John Wright: 10 interesting anecdotes from his time as India coach

John Wright, born on July 5, 1954, is a former New Zealand batsman who played 82 Tests and 149 One-Day Internationals (ODIs). Wright was one of the leading batsmen for New Zealand, but is best remembered for his tenure as India coach in the early 2000s. Nishad Pai Vaidya delves into Wright’s book ‘Indian Summers’ and picks 10 interesting anecdotes during his journey as a coach. 

 

1.  Doubling up as manager

Wright was appointed India coach ahead of the Zimbabwe series in November 2000. To his amazement, he also had to perform the role of the manager and take care of the logistics as the Indian board had not employed a man for the job. “I relied heavily on Babu Meman, the Zimbabwe manager, for logistical information such as flight times. I had two jobs, which was one more than I really wanted, but no contract,” he remembers.

 

2.  Getting Harbhajan Singh ready for the epic series

In 2000-01, Harbhajan Singh was attempting a comeback in the Indian team, with his career at crossroads. With the big series against Australia approaching, Sourav Ganguly and Wright invested their faith in Harbhajan, identifying him as a potent weapon in the absence of the injured Anil Kumble. Wright came up with a training regime for Harbhajan: “Using chalk, I drew a box about 20 cm wide and 60 cm long on a good length outside off stump. If he [Harbhajan] pitched his odd spinner in that box, I said, the ball would hit or threaten the top of off stump. It was up to him how he got the ball down there but that was the target and if he hit it over and over again, things would happen for him.” The rest is history! Harbhajan made a remarkable comeback with 32 wickets in the three-match Test series, guiding India to victory.

 

3.  Rahul Dravid prevented from bungee jumping

During the tour to Zimbabwe in 2001, some members of the Indian team went to Victoria Falls along with Wright and manager Chetan Chauhan. Rahul Dravid was eager to take a bungee jump along the falls, but Chauhan stopped him from doing so. Wright recalls, “A sensible call: if serious harm had come to Rahul, Chetan and I might as well have jumped off the bridge without a giant rubber-band attached to our ankles.”

 

4.  Anil Kumble bowling against medical advice

The picture of Anil Kumble bowling with a bandaged jaw at Antigua in 2002 has become a part of cricketing folklore. It is a testament to his fight and undying spirit. In fact, when he was hit by the bouncer and a fracture was diagnosed, he was advised not to bowl and Andrew Leipus, the physiotherapist, also said he shouldn’t open his mouth, thus appealing was a distant dream. However, Kumble went on to bowl a spell of a champion, dismissing Brian Lara. Wright reveals that Kumble wanted to bowl that day as there weren’t too many occasions until then that he got to bowl after India had put up a score over 400 in an away Test.

 

5.  The Virender Sehwag incident

Though Wright had this image of being a quiet man, he could be fiery when irked. An incident involving Virender Sehwag proves what he expected from his players. During a NatWest Series 2002 game against Sri Lanka, Sehwag was dismissed early after playing a bad shot. Wright had warned Sehwag against such indiscretions and was furious with this lapse. When Sehwag walked into the dressing room, Wright held his collar and said, “What the hell’s going on? How can you come back in after playing a shot like that and unbuckle your pads as if nothing’s happened?” This incident shocked the whole team, but the matter was then sorted out after the game.

 

6.  Shirt waving and superstitions

During the epic run-chase in the NatWest Series 2002 final against England at Lord’s, the Indian team became very superstitious as Mohammad Kaif and Yuvraj Singh started constructing a solid partnership. Wright recalls how the Indian team stuck to their spots in the dressing room, with Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar taking the windows in the corners. Dinesh Mongia wasn’t allowed to get up from the physio’s massage table for the fear of losing a wicket. Through that, Harbhajan had suggested that each member take his shirt off after winning the game, but Dravid vetoed it. As we know, Sourav Ganguly was the only one who went for it!

 

7.  Getting Sachin Tendulkar to open the batting during 2003 World Cup

John Wright was instrumental in getting Tendulkar to open the batting in the 2003 World Cup. Tendulkar was positioned at No 4 for some time in One-Day Internationals (ODIs), with Sehwag and Ganguly opening the batting. There was a school of thought that preferred Tendulkar at the top. When Wright asked Tendulkar about his preferred slot, he was apprehensive and said he’d do what the team wants. However, Wright coaxed him and Tendulkar confessed that he preferred opening the batting. As a result, Tendulkar was promoted and he went on to score 673 runs in the tournament, taking India to the final. Even when India’s campaign was in trouble after the big defeat to Australia, Wright asked the team members to introspect about the poor batting performances and come up with a solution. They then suggested that Sehwag should open the batting with Tendulkar with Ganguly to follow at No. 3.

 

8.  The VVS Laxman heartbreak

It was quite unfortunate that VVS Laxman never got to play a World Cup. Dinesh Mongia was preferred over Laxman for the 2003 World Cup, when Wright was at the helm. The former India coach notes that his relationship with Laxman suffered as a result and it took time before things could get better. On one occasion, some members of the Indian team were watching television when an advertisement featuring Sehwag appeared. Wright asked Laxman why he didn’t feature in ads like his teammates. Sehwag replied, “John, he [Laxman] didn’t go to the World Cup.”

 

9.  Anjali Tendulkar’s words of gratitude

During the tour to Australia in 2003-04, Tendulkar failed to score big runs in the first three Tests and was eager to turn things around in the fourth Test at Sydney. “Before the Sydney Test, we talked about his [Tendulkar’s] batting, which didn’t happen very often as he knew his own game inside out,” Wright recalls. Tendulkar went in with a set gameplan, where he decided that he wouldn’t attempt a cover-drive or an expansive shot through the off-side. Tendulkar went on to score 241 not out, which is one of his best knocks considering that he had cut off one scoring area. A few weeks after the innings, Tendulkar’s wife Anjali personally thanked Wright for his words before the important Test match. Wright’s support had come during one of the most testing times for Tendulkar and his wife’s gratitude is a reflection of the family.

 

10.  Autographing a pillow for Ray Jennings

Ray Jennings is known to be one of the fiery coaches, who does not hold back his words. When South Africa toured India in 2004, they played out a high-scoring draw in the first Test at Kanpur. At the end of the game, Jennings said that he felt the Indians were ferrying pillows while fielding. India hit back in the second and final Test at Kolkata, winning it quite easily. Wright says that the whole team then ordered a pillow, which was signed by each player. It was then sent to Jennings as a memento.

 

(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a Mumbai-based cricket journalist and one of the youngest to cover the three major cricketing events — ICC World Cup, World T20 and under-19 World Cup. He tweets as @nishad_45)

Related story: John Wright: Life and times

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