In a Hell Called Kolkata Knight Riders

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The head of KKR’s talent hunt wing reveals how Buchanan destroyed a good team

HOUSTON GROUND CONTROL of Nasa hears this conversation between four astronauts who have just been shot into space:

“Hey guys. We’re on our way. Mars, here we come.”

“Captain, you mean the moon.”

“Didn’t anyone tell you?”

“Tell us what?”

“This trip, we are going to Mars.”

“Are we? But I thought we’re going to moon.”

“Houston Ground Control... just let’s get things straightened out.”

“You’re there to repair the Hubble telescope. Who said anything about the moon or Mars?”

Now replace the central characters of this conversation with key members of the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) just before the IPL took off, and you have the diagnosis. Then how could it be different after the tournament kicked off.

For the KKR top coaching management of more than half a dozen staff to share a coherent vision for achieving desired results, the entire team needed dialogue and, more importantly, shared understanding and focus. That it was missing was soon evident.

John Buchanan, who claimed to have guided the fortunes of the Australian team from 1999 to 2007, made a mess of these basic requirements. As Head of the Talent Resource Development Wing of the KKR (I quit the day Buchanan announced his multiple captaincy theory), I got to interact with him closely and was bewildered to see a power-hungry man and a control freak. The very things he couldn’t be when he was the coach of the Australian team, as explained to us now by Shane Warne, Damien Fleming, Glenn McGrath and Michael Slater.

Why Buchanan, once described by Shane Warne as a perfect dressing-room attendant, exposed himself—when it was he who took upon himself the responsibility of fulfilling the dream of the KKR’s very amiable owners Shah Rukh Khan and Jay Mehta—is difficult to fathom.

To the owners, the trophy was the grand goal. Buchanan too, after the first IPL, set some goals. But his strategy could be compared with that of Mohammad bin Tughlaq whose decision to shift his capital from Delhi to Daulatabad was a sensible one but made at the wrong time—summer. Half the people died making the journey.

I met Buchanan for the first time on 4 January, three days after I took on the KKR assignment. It was at the office of a sports marketing company in Kolkata. I told him about the work I had done for the BCCI and the detailed reports made on various players one had seen. The introduction of the Talent Resource Development Wing in 2002 had led to the development of MS Dhoni, RP Singh, Suresh Raina, Piyush Chawla, S Sreesanth, Robin Uthappa and the like from various corners of the country. John liked it, but in days that followed, did not take inputs from me.

It was his idea, and not a bad one, to fortify KKR’s bench strength by scouting for talent in Mumbai, Delhi, Ahmedabad and other cities. He graded the talent. But soon, his selfish motives became clear. He wanted to give his son Michael a chance to stake a claim for a spot in the team. He contrived to take a 17-member KKR team to Brisbane in September for a two-week tour at a great cost to his employers. The ostensible purpose of the visit was friendly matches.

These might have been difficult to arrange in India as the monsoon was on. Even if it were possible, it would have been difficult for Michael to succeed on unfamiliar Indian wickets. As it happened, Michael did not impress even in Australia.

Buchanan planned the tour without bothering to study the BCCI’s domestic calendar. West Bengal, where KKR had set up base, and the other states didn’t let players tour as they were preparing for important domestic engagements. KKR ended up taking a team of sub-standard players who were not even in the first 35 in their state.

One of them was a 35-year-old from Kerala.

Buchanan sold the idea to the owners that if the KKR had to emulate English Premier League clubs, they would need their own academy.

Again, like Mohammad bin Tughlaq’s, a good idea. But he put it forth without any concern for budgetary constraints or the recession. It was not a feasible proposition. Yet, he got it approved.

Two big camps of 30 players were held at Eden Gardens in January and March to pick talented boys. Many proven first-class players exhibited their talents but Buchanan apparently trusted the recommendations of his two assistant coaches a little too blindly and picked the players—two of whom had not even played for the state. If they weren’t found good enough to play for their states, it was common sense that they could not have been relied upon to perform under pressure. And if he didn’t have faith in the ability of Aakash Chopra and Sanjay Bangar who were sent back, why were they picked in the first place? Bangladesh’s Mashrafe Mortaza, who was purchased for $600,000, got to play only one match. Why pick a player and not play him?

The straw that broke the camel’s back, however, was Buchanan’s multiple captaincy theory. As Steve Waugh said, Buchanan was a suggestion box. After opening that box what he chose to accept was Waugh’s discretion, but Buchanan was not simply a suggestion box with the KKR. He was challenging the authority and skill of Sourav Ganguly, who holds splendid records as captain. He didn’t even discuss his theory with Sourav until he addressed the press conference on 22 March.

Players from not just Bengal, but other parts of India who had assembled for the camp in March, were in awe of Ganguly. From his interactions with me, his body language, I could tell that he meant business. No successful captain worth his salt would sell his leadership qualities at a discount. The game—like all great sports—is about pride and responsibility, victory and defeat. Here was a captain who had paid back Australia in their coin of gamesmanship. He had led India to a 2-1 series win in 2001. Buchanan, smarting from that, undermined his credentials. I suspect he sold the idea to the owners that if Ganguly were put in his place, he would perform. He misread Ganguly’s popularity and damaged his reputation in Bengal and India.

I was surprised because Buchanan, in his book, If Better Is Possible, says: ‘A clear vision of where you want to take people is one of the most important requirements of managing and coaching a team. Everything else follows: leadership, team ethos and culture, the method of achieving the vision, and the kinds of people needed to drive the vision.’ Why was this vision then so muddled for the KKR?

Buchanan may have had a goal in mind for KKR. But did his players, like those astronauts, know what was expected of them? George ‘Sparky’ Anderson, a former Major League Baseball manager, says, “The players make the coach. It’s never the other way around.”

Here, Buchanan was trying to prove such sensible and successful coaches wrong by trying to run the KKR with a remote control or whip. Even radical cricket management thinkers like Bob Woolmer and Mike Brearley never tampered with the basics of the game.

No successful international player would accept new theories from a person like Buchanan, who played little more than half a dozen first-class games. Buchanan conveniently forgot that whatever the level of the game, no team succeeds without players having faith in the coach. Respect and faith cannot be demanded, only earned with effective management.

On 21 March, we were to meet at 6 pm at the Oberoi Grand in Kolkata to select some players for the main team. I found Buchanan and his assistants by the pool, drinking beer. They said they had already decided which players to pick. The next day, I resigned.

The so-far private nightmare of the KKR players became public once they landed in South Africa. Buchanan did not respect the ethos of the game. Now the writing is on the wall. No owner or club management will touch him. He may have made money, but the game will remember him as a mercenary. And the Kolkata Knight Riders’ debacle as another whimsical experiment from the Buchanan laboratory.