“Yesterday night was a revelation to all of us,” emphasised Virat Kohli, his face suddenly contorting, like when you spot something paranormal, the eyeballs almost jumping out of its socket, evoking a winking smile from Anil Kumble, seated beside him.
“That was a side of Anil bhai that we never explored,” he added, conceding genuine surprise when Kumble took them to a drum circle session after the practice match in Alur.
Soon after they reached Bangalore on Sunday, understandably expended after a rigorous day that involved a nearly-100 km wade through the city traffic, Kumble informed them about a get-together in the night. Naturally, Kohli and Co assumed it must be a serious brainstorming session. They were in for a real shock, than surprise. “We thought it would be a serious session, but it turned out to be a fun session. We were surprised by Anil bhai,” he said.
It was natural for Kohli to feel a trifle astounded at the latest team-bonding exercise by Kumble. For the general perception of the man, over the decades, is one of gravitas and sternness. In his bespectacled, moustachioed days, he looked every bit the nerd, immersed forever in plotting a batsman fall.
Even after he shed the glasses and spotted the French beard, the geekiness stuck on to him. Of course, several of his contemporaries swear by his funny side. But for the outsider, he was always serious, and in equal measure studious.
“Maybe, it’s because we never worked with him from a close quarter,” Kohli confided.
— BCCI (@BCCI) 4 July 2016
In another era, it might have been considered heretical, or even silly, for a coach to chalk out something so different, two nights before they are to embark on a month-long tour to the Caribbean. For, the general conception of a coach is that of a stern disciplinarian, instilling army-style virtues of obedience, respect and discipline. But coaching patterns have evolved — there is a maniacal emphasis on character and team-building ventures to help them understand each other emotionally — and Kumble is a man up-do-date with the modern methods.
He was merely adopting what had been widely prevalent in European football (and even in Indian football) and which permeated into cricket in the last decade.
Previously, in preparation for Ashes victories at home in 2009 and away in 2011, England travelled to Europe on character and team-building ventures designed to help them get to know one another even better and therefore pull together on the pitch too. Australia first set the trend, visiting Gallipoli in 2001 and stopping at the Somme battlefield of World War One, before the 2005 Ashes. Likewise, England spend time in Flanders Field, then a former Nazi concentration camp in southern Germany, then went trekking in Bavaria while Australia steeled themselves for an Ashes coup with a trip to a Chilean mine.
— BCCI (@BCCI) 4 July 2016
Hence, if “process” was the catchword of past regimes, it’s “building emotional bonds” and “mindset” that have been the buzzwords under Kumble. Kohli explains: “This (emotional connect) is very important for the team. Sometimes when we are focussed on our individual game, we forget the importance of team bonding. We wanted to improve our camaraderie and understanding. This is important because the performance on the field can be better if everyone understands each other better. Everyone enjoyed it (drum session) a lot, and we had fun. It is going to be a long season, and these sorts of activities are required.”
What he implied, as India begin their long run of Test series, is that teams tend to go mentally stale, when they play incessant cricket round the year. That, in turn, flat-lines their performance. That is precisely the reason they sometimes needed to be engaged with something less serious, and it’s especially the case when you’re playing non-stop, uni-format cricket for a good part of the next eight months.
— BCCI (@BCCI) 4 July 2016
Hence, Kumble’s attempts to address the prospective staleness, and seek a deeper team spirit, are novel in the context of Indian cricket. It’s an attempt to travel beyond the superficial, to encourage players to discover more about themselves and gain a deeper understanding of how to relate to their team-mates, about when to encourage them, when to demand more, when to leave them alone. This is with the larger understanding that team spirit doesn’t come naturally, at any level. It has to be constantly nurtured – although talented players can create an illusion of togetherness in victory, but with defeat comes blame and recriminations.
Kumble know’s it all too well
It’s his profound understanding of a player’s psyche that has been his biggest input so far. Attests Kohli: “Understanding of skills and understanding of mindset are two different things. Mindset can’t be taught, but it comes only when you have faced tough situations, and that’s one big difference. The information we’ve got from him about mental adjustments needed to win has been a big boost. There’s an emotional connect with the coach, no doubt, but it’s about how he makes the players feel comfortable.”
You do not have to spend much time around Kumble to see the tactile arm around the shoulder, almost an elder-brotherly body language between him and his group. And Kohli would believe there would be more such revelations of Kumble’s lighted side.
Support for Kohli’s aggression
On the apparent, Kohli’s snarling on-field persona is in in stark contrast, even contradictory, with Kumble’s inscrutably composed demeanour. But Kumble states these are just two different shades of aggression, underpinned by a common ambition to win matches. “I was no different. I was also aggressive, but probably different in terms of how we probably came across on the field. But I love his aggression and I’ll be the last person to curb someone’s natural instincts. You don’t go into the match thinking that you can’t win. Your thinking is to win the match from any situation and that is the positivity that we will look to bring in,” he said.
Though as an afterthought, he added: “Of course we all know how important it is to be the ambassadors of India and be a part of the Indian cricket team. That everybody in the team understands. We will ensure that there is a thin line and that everybody knows that.”
Kohli, meanwhile, stood steadfastly with his aggressive philosophy, yet again explaining its logic for the umpteenth time. “Our intention will always be to go for a win. There have been situations in the middle where we have also lost but we know that we must play positive cricket so that we can get into a position where we can win and we can also lose. We lost because of our mistakes. We must realise that we have got into that position playing good cricket 80 per cent of the time. We must focus on the mistakes we made in that 20 per cent and not change the remaining 80 per cent,” he stressed.
As is the routine these days, spinners began with a few knockdowns in the morning. But Ashwin got it all wrong when he failed to ride the bounce of Mohammad Shami and instead saw the ball hitting him flush on the forearm, just above the rest. He flunked the remaining nets, and was last spotted with a thick bandage on his arm. Kumble, though, assuaged fears that it was just a bruise.