Juan Martin del Potro is a giant of a man, physically. The 2009 US Open champion stands at a towering six feet six inches, and for a man so big, covers the tennis court quite beautifully. At his best, he is poetry in motion, gliding along on whatever the underfoot surface might be and bashing the tennis ball with a forehand to die for. But his career has been blighted by multiple wrist injuries necessitating surgery, therefore preventing him from entertaining and wowing audiences as often as his talent ought to allow him to do.
Juan Martin del Potro is a giant, non-physically too. The injuries that have been a constant companion since 2010 haven’t made him bitter; ‘why me’ hasn’t ever been a crib or a complaint. If anything, being forced away from doing what he loves doing the most has triggered in him an empathy, an understanding that doesn’t come naturally or as often as it should.
On Thursday (June 1), at Roland Garros, del Potro was engaged in a battle royale with Nicolas Almagro, the Spaniard once ranked No. 9 in the world but now pretty much a journeyman at No. 69. The duo had split the first two sets of their second-round clash, asking no quarters and giving none, when Almagro was forced to retire hurt after collapsing with a left knee injury.
Del Potro was quickly over to the other side, to Almagro’s aid as he lay sobbing on the ground. He then sat next to his anguished opponent, offering him water and patting his head; the embrace between the winner and the man who had to hobble out was at once touching and heart-warming. Here were two men going at each other just a few minutes back, until one fateful moment swept the competitiveness aside and brought out the human side in them.
— Juan M. del Potro (@delpotrojuan) June 1, 2017
[Translation: ‘I wish you a speedy recovery, @NicoAlmagro. I can imagine what you’re feeling. Force.’]
Sets you thinking, doesn’t it, especially in light of the unedifying drama that is playing out in Indian cricket. If two men involved in individual professional sport can come together in a moment of crisis, why can’t two men sharing a dressing-room in a team sport and discharging different responsibilities do the same, particularly when they are pursuing a common cause?
Over the last week, Virat Kohli’s supposed disaffections with the methods of Anil Kumble have received more than their fair share of attention. At a time when the focus ought to have been on topping up preparations for India’s perennially emotion-charged clash against Pakistan, this time in the Champions Trophy, the attention has shifted to the equation between the tempestuous skipper and the wise coach, and the potential ramifications it could have on Indian cricket.
Amitabh Choudhary, the acting secretary of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, has dismissed talk of a rift between the captain and the coach, and in some ways, he is correct. There is no rift; from all accounts, Kumble doesn’t have any issues working alongside Kohli. There has been no suggestive mention of the coach whispering in influential ears about the captain’s work ethic or any such. Whatever information has been disseminated has had to do with Kohli’s alleged misgivings with the Kumble persona – overbearing, unyielding when it comes to discipline and punctuality, apparently.
Kohli and Kumble are strong personalities and characters. They are both born competitors, aggressive in intent – the former in body language as well – and driven by an inner fire and passion that can’t be anything but a natural trait. They are fiercely proud individuals, comfortable in carrying responsibility on strong shoulders and more than willing and able to walk through hoops for the sake of the team. When Kumble was appointed the head coach of the national team in June of 2016, it appeared a match made in heaven – the fiery skipper with searing ambition, the sagacious coach who has been there, done it. What could go wrong?
Everything, we are told now, no matter the Choudhary denials. Those who claim to be in the know say things have a reached a point of no return. That Kohli will just not have Kumble as the head coach anymore. And that, by extension, a change of guard is not just inevitable but also pre-decided.
All of which has left the Cricket Advisory Committee in a very delicate spot. Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly are to pick the next head coach, like they did Kumble last year. Kumble is among the six men to have sent in their applications – never mind that he was a direct entrant and never mind that the BCCI haven’t bothered to publicise the six names, contrary to Choudhary’s assertions in Birmingham on Thursday – and it will be impossible for this illustrious troika to look beyond their former teammate if cricketing merits were to be the only consideration.
Last year, when Kumble threw his hat in the coach ring, the CAC had a dilemma to address. As team director, Ravi Shastri had done little wrong after having taken over at a particularly troubled time for Indian cricket, but Kumble’s vision, commitment, stature and most importantly his impressive presentation could not be overlooked. Kumble has since translated vision to team performance and results, so how can his credentials be ignored?
If they pick anyone other than Kumble, it has to be under instructions, if you like. Unless, having sent in his application, Kumble decides now that he has had enough. Should that not be the case, how will the CAC react if they are told to ignore Kumble? What will they make of the loss of their face, the compromise to their integrity, the demand to do a job with their hands tied? Will the fact that Tendulkar doesn’t like to ruffle feathers play a part? Will the fact that Ganguly is a ‘board man’, given that he is the president of the Cricket Association of Bengal, be a factor? And will Laxman be happy to play along?
The very fact that the BCCI have only received six applications – based on dribbles of information from here and there – when as many as 57 lined up last year is alone indicative of a certain wariness in the coaching fraternity in the country and across the world. Virender Sehwag’s presence as one of those six is somewhat of a surprise on multiple counts, but he must have his reasons for allowing himself to change his mind and be convinced to apply for the post. Sehwag is even more of a straight-talker than Kumble and doesn’t hold his punches. What, then, if he somehow lands the job and lets loose in the dressing-room at some stage? Will that continue to endear him to the players, as appears to be one of the criteria in landing the job?
Indian cricket has a long history of allowing players to have a say in coach-selection/omission dating back to the mid-90s. Having set the precedent, the Indian board appears more than happy to play along now because this time around, it suits their interests too.