'Mental strength makes the difference'
By and large it has been India's batting stars who have been the team's poster boys so far. This Australian summer, that changed. Ishant Sharma, Irfan Pathan, Praveen Kumar and RP Singh all had more than one glorious day under the sun each on the tour, getting the better of some of the world's leading batsmen in the process. Some of the credit for their rise should go to Venkatesh Prasad, the team's bowling coach, who spoke to Cricinfo a few hours after India's historic CB Series victory.
Was the Australia tour biggest challenge of your coaching career?
This was one of the challenging tours. Yes, we all knew that it was going to be tough, but we never doubted our ability or thought we couldn't win the series. I knew we had the talent, I knew we could handle any situation and that we could do the job.
What were the dos and donts for the bowlers on this tour?
The dos were being positive in body language, in our approach; to execute and stick to plans. To execute plans we had to back ourselves. Also, what was very important was being able to adapt to the given situation and conditions on the ground. Those were the key areas we were always working on.
We kept it very simple. For example, if somebody is an inswing bowler, you have to allow him to keep doing that. The only thing to do is vary the line and length depending on conditions. That's adaptability. It's the subtle adjustments you have to make to suit the given situation, keeping a bowler's strengths in mind.
As for the donts, I don't use the word "don't". I would say, "Probably we can do this", instead of saying "Don't do this". What happens when you say "don't" is, you send a message to the mind to not do a particular thing, but mostly you end up doing it anyway.
How much time do you spend with each bowler on tour?
It varies from person to person. If things are going well for a bowler, I don't think I should be spending too much time with him - too much analysis leads to paralysis. If the bowler is technically pretty much okay, I don't change that. Instead I focus on the tactical aspect and try and get an idea about what he is thinking about his bowling. Only if somebody is not getting his length or line because of a technical fault do I spend a lot of time in the nets and off the field to understand and make him understand where the fault lies.
How much of your coaching is about training bowlers in specifics?
You need to understand the bowler. One-on-ones help a lot. The advantage for me is that having played at the highest level and been part of the system helps me understand the boys much better than anybody else, which makes things easier. I know the mindset of an Indian bowler who is normally used to bowling on flat tracks in India. So, suddenly when they get seaming, swinging and bouncy tracks, that's where my experience comes in.
It's more about managing a bowler and understanding him. It's not an easy job. As a player you tend to think about yourself, your bowling; but now, being on the other side of the fence, I need to be thinking about the bowlers. That takes a lot of effort and time.
|The strength of our bowlers is that each one has a fantastic seam position and wrist position at the time of delivery, and that helps them move the ball considerably, which I haven't seen in many bowlers from other countries|
How did you deal with the depleted bench strength once Zaheer Khan and RP Singh left due to injury?
I never thought it was going to be a big challenge because we had the talent. When Zaheer and RP were around, I was spending a lot of time with the other guys in the nets. If anything was lacking, it was the experience. During the Tests, having Anil [Kumble] working with me, and us sharing our experience and knowledge with the bowlers and giving them the confidence and trust helped a lot.
Bowlers like Ishant Sharma were waiting for the opportunity. He came in and surprised everybody, not just with his pace but with his seam and wrist position and swing.
During the CB Series you were working with an inexperienced bowling attack. What were the areas of focus?
It's about the basics. Consistency is important, and so are variations. When you are playing at this level, everybody has got about an equal amount of talent - it's just that whoever is strong mentally is going to perform consistently. The biggest challenge for me is to understand the bowler - how he is thinking, how he is approaching the game, how he is planning his bowling - and then get it in sync with the team goals and work accordingly.
You have said in the past that swing is India's biggest strength, which no other country has to the same extent. Does that still hold true?
The strength of our bowlers is that each one has a fantastic seam position and wrist position at the time of delivery, and that helps them move the ball considerably, which I haven't seen in many bowlers from other countries. That makes our bowling attack that much more lethal. Our boys also bowl 135 and above and at times 140-plus too.
What do you need to do to make sure the bowlers maintain this peak?
It's not a challenge for me alone. The bowlers need to take care of themselves. They need to be aware of themselves - their workload, how they are going to keep their fitness at the optimum. The individual needs to follow a certain programme in terms of physical conditioning, bowling in the nets, bowling in matches. I've seen bowlers going back to their states and bowling 25 to 30 overs a day. That's killing. Now whose responsibility is it? It's the responsibility of the state coach. So it's a collective responsibility.
You are talking about injury management, in essence?
Injury management, of course. Fast bowling is the toughest job in cricket and there will be niggles and injuries, but you need to be aware of the niggles so they don't get serious. The bowler needs to have constant contact with the physio and the coach and be open about it. They need to help the support staff help them. At the same time the bowler has to keep increasing his threshold of pain, because you can't go to the physio's table every time.
When it comes to certain bowlers having recurring injuries, I need to speak to the physio, trainer, and maybe even the state coach, to understand. It's not just about knowing the bowler's bowling strengths. I also need to know if he is going to be effective in short bursts or if he is better in a longer spell.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni has proved himself to be a captain who sometimes makes surprising bowling changes that are often effective. Do you agree with his calls?
I've had chats with Dhoni on the bowling changes and his strategies.
He is very calm, very cool. He tosses the ball to the bowler, doesn't get too involved, gives him the field he wants and goes behind the stumps to do his job. That has worked well for everyone. I love to have a captain like that in terms of how he understands a bowler. Anil has been the same, too.
As for Dhoni's surprise bowling changes, I have been caught off guard, too. Like Joginder Sharma bowling that last over in the World Twenty20 final. In a situation like that I would have gone with an experienced hand, but then Joginder did the job. Dhoni showed confidence and trust in his player. I would love to have more communication with the captain when it comes to bowling strategies - just to understand him better.
What has been the biggest advantage from the tour?
We now have a fantastic group of fast bowlers who showed a lot of aggression and character, and they shouldered the responsibility whenever there was a setback. RP took the responsibility of leading the attack when Zaheer went back; when we missed RP, Ishant and Irfan took the responsibility of leading. And you saw Praveen and Sreesanth doing that when Ishant didn't play the second final. So I've got bowlers who are willing to take up their responsibilities, willing to accept the challenges and play according to the team's needs.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo