A few days after Mahendra Singh Dhoni hit a four off the last ball to give Rising Pune Supergiant victory over Sunrisers Hyderabad in an Indian Premier League 2017 game, Tom Moody was asked if Moises Henriques, who had conceded just four in his solitary over, should have bowled the 20th instead of Siddarth Kaul.
Moody, the Hyderabad coach, said Henriques didn’t usually bowl at the death in Twenty20s, but “should have bowled another over in the middle of the innings because he is experienced.” Moody, though, backed the judgment of David Warner, the captain.
“We talk about things prior to the games, we talk about things at strategic time-outs – potential options, making sure we get the right match-up of bowler v batter,” Moody had said. “But at the end of the day, the captain is on the field for that purpose; that is to make the final decision. Ultimately, you have to back that judgment. There is enough preparation that goes into the match for the captain and the senior group to be well-enough informed which decision is the right decision.”
The inputs cricketers receive from the support staff can sometimes be overwhelming, and so what Moody says makes perfect sense. Yet, with so much happening in a T20 game in particular, it is understandable when captains slip. That is precisely why the frequency of coach-captain interaction on the boundary line during a game has increased — like in football, where the manager is at the touchline constantly instructing players, or in lawn tennis where on-court coaching is allowed in a few events.
Moody himself has been a regular on the fence, chatting with Warner over the last few seasons. It is no different from a 12th man passing on tips from the coach to the fielder at the boundary line for it to be conveyed to the captain.
As T20 reshapes the cricketing landscape, the question that emerges is whether the time is ripe to introduce electronic communication between the captain or a designated player on the field and the coach during playtime. It is not a new idea. Bob Woolmer, South Africa’s coach, tried it against India in the 1999 World Cup in England. Hansie Cronje, the captain, and Allan Donald, the team’s pace spearhead, had devices attached to their ears as Woolmer passed on his observations during the course of play.
Woolmer had used this method in a few charity games and in the warm-up matches, and it had gone unnoticed. But once Sourav Ganguly brought it to the attention of the umpires, the match referee asked Cronje and Donald to remove their devices.
“All I was trying to do was give help and advice. I am sorry if I have upset anyone. I have tried to be innovative; the idea was to take the game forward. Where we erred was, I should have asked the ICC for permission,” Woolmer, a pioneer in cricket coaching, had said. “I felt it was a really good idea and I would like to discuss it with the ICC. I am not trying to disturb the batsman or the captain, I am just wanting to offer some advice. They use it in American football and I believe the French used it in their (football) World Cup campaign. Hopefully, it will make life easier for the cricketer. It is a way of addressing technical faults by looking at the game from a different angle.”
Cronje had said, “It’s always nice to hear another voice”, while Mohammad Azharuddin, India’s captain, had felt that “it’s going to happen. It does in other sports.”
The ICC immediately banned the use of electronic communication devices during play in Tests and One-Day Internationals, though there is slight amendment in Law 42.19 in playing conditions for T20 Internationals. The rule reads: “The use of electronic communication devices and equipment of any kind to communicate with players on the field of play shall not be permitted, except that broadcaster to player communication shall, with the prior consent of the participating countries, be allowed.”
More than 18 years have passed since that Woolmer initiative, and a lot has changed in the game. Michael Holding and Paddy Upton, two prominent voices of the game, see nothing wrong in bringing back Woolmer’s form of communication.
“I think Bob was before his time. There was hardly any of the modern technology now used by television umpires and for replays. So, the authorities were probably just not prepared to allow such forward-thinking methods into the game,” Holding tells Wisden India. “As cricket continues to mirror other professional sports, it is possible that things like electronic communication between captain and coaches may become common place as it is in the NFL (National Football League) in America.”
Upton, who coaches Delhi Daredevils and Sydney Thunder in the IPL and the Big Bash League respectively, feels the method can be tried, with the players having the option to switch off the channel.
“I do believe that in future, we will see the re-emergence of the Woolmer/Cronje earpiece, whereby the coach is able to communicate directly with the fielding captain, or the two batsmen through earpieces in their helmets,” opines Upton. “Players should be in control of regulating the channel to coaches, opening and closing it at their discretion.”
After South Africa’s win against India in that game, Clive Hitchcock, then the ICC spokesperson, had been critical of Woolmer using the World Cup as a stage to “experiment with new devices”.
It is understood that reservations in allowing electronic communication stem from the fact that a) there is no control over who may be listening to the discussions, and b) there is no control over who may be able to speak to the player using such a device.
These concerns are genuine, considering how many cases of corruption have polluted the game, ironically starting with the alleged involvement of Cronje and Azharuddin in match-fixing.
“This (form of communication) is commensurate with what happens in a number of other sports,” adds Upton. “There are two problems I can see, however. One is the communication being intercepted by third parties. Thus, we would need to come up with a fully secure communication channel.”
Cleveland Browns were the first team to use radio communication between the sidelines and the quarterback in NFL in 1956. It was banned after four games, until the NFL made electronic communication legal in 1994. The NFL appoints a game-day coordinator, who ensures that the two teams are operating on their assigned frequency. As late as last year, research was still underway to make the channel of communication even more secure.
When it comes to cricket, on-field umpires use earpieces to communicate with the third umpire. If that channel is secure, then definitely player-coach electronic communication could also be foolproof.
Upton’s other issue is that once earpiece communication is allowed, it will lead to more interference from coaches in influencing the style of play at grassroots level. It is already a burning issue across junior sports, where coaches are often accused of not allowing the individuality of the kids to blossom.
Cricket is the only game where the captain plays a crucial role in terms of instant decision-making. It takes time to build leaders as he or she not only has to think about personal growth, but also look into aspects of the team. And for that, kids need to have a particular bent of mind. Upton fears overfeeding of information could stunt the growth of leaders in the game.
“The problem is the example that this sends to coaches and players at lower levels of the game, especially at age-group and school level. There is a real risk of coaches over-instructing and taking too much responsibility for making decisions for players, thereby creating players who are unable to think for themselves,” he offers. “I think there should be a significant restriction on coaches providing information during games at lower levels of the game, whilst there could be more of it at the higher levels, specifically at the professional level.”
But will a player who has grown up thinking on his feet, say Mahendra Singh Dhoni, suddenly allow extra interference from the coach in the middle of a high-pressure T20 game? We will have an answer only when Woolmer’s innovation gets the official nod.