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‘As long as they burn my effigy and not me!’
Tête à tête

Greg Chappell has just finished lunch at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Mumbai, where he is staying, and he and his wife Judith amble into the lobby. We are supposed to meet at 2 pm and he has just sms-ed: “How soon can u b here'” He has a series of meetings, and the next morning he is to catch a flight to Calcutta for the one day international between India and Sri Lanka.

He is wearing a tight-fitting beige knit shirt and brown corduroy trousers, a change from the ubiquitous blue uniform he’s seen in. We shake hands. He introduces me to his wife, a former teacher, holds the elevator door open for us, steps in and presses the button to the fourth floor.

In his suite, over the next three hours, the 58-year-old Indian cricket team’s coach recounts what life has been like for him ever since he took over the job in May, 2005. He talks about India’s chances at the World Cup and why he thinks the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) hired him. He also speculates on what might be on the cards for him after April, when his contract expires. He even expounds on his relationship with Sourav Ganguly and other members of the team, about how he met his wife and why he fell in love with her. This is Chappell at his most candid.

What he doesn’t tell you openly is that he is a spiritual man who meditates and practises yoga every day. But once you have made that discovery, he reveals his vulnerable side, admitting that he feels misunderstood and hurt that his public image is so distorted from the real him.

In the eyes of the people he is a villain who threw Ganguly out of the team because of a personal spat. And he raised a finger at a crowd in Calcutta , which went into a tizzy. Chappell winces, and then says, “You can’t expect people who are not closely involved to understand the processes that are required. By and large, I’ve been able to ignore it, but it doesn’t help when emotions overflow and people are not rational in their assessment of what’s going on.”

But he clarifies that there was nothing personal in his actions. “We have a good, professional relationship. We talk cricket, Ganguly asks me questions, I ask him questions. We chit chat from time to time about different things. In team meetings, he either responds to questions or throws in his own thought. He disagrees or suggests other ways of doing things. He’s a very intelligent and charismatic sort of person. He’s got a good way with people. But I don’t expect that we are ever going to have a close personal relationship. That’s just the way it is.”

Did he want Ganguly back in the team' “Well, that’s what we hoped would happen. And if he didn’t come back, obviously he should have been out of the team.” Chappell says cricketers get dropped all the time. “If you look through the history of Australian cricket — even in recent times — the Australian selectors have had to either drop or tap on the shoulder of some of their best players. Players need to go back and re-evaluate and come back again. There isn’t a cricketer who’s played international cricket and hasn’t been left out of the team at some stage or another. In most countries it goes unremarked. But you have to live in India and understand the Indian psyche.”

Understanding the Indian psyche has been a big part of his experience in India. And he admits that he has done it the hard way. He was, he says, much more open and expressive before. But he has got his finger burnt many times. He says he was caught completely off-guard by the furore that was raised following his comment about Indian parliamentarians being “paid” to remark on issues. “Every journalist present in that press conference laughed. So I can’t believe that it was taken the way that it was taken.”

He has stopped joking. At another time, during a match that was not going too well, he opened a book in the locker room. The team’s masseur, Ramesh Mane, has a collection of spiritual books, which he lays out on a table in the dressing room during matches for players to pick up and glance through if they are feeling out of sorts. Chappell was doing just that. But the next day he found his photographs splashed across the front pages — and he was accused of reading a book while the team struggled. He has stopped flicking through books in the dressing room.

And he’s wary of the media. “I don’t see a lot of professionalism in some areas of the media. It’s all about sensationalism. It’s all about twisting facts. I’ve been involved in some very minor incidents that I’ve seen turned into something major. And that’s cheap and nasty.”

But, yes, being the Indian team's coach has also been “a terrific life experience,” he says. “It’s been a terrific cricket experience. There is a passion about the game here that is not evident everywhere.” And given a chance he would do it again.

So does he want his contract renewed' “That probably won’t be in my control. It’ll be something that the BCCI will decide. I imagine that the results of the World Cup will have a bearing on that.” So is he saying that his contract will be renewed only if India wins the World Cup' “Well, I would hate to think that this whole judgment will be made on the results at the World Cup and not on the whole period that we’ve worked here, because a lot of work and preparation has gone into getting the team to this point.”

Is India going to win the World Cup' Chappell ducks that one. “Even if you go into the tournament as the best team in the world, there is no guarantee that you will win the World Cup,” he says. “Bad form or injury can strike a couple of your key players. Or you could get unlucky with the toss or the weather.” But doesn’t he at least dream about India winning the World Cup' “I would be dishonest if I had said I hadn’t thought about it, but I don’t lie in bed having wild fantasies about us winning the World Cup. If we are good enough, we will do it.”

That, indeed, is the big question. What has he done to ensure that India is indeed good enough' Chappell’s reply is roundabout. “Australian cricket is and has been on top of the world for some time now and Australia does can be transported,” he argues. “Probably one of the reasons I got this job is that I’ve grown up in that cricket culture and I assume they wanted me to bring some of the ideas from the Australian system to India.”

Coaching, says Chappell, is like parenting: at heart you have the best intentions. And he should know that, for he and Judith have two sons and a daughter. Chappell guffaws when you ask him if his children — or the boys in the cricket team — are scared of him. “I’m scared of them,” he chuckles. His wife, who’d left the room, returns. They have been married for over 35 years — he was 23 when they tied the knot, and she, 22. Chappell met her through her younger sister who, having seen him play cricket in Australia , asked for an autograph. “We became friends. But when I met Judy I just knew straightaway that she was the right one. She had such a calming effect on me.” Today, Judy travels everywhere with him. She tries to live life according to the teachings of sages and yogis. And clearly, she continues to be Chappell’s strength through it all.

He talks about his family. His three children call him up from all over the world ever so often to say, “Don’t let anything get you down, dad.” They were horrified the first few times their father’s effigy was burnt in India. Chappell points out that in Australia it’s not that common and has much more serious connotations. But he can laugh about it. “As long as they are burning my effigy and not me, it’s okay.”

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