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Pubudu Dassanayake, coach of the Canadian national cricket team sat down with Faraz Sarwat in Toronto recently to talk about Canada’s performance at the World Cup Qualifiers in South Africa, the controversial training trip to Sri Lanka that preceded the tournament and the 2011 World Cup itself. Excerpts:
Q: From your point of view what are the areas to focus on now that the team has qualified for the World Cup?
A: If you analyze Canadian cricket going back even a year and a half ago, the average age of the team was 30 or 31 years old and there’s a reason behind that. We have young, talented players but there’s no proper structure where we can develop them within the country to the required standard. So players need a lot of time, playing year after year to gain that experience. So we don’t have options and we need to pick older players. Now if you take the fitness levels and the fielding levels, even in this tournament (the World Cup Qualifiers) we were way below standard. That’s one area where we need to improve. We need to get young players into the system and if the local system is not helping us, then we need to identify who we can develop for the World Cup and the 2013 Qualifiers and get them into the squad. We can send them to academies and to other countries to play in their local cricket. That is the major plan from now on, but we can’t do it right away. We have a time period where we use the senior players and at the same time we get the youngsters ready for the squad. Before the World Cup Qualifiers we couldn’t do anything because we didn’t want to play around too much and we needed experience for the tournament.
Q: Are there any young players that you’ve already identified?
A: We’ve already identified about seven or eight players and two of them actually went with the team to Sri Lanka (to train before the World Cup Qualifiers). There are a couple of other youngsters, one is sixteen years old, not ready to play for the national team, but if you really analyze his game, I haven’t seen that much talent in Sri Lanka at that age group. But what full-member countries have is that by the time their cricketers are 19 years old, they have played so much cricket and have so much cricket knowledge, that if they’re good enough, they can just walk into the national side. So we need to get that kind of experience by sending our players to other places.
Q: Who are some of these players that you think can come along in the next couple of years?
A: The first one is Hiral Patel. He came with us to Sri Lanka and in the five warm-up games that he played, he got three fifties. He’ll be ready for us this season.
Q: You must be proud that Canada finished runners-up in the Qualifiers, but are there any players that you’re especially pleased with?
A: The five fast bowlers. From the first day of training in Sri Lanka, all five of them gave me everything that they had and worked really hard. People like Henry Osinde, Umar Bhatti and Khurram Chohan, they really gave everything and after a long time we won matches because of our bowling instead of just our batting.
Q: There was a lot of criticism about the trip to Sri Lanka where Cricket Canada sent eight players, five of which were bowlers to train with former Sri Lankan batsman, Marvan Atapattu. What did you think about all of that?
A: The selectors selected fifteen players for the tournament. I had four players coming from the outside, John Davison, Ian Billcliff, Geoff Barnett and Ashish Bagai. They were not available for Sri Lanka, but only when the tournament started. The other players at home could not get time off from their jobs. We were left with eight of our fifteen and we didn’t want to spend money on sending players to Sri Lanka who would not be in our squad of fifteen. The youngsters who joined us in Sri Lanka paid their own way. Now, we knew that our players based overseas have played at the highest level, and they’ve been training on their own. Davison was going to open and the other three would be in the middle order. I had no choice but to expect them to score. My concern became the other guys, how I could get the best out of them, to support the core guys. I figured that if Sandeep Jyoti and the tail, Bhatti, Harvir Baidwan and Chohan can contribute something from the bottom, we’re going to be okay. So the eight players batted every day under Marvan’s supervision. Marvan also worked with the team on basic things like running between the wickets and calling, things that the guys were not up to the standard. We managed to improve those things in Sri Lanka. The bowlers got enough batting and improved tremendously.
Q: Do you think you got the most out of Marvan Atapattu’s appointment as batting coach, when your top order batsmen were missing in Sri Lanka and of the three batsmen that you did have, Qaiser Ali didn’t play a single game, Cheema came to camp late and Jyoti played most of the tournament down at number seven?
A: Given the circumstances, I got the best. If you look at the professional guys we had in the team like Davison, Billcliff and Barnett, they’ve played first-class level and they’re very serious about their cricket. When they come into the team and they see that the other guys are not up to standard, they get frustrated and we’ve had issues within the team. But then you can’t blame anybody, because in the past the local guys only practiced two or three hours a week and didn’t do any training. That wasn’t a good mix because the professional guys would get frustrated when the others couldn’t do something. But how can you blame players who couldn’t train because of their jobs? What happened here was our local guys had raised their standards. The professional players were surprised to see these guys being up to standard and performing. It made the team into a unit. Whenever we needed runs at the bottom, there was a player who scored. Whenever we needed a wicket from our fast bowlers, we got it.
Q: Is the criticism of the trip to Sri Lanka unfair?
A: There was a lot of criticism that we shouldn’t have gone to Sri Lanka, but I think it was the main reason we did well in this tournament. Our players lived and breathed cricket in Sri Lanka and the people there gave them the respect of a national cricket team, whether they were at the hotel, at the ground or outside somewhere. This was new for our players. Our players didn’t know their value, but they got confidence by being treated so well and started to act like professional players too.
Q: How was it to finally have John Davison and Rizwan Cheema together as openers?
A: Initially in South Africa Cheema struggled with the bounce, with the ball coming higher than it does in Toronto or Sri Lanka. John is also an experienced coach now working for the Queensland High Performance center. When he saw the way Rizwan was batting, he said “I’ll adjust my game, let him play how he wants”. That worked really well. We then told Rizwan to play his natural game. John opened with Rizwan and let him have the strike and we saw that John ended up batting more overs too, which worked well for us.
Q: After Davison was injured you called up reserve player Ashif Mulla and put him into the playing eleven ahead of batsmen selected in the squad of fifteen. Why did Mulla play ahead of Qaiser Ali?
A: The reason Mulla walked into the team was because the middle-order had been doing so well and we didn’t want to disturb that. The option was to promote Jyoti up the order and insert Qaiser Ali or Arvind Kandappah at seven. But then we thought it best to bring in an opener. Even if a wicket falls early we would still have our settled middle-order. It wasn’t about comparing Mulla with Ali and Kandappah.
Q: One of the criticisms of this team is that even the bench players that get selected tend to be older and not as fit as they could be. Someone like Arvind Kandappah is a decent batsman, but if he’s not going to play much, doesn’t it make more sense to give that spot to a younger player like a Trevin Bastiampillai who could benefit from just being in the team?
A: I totally agree. I always like to get young players into the team even if they don’t get to play. But this tournament, Ashish Bagai and I gave our ideas about the team to the selectors about what we had in mind for the batting order. Positions 3-5 were set and we saw Dhaniram at No.6. At No.7 you need someone experienced to rebuild the innings if you lose a bunch of wickets at once, or to score runs fast at the end. Sandeep Jyoti was our number one option and we also had Qaiser Ali with the squad. We then looked at getting the best available player for that position. Yes, someone like Trevin is fitter, but Arvind is the only one who has scored runs at this level. If we played Trevin he would need to come in around number three not at seven. We needed someone who could bat at that particular position.
Q: Some of our best players are not part of the Canadian cricket scene on a day to day basis, so when the national team is selected should we still pick our best players, the proven performers like Davison and Bagai, or should only those players be in the team that the selectors have actually seen and whose form and fitness is known?
A: Even when you talk about locally based players, how often do the selectors get a chance to see them? We need to have a proper system where the selectors see every player or every game. At this point though, the selectors depend on the coach and captain a lot to aid them in the final selection. I’m not saying they agree with us all the time, but for certain players they have to depend on us. The question arises, why did we do well in this tournament but didn’t last summer? Then we used something like 32 players. Critics blame the selectors or the coach, but we had eight major injuries, and we had players who had to skip tournaments because they wouldn’t be available for every game. Even for me as coach that is difficult because I train a player and the next day he’s not available and I have to train somebody else for that spot. In November we contracted eight players full-time and I started working with them five days a week, five or six hours a day. And we know that the guys coming from outside are capable. They know where they’re going to bat and what their role is. I communicated with them and even before arriving in South Africa they knew what their role was going to be. The training and the consistency in the team made the difference. Going forward we need to keep this core of players.
Q: Do you expect most of the players from this tournament to be available for the 2011 World Cup?
A: I expect one or two changes. In 2011, Davison will be over 40 year old, but he’s much fitter than many of the guys in the game. Players like Dhaniram and Billcliff certainly have the ability and playing the World Cup is in their hands. We have the luxury of two years to build up players, but it’s up to them if they want to play the World Cup, they’ll need to raise their fitness levels. I would like to go there with our fittest side and be one of the best fielding teams in the tournament. That is achievable and something within our control. Our plans are there and it’s up to them to fit into that. If they’re willing to work hard and get to that level, we’re happy to have them.
Faraz Sarwat is the cricket columnist for the Toronto Star and the author of The Cricket World Cup: History, Highlights, Facts and Figures.
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