Two seasons ago, when he was the coach of the Karnataka Under-25 team, Jagadeesh Arun Kumar had the urge to ride his motorbike. The team was playing in Chennai, but the Harley Davidson was parked in his garage in Bangalore. On the rest day, he gave in to his biker impulse, returned to Bangalore, revved up the engine and rode 350 kilometres to be back in time for the next game.
Most of the time though, ‘JAK’, the nickname he goes by, wears the mask of sobriety of a middle-aged cricket coach. On the Harley and showing off his tattoos, however, you could mistake him for a member of the Indian Hell’s Angels. But what he likes to be known as is a coach, who has clocked the miles the hard way on the cricket field.
Arun has played over a 100 first-class matches, scored over 7,000 runs, scored hundreds in back-to-back Ranji Trophy finals for a victorious Karnataka in the late 90s. And now, he is currently on a high. Karnataka have entered the Ranji Trophy final, and will play Maharashtra in Hyderabad, a little over a year after he was appointed their batting coach.
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This season, Karnataka’s batsmen have score 13 hundreds — the most by any side. Three of them have come from Karun Nair, 22, who made his debut a little over a month ago. Lokesh Rahul, 21, has scored a season-best 873 runs and scored two of this three hundreds in the past months. Medium-pacer HS Sharath, who made his debut last season, has 32 scalps, while rookie leggie Shreyas Gopal has scalped 18 wickets.
One of the reasons for the team’s success is the changes to the coaching staff. Ahead of the 2012-13 season, the Anil Kumble-led Karnataka State Cricket Association decided to split the coaching duties. JAK was appointed as batting coach and MAK (Mansur Ali Khan) became the bowling coach.
The other reason was due to the timely selection of youngsters. “We felt that we needed to look beyond players who are 26-27 but are still fighting for a place in the squad. If they were struggling to make the team then it was better to give youngsters a break,” Arun says of the biggest challenge he faced when he took over. Senior players like KB Pawan and Rajoo Bhatkal were replaced by fresher legs and up to six players have made their debuts since.
Changes, however, were not restricted to personnel alone. The baseball bat and a broom were new additions to the training equipment. Arun is a certified Level-II coach but he also has the ability to think out of the box. Instead of using an angled cricket bat to give catching practice to the wicketkeeper and the regular slip fielders, the coach made use of the barrel bat and the broom. Both had advantages over traditional equipment. Just ask CM Gautam, the wicketkeeper.
Gautam puts down his 80-odd dismissals over two seasons to Arun’s originality. “When the ball hits the bristles of the broom and passes through it, it gives out a sounds similar to what occurs when there is an edge in a match. When the regular bat is angled and used for catching practice, the sound is not what is produced when the ball is edged,” he says. “During a game when I used to hear the edge my fingers would stiffen because I wasn’t practising to the same sound. After catching off the broom, my fingers are now relaxed when an edge comes my way in matches.”
The baseball bat, on the other hand, is used to train slip fielders with Arun attempting to play proper cricketing shots like the cover drive and the cut. “It is amazing how he is able to play shots with the baseball bat and also provide edges for catching practice,” adds Gautam.
Arun feels the advantage is that when he plays shots with the baseball bat, the velocity of the ball doesn’t reduce as much as it does when compared to a cricket bat. “The idea came to me because I don’t stick to only the textbook coaching method,” the coach says. But even before he became a coach, Arun gave the impression that he marched to the tune of a different drummer.
Rahul Dravid, JAK’s senior in college, claims that he wasn’t ever a conformist. “I remember JAK as someone who has always been different. I recall in one particular Shafi Darasha match JAK was playing against a team that had Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad, who were pretty quick back then. JAK went out to play with an unusually heavy bat (1.8 kilograms), which he had got made. I was wondering how he would cope,” says Dravid, still amazed. “But his logic worked. It went something like this. Because he was playing with a heavy bat, he wouldn’t move it too much and on contact, the ball would go for boundaries. He scored 70-odd in that innings.”
Unconventional wisdom, added on top of a strong cricketing foundation, is the secret to JAK’s success, feels Dravid. “He has done his coaching courses and has the experience of playing for Karnataka for many years with distinction. JAK and MAK have created the right kind of environment in the Karnataka dressing room and it is working as the youngsters are coming into the team and performing straight away,” Dravid says. Then he adds: “It also helps that as a coach JAK is one among the boys and not a dictator.”
JAK sports more tattoos than the average Indian cricketer of this generation. The current lot have helped in the mushrooming of the tattoo culture but none of them can lay claim to being the pioneer. In 2004, when Arun Kumar got the first of his tattoos he became the daddy-cool of cricketers. The tattoo read ‘Deipal’, the name of his daughter. This was while playing for a minor county club in Ireland.
Up in smoke
“During my playing days I guess people didn’t take me seriously enough or they didn’t think I was serious about cricket. I may have had a different outlook to life and the game but I always gave my best,” Arun says. “There was talk that I don’t work hard enough. But the truth is I used to work doubly hard because I was a smoker even in my playing days and I knew if I had to be as fit as the non-smokers I had to put in that extra bit. I used to work out in the mornings and do my exercises but the selectors and officials would only come to the stadium at noon. So they had a wrong impression about me.”
As a coach, JAK now has broken the mould again. “Our team meetings last not more than five minutes on the first morning of a Ranji Trophy game. That way the message is fresh. It works because the boys have been empowered to take decisions and be accountable for it and in turn they have all become responsible and confident in their abilities,” he claims. “As a young player I used to dread the long-winding team meetings that used to stretch into hours. The coaches would be saying the same thing again and again and no one would be listening. After a point you just switch off. In the Karnataka team MAK and I talk only when we think it is really necessary. I believe that a coach must keep his mouth shut most of the time.”
The democratisation of the dressing room has helped. Common interests — super bikes, fast cars, music and pool — form snatches of conversation between JAK and the boys. Most times they are listening to their coach because he can identify a motorbike from the thump of its engine, as well as spot why a cover drive needs a little tweaking.