It looks like the bowlers are finally getting their share of the spotlight, or at least their due in what has been a bowler-dominated series?
Virat gives his bowlers a lot of freedom to express themselves and also to tell him what they want. A lot of emphasis is also on individual goals for each and every bowler. Sometimes they do achieve them and sometimes they don’t. It’s about constantly analyzing in order to improve. No matter what you achieve, there is always room for improvement and once that tone has been set, then you are not afraid to express yourself.
There are only two things that drive this team. A director who infuses fearlessness, and a captain who infuses honesty. So you are expected to be honest in accepting good things as well as putting up your hand and saying, “Yes I did mess up today”. Once you have that honesty prevailing in a team, then even criticism is viewed very constructively. It is not taken personally. There is an absolutely beautiful atmosphere for people to express themselves and grow.
Is there an example or session during this series where you can recall this honesty coming through?
Sometimes as a spinner you are so engrossed in bowling to a particular batsman, your focus becomes more and more narrow. From the outside, you could observe and open up more areas for them and say, “Why don’t you try and attack from another angle or even the line can change.”
For example in the Delhi Test, Ashwin was bowling more on the stump line initially. Then you would have noticed he later shifted to bowling more outside the off-stump where there was rough and the ball was turning a lot from there. In fact, the way he got AB de Villiers out in the second innings as well, was the one that turned sharply from outside the off-stump. These are small things that come from attention to detail.
When you speak about a batsman expressing himself it’s generally attributed to the intent he’s showing in the middle. So how does a bowler express himself?
If you look at Ishant, he had a very major role to play in the Nagpur Test. From lunch to tea, we just gave 42 runs on the last day. We knew that the bowlers were also getting to that point where they needed a break. Not exactly getting tired but sometimes you need a break to think and refocus and say, “Ok, I have been doing this. What else can I do to get them out?” Ishant bowled a long spell, where he was troubling the batsmen and also was miserly about giving runs as always. And (Ravindra) Jadeja bowled about six consecutive maiden overs that session to build more pressure. You know that yes I’m not getting wickets but this is the best I can do for my team. Understanding your strengths and going out in the middle and executing them is your real test of character.
We always knew that Umesh is an expert with reverse-swing. In the nets we find that he is the one who can really reverse the ball a long way in. Being able to do that in practice sessions and then doing it in a match is a different game altogether. Once you are fearless, you don’t mind going for a few runs in an attempt to bowl reverse-swing. So it’s the fearlessness and the conviction of saying that I can do this and I will go and express myself the same way in the match. This calls for some confidence not only from the bowler himself but also from the captain. Have faith in his bowlers and say, “Don’t worry. Come on tell me what fields do you want?”
How does it help having a captain who seems to back his bowlers or say a bowlers’ captain at the helm?
Empowerment is the key. The bowler first needs to understand himself and his shortcomings very well. It’s the key to them being successful. And, when the captain also understands what is happening, he backs the bowlers to the hilt. It makes our job easier. Even a spinner needs excellent handling. Take Amit Mishra. Ever since his comeback, he’s done a great job for India in Sri Lanka and even here in the two Tests, he came up with crucial wickets. He has over 500 first-class wickets. You don’t teach a Mishra how to bowl in India. It’s only the confidence we need to work on. Again the confidence that he enjoys from the captain has gone a long way.
The knowledge that this is the job the captain has for me, and I won’t be judged by bottom-lines—figures and stats—is a game-changer. To go about and do your job freely needs a confidence of the captain. That’s exactly what they are getting and the results are there to see.
You speak a lot about empowering bowlers. Can you just elaborate on what you mean by that.
Empowering a bowler basically means taking the guesswork out of bowling. It is nothing but helping them understand themselves a lot better. As a coach my job is to eliminate guesswork totally and the bowler knows for sure that this will be my wrist position and it’s easier for me to bowl this ball.
For example, if you look at Umesh. He knows he can reverse the ball extremely well. Now, empowerment is, helping him understand what happens when he’s bowling from close to the stumps and how does the ball behave when he goes slightly wide of the stumps. For different batsmen, it can come in handy at different times. If I bowl from around the wicket then with the arm the ball will come in (to a left-hander) and at the last moment leave him. Like what happened to JP Duminy in Delhi. These are the things that the bowler needs to understand, bowling from different angles for example.
Then in Ashwin’s case, when he goes close to the stumps he gets a lot more drift. When he goes a little away from the stumps, the angle changes. So the ball drifts in rather than drifting out. You talk about how the wrist automatically changes position when you go close to the stumps as compared to a wider angle. Once you understand these things and you know for sure this is how it behaves then the spinner is empowered. What I’ve told you is what we have been working on for a period of one-and-a-half years. It takes time. Nothing comes easy. It’s about building relationships with the bowlers. It’s a question of trust. Then you start giving them information that they are able to absorb and put into practice. But again too much analysis leads to paralysis.
Do you see the young Indian fast bowlers, including Ishant, as your stint as gone on being more aware of their bowling and understanding how to take wickets in Tests?
We always say that it’s when you are walking back to the top of your bowling mark is when you need to make up your mind about what you need to do. At the top of the mark, you should be very sure of what you want to execute.
What the bowlers do is come out and study the batsmen. Then they come and discuss what they think about the batsmen, his strengths and weaknesses. Then we sit down together and make a plan as to what needs to be done to every particular batsman. Once that plan is made in writing, each one knows exactly where and how they need to bowl to this particular batsman. I am not saying it always works or this is the only plan. This is the initial plan or plan A. These plans help you to focus. The beauty of this team is that they share a lot of information amongst the bowlers. And Ishant is a mentor to the fast bowlers. He’s very experienced and he talks a lot to them. They discuss reverse swing, how to maintain the ball. Even if you notice, Ashwin, Jadeja and Mishra bowl together in the nets and they keep discussing different aspects of their trade.
You seem to have brought a whole lot of changes to the way Indian bowlers approach the nets since taking over.
No Indian bowler just goes through the motions in the nets. Each one is constantly working on achieving some goal or the other with each session. They set their own goals. They decide what they want to execute in the net sessions. Where I feel it is necessary, I might add a word or two. There are certain sessions where we say that this entire session we are going to be bowling off-stump, irrespective of whether you are getting hit or not. you will bowl off-stump or outside it. Whatever goal you want to set, you need to have the discipline to execute it and be very honest about it. The match becomes an extension of the nets. This entire week in the nets, I bowled the line that I wanted to.
So I should be able to carry that confidence into the match.
Is there intentional focus on imagining that you’re bowling at an opposition batsman even if the guy facing you in the nets is your teammate.
The line and length that you want to execute to an opponent you execute to our own batsman. That might be the Indian batsman’s strength and you might get hit in the nets. But that’s not the concern. You shouldn’t think that you are bowling to a Shikhar or a Rohit in our nets. You are actually bowling to a Sangakkara or any other opponent. Sometimes you do get carried away when you get hit. Nobody likes to be hit. But how it helps you is that when the opposition batsman does eventually come face to face in a match, the line you want to bowl is well-entrenched in your mind. Once you have that clarity, it gives you the best chance to go and execute.
At the same time, it is also about gauging where a batsman is most likely to hit a particular delivery more often than not and recognizing the correct field setting. You just observe where our batsmen are hitting in the nets whenever you bowl these angles.
Would you consider the much-improved consistency of the Indian bowling attack as a whole to be the legacy of your stint so far?
We are simply the support staff. And as the term suggests, we play a very supporting role. They set their targets, we constantly remind them about it and give them feedback. So that at any given stage they are constantly looking to improve and are never resting on their laurels or achievements. You have achieved it. Now gone. Now look at how you can improve your own performance. To be honest, it is kind of unfair to give me the credit. They are the ones who are going out there and doing the job. It’s a collective effort. As a team we achieve a legacy. No individual can develop a legacy in a team game.