplifting: the emphasis on family, the humility, the spirituality, the grace and dignity in the face of hardship,” he writes. “These were the people you wanted to do well for and who deserved a team which shed blood, sweat and tears.”

Wright coached India for five years, overseeing and, with Sourav Ganguly, forging a transformation from the sedentary tea-and-biscuit days of previous decades to ones of toil and success when it mattered. His book captures what it took to effect change in an environment of strong opposition from an entrenched system. “The nature of the system meant that survival was the number one priority,” he writes, “so it was little wonder it produced cricketers who tended to play for themselves.” He could not change it from the ground up, as he desired, but he tried persuading people who mattered to do things differently instead. Persuasion, he realised, could vary from a soft word to grabbing someone’s collar. Making his way through the subtleties of Indian cricket, Wright finds that his status as an outsider affords him a certain leeway. “During my last season, Viru said to me that speaking your mind in India was not easy because emotions got involved. ‘We can’t say it like you do, John... If you speak your mind and upset someone in India, he can take it to his heart and it can remain with him for a long time.’”

Wright’s account of his India years is similar in many ways to a travelogue, with its wonder-struck descriptions of the cricketing landscape, the characters central to its story, and how the country grew for him in personal meaning. His tenure begins with a series of mishaps which become commonplace once he settles down. He understands selection procedure only when his players explain it. “When I raised the issue at a selection meeting,” he says, “I got blank stares.” He is bemused by the crazy scheduling. His friend Raj Singh Dungarpur advises him to be patient, and the words hold him in good stead. Over time he understands that everybody is held hostage to everybody else. “Looking back on it, I tend to think we were all prisoners of the system, even Dalmiya… I know for a fact that many coaches and former and current players want to do things differently, but they too are prisoners of a system they can’t crack from within and don’t know where to begin.”

This focus is often turned inwards, and the story of his personal growth is as captivating as are the accounts of his dealings with the players, for whom he feels great empathy. “Getting dropped is horrible, but it’s even worse when you’re a big-name player and an established figure in the team... You think it’s a bullshit call, but there’s nothing you can do about it.” One chapter, in which he tracks his cricketers’ path to the international game, is a telling study of the hard life before the recognition. In explaining the lives and choices of the cricketers he lived with for half a decade, a large portion is also dedicated to why some lose their head when success comes.

Indian Summers explores modern India as few other cricket books have. The usual stories, the ones that grab the headlines, are all here, but the picture’s bigger. Wright understands how much the sport means to the country, and explains it as justly as he can. In hindsight, every moment that brought controversy was part of an ongoing process to leave the comfortable past behind, change mindsets and override the huge role politics play. In the centre of it all is Wright, who grew to take uninvited ex-players and BCCI gaffes in his stride, and who has left us with a book that is revealing about both cricket and the country it is played in.

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