The more things change…

“You know how it is, boss — nothing has changed,” Robin Singh told me.

He was not talking the day after finding out in the papers that he had been sacked as national fielding coach — this comment was made in 2003, when Robin and I [and Wasim Akram] were guests of the Michigan Cricket Association at its tournament finale and awards gala.

At the time, Robin had not yet officially retired from international cricket, but he had known for a while that his playing career was over, and had made the transition to coaching. He had just had a very good stint with the national under-19 team, so I was surprised when he told me he was in the US seeking a coaching gig with USACA.

I thought you were set as the U-19 coach, I remarked. That is when Robin, with that trademark lopsided grin, told me “You remember how in our playing days we used to call you guys up before every team selection to know if we were going to make it? Nothing has changed — I still need journalists to tell me what is happening in my life.”

‘Robin’ and ‘sad’ don’t belong in the same sentence — his chief characteristic is his equipoise, an ability to take whatever comes his way with a smile and a joke. And yet, that was among the saddest things I had ever heard from a professional.

He had, Robin said, been coaching U-19 on someone’s say-so. A board official called him up and told him he had the job; he did it. Through that period, he had no formal meeting with anyone in the board, no contract spelling out his duties, no idea who if anyone he was supposed to report to, and certainly no idea what he was going to be paid and when.

And when it was all over, Robin waited. “I thought someone would call, tell me if they were satisfied or not, tell me what I was supposed to do next. No one called — how long am I supposed to wait?” And so he was in the US, shopping for jobs.

History repeated. Just before the 2007 tour of Bangladesh, Robin got a call telling him he would be fielding coach for the side — a job he has done for a little over two years with no official letter, no contract, and a non-negotiable compensation that was often paid only when Robin reminded the authorities of his existence.

He wasn’t answering his phone last night; had I managed to connect, it is a fair bet that he would have said, “You know how it is — nothing has changed.”

Hiring and firing its employees is of course the BCCI’s prerogative. [Though you have to wonder if they apply to themselves the standards they hold others to. To cite the most recent instance, it is the BCCI’s head of the pitches committee, Daljit Singh, who worked from April this year till date to personally produce a wicket at the Firozeshah Kotla that is, not to mince words, a disgrace. All we ever heard on the subject was a laconic ‘Oh, new pitches take a year to settle down,’ from the man himself; not a yip out of his fellow honchos in the administration.]

But is it too much to ask that the BCCI follow basic principles of human decency while carrying out that function? Would it have been too much for someone in the board to have called Venky Prasad and Robin Singh and told them they were due for the axe, to have spared them the humiliation of finding out from the media?

I’m not making the case that they should have been retained — I don’t know how effective they were. But then, neither does the BCCI — and that august body took its decision without consulting the two people who were in a position to know: the captain and the coach.

Various officials — who, of course, only speak to the media on condition of anonymity — have pointed at the dramatic decline in form of the likes of Ishant Sharma [Cricinfo breaks down his performance] and RP Singh to justify sacking Prasad. In a post on Sreesanth a couple of days ago, I’d linked to Alan Donald’s comments about the bowler’s training habits.

Donald said they had extensive talks about the training routine, and reckoned Sreesanth had plenty of areas to work on. “First of all, his training habits are not good and the way he goes on to the field need to change. Then, he doesn’t put enough time on specifics.”

I’m willing to bet the same is true for Ishant, RP, Irfan and others. Prescribing the training routine and monitoring it is certainly one of the functions of a bowling coach. Was it done, in each of these instances? Did the player concerned follow the coach’s prescription, or just flip him the bird and do his own thing? What are the reasons for the dramatic decline in form of various promising bowlers?

Answers to these and related questions [What lines and lengths does he prescribe for the bowlers for each game, for instance, and how effective is he in identifying what his bowlers need to do in any given set of conditions? For my money, the most effective bowling coach we ever had was Bruce Reid — who handled a young Irfan and his mates brilliantly on India’s tour of Australia, working with the raw newcomers on skills and techniques, and also using his knowledge of local conditions to guide them on how they had to bowl each day, in each game] are the basis on which you can evaluate a bowling coach’s performance.

Did the BCCI carry out such an analysis? No. Did it even seek opinions from the captain, coach, senior players and the bowlers themselves? No.

So what was the basis of the decision to sack Prasad? A whim of the moment. Everyone’s talking about the decline in Ishant, so let’s “take action” — that just about sums up this latest piece of rank idiocy. [Incidentally, if Ishant’s bowling is now so beyond the pale as to justify the sacking of his bowling coach, why is the bowler himself still in the team?]

Take the case of fielding standards. For me, one of the joys of IPL-2 was watching the byplay between Herschelle Gibbs at point and Rohit Sharma well inside the ring at cover. They showed off for one another, they took obvious delight in each other’s exploits, they put on a show — and in the process, lifted the overall standards of the team.

Great all-round fielding is a ‘team culture’ thing. You can have very good fielders in a team — Yuvraj, Rohit, Raina — without it being a great fielding unit [Adam Gilchrist, speaking during the presentation ceremony after the Chargers’ last loss, said the basics, like good fielding, which “the good teams take pride in”, the Chargers just didn’t do]. Just as great individual fielding lifts a team, lackadaisical fielding lowers the standards of even the best — and ‘lackadaisical’ is a mild word to describe the Indian team in the field.

How much of this is the fielding coach’s fault? [By way of disclosure: Robin is a friend of long standing]. What training techniques, fielding drills, does the coach use? How rigorously are these prescriptions followed? What authority does the fielding coach have to haul up errant, chronically lazy, players? Can he enforce discipline?

[Some years ago, when our fielding standards or lack thereof became so bad even the apologists ran out of excuses, Jagmohan Dalmiya as then BCCI head made a pompous announcement. He said the national coach and physio had been empowered to be strict with the players; that at the start of the preparatory camp each player would be put through the beep and other tests, and any who failed would not be considered for selection. The outcome? Five senior players flat out refused to take the test. The coach called the selectors to report. The selectors called Dalmiya. Dalmiya instructed them to pick the players anyway. All five were selected.]

None of this concerns the BCCI. It hired a bowling coach and a fielding coach when it felt like it; it sacked them, ditto.

And to compound the irony, it says it is in no rush to hire replacements. Explain this to me?

Item: Our bowling standards have fallen off. Item: Our fielding is pathetic.

So ‘action’ is taken — the bowling and fielding coaches are sacked. \

And we now head into a seven-game series against the world’s number one outfit with a pack of off-form bowlers and hopeless fielders — and the board says there is absolutely no hurry to provide them with coaches in these two disciplines?

Cognitive dissonance, anyone?

PS: Happy Diwali, everyone. Heading into a three and a half day weekend; barring an odd post or two later today, am off blog till Tuesday.