How much of an impact does a coach have on his team?

The 'Super Coaches' of Sri Lanka
The ‘Super Coaches’ of Sri Lanka

“…Move him from mid-wicket to backward point!…”,

shouted the coach from the pavilion. Soon enough, skipper obliged and I was running across to backward point. Coach shouted out a few more field changes. In the process, we went on to win the match by 86 runs while I, at backward point, managed to hang on to (with my dear life) a catch flying off a fierce cut shot to avoid a nose surgery.
He was the manager, batting coach, fielding coach, bowling coach, trainer and would set the field most of the time. He was no different from the coach of the opposition or any other team we played against.

That was under 15 division two cricket. The year was 2002.

Sri Lankan fans and critics talk highly of four coaches who have “done well” with the Sri Lankan team: Dav Whatmore, Tom Moody, Trevor Bayliss and Graham Ford, and regard them as “super coaches” who can flip a team’s fortunes (from bad to good but never from good to bad as per the fans) under their watch.

One trait all four of them shared apart from being a part of successful Sri Lankan world cup campaigns is that all four of them were relatively unknown as mainstream coaches until they took up the head coach position in the Sri Lankan set up. Was it really their genius that made Sri Lanka the force they are today (before the end of 2015 anyway)? It is worth taking a look at what they actually signed up for when they agreed to take up the top job in Sri Lankan cricket.

The era of the super-coach

The core of five

When Dav Whatmore took up the job in 1995 thanks to generous donations from Cricket Australia, Sri Lanka was on the cusp of breaking into the elite circles of the cricket world. The core of the team was already established in the form of Ranatunga, de Silva, Tillakaratne, Mahanama, and Gurusinghe. The rest of the numbers was made up by young Jayasuriyas, Muralitharans, and Vass, who themselves would later go on to be all-time Sri Lankan legends. There is a popular school of thought that revolutionary Sanath-Kalu opening combination was the brainchild of Whatmore. But, in actuality, it was Duleep Mendis, the then team manager, who came up with that radical, world-cup-winning idea.

After leaving the Sri Lankan top post, Whatmore returned for a second stint with Sri Lanka from 1999 to 2003. However, he couldn’t replicate the same success with Jayasuriya’s team that he had with Ranatunga’s team in 1996.

There was so much praise heaped on Ray Jennings when South African under-19s won the world cup in 2014 and everyone was ready to do the same for Rahul Dravid when India under-19s played the West Indies under-19s in the final of the most recent edition of ICC Under-19 World Cup in 2016, but to everyone’s shock it was the West Indies under-19s who trumped over Dravid’s under-19s. Suddenly there was no talk of how a “great coach makes a team great.”

Sri Lanka under Tom Moody in 2005

Tom Moody takes over the reigns; Jayasuriya, Muralitharan, and Vaas are all in their prime. Add to that one Mahela Jayawardene and one Kumar Sangakkara took their first steps on the path to greatness in 2005. Sri Lanka would go on to scale great heights (the highlight being reaching the final of the 2007 World Cup) in world cricket on the backs of these five core pillars, which continued even after Moody’s departure. Sri Lanka finally managed to find a replacement for the Ranatunga’s 96 team’s core of de Silva, Tillakaratne, Mahanama and Gurusinghe. However, Sri Lanka would still go on to lose their first ever Test series to Pakistan on home turf since gaining Test status and a Test victory on the Australian soil still remained elusive.

Another Australian coach in 2009

After the departure of Moody and his coaching staff, Sri Lanka Cricket brought on another Australian in the form of Trevor Bayliss. The core players of the Sri Lankan team in 2005 were still intact, although Jayasuriya’s prowess started declining, the void was fast filled by the meteoric rise of Tillakaratne Dilshan, the opener, upon which Sri Lanka’s successful campaigns of World T20 2009 and ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 were based on. Dilshan would go on to be the top scorer in both world cup editions by some distance. Sri Lanka also witnessed the decline of Chaminda Vaas, but simultaneously the rise of unorthodox Lasith Malinga, who would go on to create his own legacy spearheading the Sri Lankan as well as Mumbai Indians’ bowling attacks bringing great success to both teams, filled Vaas’s vacuum. Kumar Sangakkara’s team would go on to win their first ever ODI series in Australia largely thanks to a freak 8th wicket partnership between future skipper Angelo Mathews and Lasith Malinga. Test wins on Indian and Australian soil remained elusive to Sri Lanka.

Ford’s first stint in 2012

Due to some heavy in-team politics, the leadership of the Sri Lankan team was somewhat in turmoil, but the core of the team (which now has again revamped with additions of Dilshan and Malinga) remained strongly intact. Graham Ford took over with Mahela Jayawardene back for his second stint as the skipper. By this time, Jayawardena and Sangakkara had so much authority in the Sri Lankan dressing room that position of head coach was basically a back office figure in the dressing room. Ford himself revealed in a recent interview that “senior players” pretty much ran the show in his first stint with Sri Lanka:

“In the last stint, the senior players helped the youngsters along and set the tone in the matches…When you have senior players, you’re more of a facilitator –more of a behind-the-scenes-type supporter.” – Graham Ford

Under Ford, Sri Lanka would go on as far as another final in World T20 2012, but Test wins in Australia still remained elusive.

That excerpt from the Ford interview sums up pretty much the role of a coach in a professional setup these days, especially one that includes a strong “core” of experienced players. Most players do not need technical amendments since they have been chosen to represent an international side because their technique is already good enough. What they need is as Ford puts it “facilitating”.

An outsider can view this as relatively unknown coaches with little to show on their CVs getting a piggy back ride on the success of high-quality Sri Lankan players (while they were produced from the then system). Of course, a coach with a successful World Cup campaign on their resume would find it easier to obtain lucrative coaching deals than a coach of a domestic state championship team as three of the above mentioned former Sri Lankan coaches found out (Whatmore, Moody, and Bayliss all went on to coach IPL teams banking on their success with Sri Lanka).

This point is further proven when considering Whatmore’s, Moody’s and Bayliss’s failures in the country and IPL/BBL assignments they took on immediately after leaving Sri Lanka. Whatmore never achieved the feats he achieved with Sri Lanka (not even with Sri Lanka itself again in the second stint). Moody had a disastrous IPL campaign with Kings XI Punjab and Bayliss had a similar below par BBL campaign with Sydney. Neither Moody nor Bayliss tasted success again until they handpicked a bunch of players to be the “core” of the respective teams, with which they went on to win championships. (Moody switched franchises and Bayliss got a clean-sheet Kolkata Knight Riders).

The Bangladesh story

Bangladesh’s big 5. Seems familiar?

One of the popular counter-arguments to the above-mentioned point is the recent resurgence of Bangladesh under Chandika Hathurusinghe. Fans/critics point to Hathurusinghe “unlocking” something in Bangladesh cricket while conveniently ignoring one key factor. Actually five key factors: Tamim Iqbal, Mushfiqur Rahim, Shakib ul Hasan, Mahmadullah Riyad and Mashrafe Mortaza. Sounds familiar? It’s that “core of five” which all Whatmore, Moody, Bayliss, and Ford had with Sri Lanka. If you really look closely you will see that Tamim, Mushfiq, Shakib and Masharafe all, in fact, have been around in international cricket way longer than Kohli, Smith, Mathews, Williamson, Starc and Root (who are at the forefront and are the face of world cricket today). So with that kind of “experience” to go with their skills, should Bangladesh’s eventual (they have been a test country since 1999) rise in world cricket be credited to some kind of magic wand waving by Hathurusinghe?

Fan favorites

Another aspect is ‘super-coach’ fans like to pick and choose their fan favorites (much like they do with players). There was so much praise heaped on Ray Jennings when South African under-19s won the world cup in 2014 and everyone was ready to do the same for Rahul Dravid when India under-19s played the West Indies under-19s in the final of the most recent edition of ICC Under-19 World Cup in 2016, but to everyone’s shock it was the West Indies under-19s who trumped over Dravid’s under-19s. Suddenly there was no talk of how a “great coach makes a team great.” Why? because it wasn’t the ‘fan favorite’ coach that won the world cup. It was Graeme West, a coach that does not even have an ESPNcricinfo profile, who trumped a fan favorite coach in Dravid.

It’s the very same logic they apply when they ignore other coaches like Gary Sobers, John Dyson, Roy Dias who also coached Sri Lanka when the team was not comparatively stable, lacking experience or in transition. I’ll be surprised if the advocates of ‘super-coaches’ are even aware that the above three coaches actually had stints with the Sri Lankan team at certain points of Sri Lanka’s cricket history. These three coaches actually were with the Sri Lankan team when they were in trenches, albeit they only tasted little success with the team. Out of above mentioned four “super coaches”, only Whatmore endured such an unstable, inexperienced, in-transition Sri Lankan side, that too in his second stint in 1999. As expected, he failed to replicate the same success he had with the 96 team.

Ford’s reality check

Graham Ford in his second stint, is quickly discovering what Dav Whatmore discovered in his second stint with Sri Lanka: There is no proper set of core players to carry the team and only having one top notch player in Angelo Mathews, the “wins” are not as immediate or frequent as they were in his first stint:

“It was pretty clear to everybody that we spoke to that it wasn’t going to be a quick fix. It was something that needed to be built on a solid foundation. It’s quite a long, slow process. If it’s done properly, then hopefully it stays strong for a long time….Your senior players know their game and what they need to work on. They might just ask you to monitor one or two things to make sure they’re in place. You are more guided by the player, whereas with a younger player, you have to let them know the important areas they have to work on, and sometimes insist that they do have to work on certain areas.” – Graham Ford

Ford has already acknowledged the need for a “solid foundation” (aka CORE of the team) on which the future would be built upon and as he also mentioned, it is going to take time.
Beginners at the gym are advised first and foremost to build the “core body strength” before going on to muscle building. It is no different in a team. Build the core. Add the muscle later. Sri Lanka does have the ingredients to build a good “core of players” just like they had in 1996, 2005/7, 2011 and 2014, but only the time and experience will do that for Sri Lanka and certainly not a “super coach” and his magic touch.

So does the “super-coach” really exist?

If someone ask you if there is such thing or someone as a “super coach”, say, YES, there is. There are “super coaches” all over Sri Lanka. In their under 15 cricket teams; who act as the batting/bowling/fielding coaches, who act as the managers of the team, who act as the trainer and even sets the field for the captain, just like the “super coach” I had, when I was playing under 15 division two.

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