Hyderabad: Fresh from a 7-0 thumping of the West Indies across all three formats to somewhat alleviate the World Cup agony, Team India are back up and running as they gear up for a series against South Africa beginning on Sunday.
Rejuvenated, Virat Kohli and his men are right up there and will be a handful for rivals, says Team India fielding coach R. Sridhar, adding that preparations for next year’s T20 World Cup have already begun. Excerpts from an interview.
How gratifying was the West Indies tour?
The World Cup was a huge disappointment and to go straightaway to the West Indies and sweep the series 7-0 across all formats was huge, unprecedented. It was very satisfying. Conditions in the Caribbean are always tough and they had good players in Kemar Roach, Jason Holder, Sunil Narine, Evin Lewis, Chris Gayle played the ODIs.
How difficult was it to get over the World Cup disappointment?
In this Indian team, Virat is the one who inspires and (coach) Ravi Shastri motivates. Ravi has a knack of bringing out the best out of guys, by the way he speaks to them and the kind of goals he sets them. Once the players are on the field, Virat takes over. He absolutely walks the talk, leads by example. They are a potent combination.
Ravi made a small adjustment to G. H. Vihari’s batting after his first innings of 32 by asking him to flex his knee a bit and get his head forward so that he could get a bigger stride and leave the bouncers, and look at the result — Vihari got scores of 93, 111 and 53 not out in the next three. He’s very keen on investing in youngsters over the next two years with the World Test Championship as well as the World T20 to be played. He feels even during the transition we should be a strong side, even as we lose an odd series though.
In the third ODI, West Indies got 100 runs in five overs — they were 14 for no loss after 5 and 114 for no loss after 10, with Chris Gayle and Evin Lewis going strong. Ravi told the players we are a good team if we can win the match from here... and we did. We bowled our way back through the spinners (Ravindra Jadeja and Yuzvendra Chahal) and then Virat scored a magnificent hundred (114 not out) and was very well supported by Shreyas Iyer (65) as we chased down 255 in 33 overs.
What according to you are the positives from the tour?
In the Test matches, Ajinkya Rahane, Vihari, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami were outstanding. Ishant Sharma has done well too. He has really taken the mantle of the senior statesman and is performing like one. Ajinkya was the one who came into the series with a lot of pressure. And the way he approached and played was a bonus for him. It’s good to have him back and a massive thing for us going forward into the Test championship. The form of Bumrah too is a big boost, now that he’s got the outswingers too going. And like Virat said, Vihari is obviously the find of the series. Shreyas was so good in the ODIs, Rishabh (Pant) in the T20s.
Does fielding get a good chunk of time during practice sessions?
Unlike earlier, fielding is no more something you do when you’re not batting or bowling at practice sessions. Those days are gone. Now, with IPL and the vision of Ravi and Virat, it’s fielding first, mandatory. They have to go through reaction, throwing, slip and close-in catching drills and some outfield work too.
Where do you rank our fielding?
I think we have overtaken South Africa to be number two behind Australia in fielding. New Zealand are athletic and very good in the outfield but when it comes to catching we are better. Any team can come up with a superb effort in the field on their day but the top teams are consistent because the difference between their good and bad days is very less.
If you see the World Cup, despite having two or three wicketkeepers playing in the XI, we were the best catching team, having converted 92 to 94 per cent of the catches — we dropped only 4 of them. The other teams were not even close.
How do you motivate fielders?
Intent is topmost when it comes to close-in fielding. If you have that then your concentration levels are high, your reactions are good, you want the ball to come to you, want to make a difference and are enjoying it. I have to sell them that intent. Some of them come with a lack of it, some of them have no choice! Their hand-eye coordination, the injuries, these are the things I need to juggle.
Virat has also created a culture in the team where each player has got a template to follow in fitness. Their diet is brilliant, sleep patterns are terrific... a fitter fielder means saving more runs. Test cricket demands a totally different approach to the white ball format, on and off the field. It needs different discipline and great focus in your preparation, every night you’re sleeping with the thoughts of the next morning.
When things get quiet, Virat takes his energy up to the next level, the result of which was his spectacular run-out of Shamarh Brooks in the second innings of the second Test. He ran to his left, rolled on the ball and gets him out with a direct hit with no sight of the stumps! That’s him, unbelievable, pleasure to watch. There have been days he has fielded at training till he bled, in Brisbane when he went on and on, diving all around, until his hand was bruised.
How about wicket-keepers?
To develop wicketkeepers across teams so that we have a reliable replacement for M. S. Dhoni in all formats of the game is another aspect. Pant is part of that process. During my coach education days when I spent time with the National Cricket Academy I had the opportunity to work with wicketkeepers for eight years. In my Level 3, the case study was a wicketkeeper. Then, when I was in the faculty of BCCI’s coaching programme I used to take lectures on wicket-keeping. Doing all that has helped me understand the technicalities involved in ’keeping — the angles, the alignments and all. But ’keeping to Bumrah and Shami is difficult, for the ball really wobbles. And when the spinners come on, you just don’t have time — you’re one’s shooting through, one’s coming up, one’s turning square... it’s tough.
What targets have you set for yourself?
In Tests, the goal is develop a pool of consistent close-in fielders to complement our fast bowling unit, which is probably the best in the world today. We need a terrific slip cordon to support our quicks but that’s a challenge because it will keep changing with injuries or the form of batsmen. You can never have a settled slip cordon and need to keep finding people for the specialist position. I would say taking 8 out of 10 catches is a good job for the slip cordon. Last year we did 84 per cent and 92 in different series, so it’s heartening.
For Tests, we had a settled slip cordon in Pujara, K. L. Rahul, Kohli and Rahane. In one-dayers it is Rohit, Shikhar (Dhawan) and Virat. If they are in good form, all is well, if not, you have to find another guy. In the second innings of the Jamaica Test we had Vihari at first slip, just to give him time in that position for him to stand up to Shami and Bumrah and understand their lengths, angles and the time taken for the ball to come.
Do you have a free hand to build that section?
A free hand to groom fielders is not easy because fielding is not a primary skill. You are not picked in the team for your fielding but for batting, bowling or wicket-keeping. Only after players are picked does my work start and the time for me is very less. But if all the players are in good form and the team is set it makes a big difference as you can plan better.
What are the upgrades you have brought to the team?
In the last two years we started quantifying fielding — taking data and analysing things as to who is fielding how many balls, in what positions, how many runs they have saved/missed, how many balls they’ve fumbled, how many throws have been direct hits/on target/off target. Based on this data, we started using fielders more appropriately. The players too understand it well now, they know where to stand for a particular bowler. It’s a well-oiled machine.
Along with Partha & Leverage we also developed a bat with rubbers that facilitates nicks to wicketkeeper even as you play through the ball. Earlier we used to just open the face and snick it, which is not going to happen in a match. This is now being extensively used all across the country, even at the NCA. I can say that is one of my ideas.
As the need arises we always try and improvise and develop something.
They say there’s not much coaching required at the top level...
The work which is going on at the grassroot level all over the country is something that is not given enough credit. All of the Test cricketers have personal coaches whom they have grown up with. These coaches work at the base level tirelessly without expecting any rewards. They take a beginner, create a cricketer and hand him over to the state or the national coach, but don’t get enough credit. I think they are also a part of the consistent run of the Indian team. They need to be acknowledged.
On Saturday, Thakur Tilak Varma scored a hundred for India Under 19 against Pakistan. His coach Salam Bayash has done a fabulous job. If you look at it, none of the coaches of top players have been Test cricketers, but they are the ones who the players fall back on whenever they are down. These coaches are champions who do a lot for Indian cricket and need to be lauded.
How can we keep their morale high?
For that to happen, coaching in all sports has to be respected as a profession, like in America or Europe. If that happens, I would say India will be unbeatable — we could have two or three teams (laughs). Here, people are still doing regular jobs and taking up coaching part-time, at the grassroot level. I too have been in those shoes till 2012 — I did not have the courage to quit my job in the State Bank of Hyderabad and plunge full time into coaching. Only after we won the Under 19 World Cup did I begin to think beyond.
Is it too early to talk about T20 World Cup in Australia next year?
It’s already in our minds. We’re about 25 games away from the first match at the Cup. If you see India’s schedule in the next 12 months, we’ve got a lot of T20 games coming up, and then there is the IPL as well. The overall plan has already been laid, we have to get on to the field and start executing them and also find out answers to all the questions we have. Hopefully, 8 to 10 before the tournament begins, we should have a set side.
Was the process to select coaches a distraction while the West Indies series was on? Was the candidature of Jonty Rhodes as fielding coach an added pressure?
I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a distraction. But I would say it helped me because while I was preparing for it the numbers and notes that I had gave me lot of inputs as to what more I could do. As far as Jonty Rhodes is concerned, I was not even thinking about it, there was no pressure on me.
What do you think are the factors that swung it in your favour?
Probably my connection with the players and knowledge about them; knowing the cultural diversity of the country; the data I have gathered over the last five years that I have been with the team, which has helped the side progress and understanding the head coach’s vision are among the things that may have worked for me.
The team also played a couple of T20s in the USA. Your thoughts...
USA has improved when it comes to ground conditions and the wicket even as the hurricane season there did not allow the groundsmen enough time to prepare. The crowd there was fantastic, full of desis, we felt like we were playing in India. But I think cricket is booming there and in another two years it will massive with huge investments being made....