The art of the turnaround
Not long ago, when India were in Zimbabwe, the prophets of doomsday licked their lips, sharpened their steak knives, and hoped to have Greg Chappell on a platter. Five Indian cricketers, reportedly including the then captain, had serious problems with the coach and his methods, and complained to Sunil Gavaskar, a senior member of the review committee set up to deal with coach-player issues. A national fire raged as leaked emails, planted news reports and acrimonious interviews pitted captain against coach in a battle that threatened to tear Indian cricket apart. Now, barely three series later, those same cynics are helping themselves to generous servings of humble pie, as the Chappell method has captured the imagination of a happy and successful Indian team. In a freewheeling conversation, Cricinfo Magazine got Greg Chappell and Ian Frazer to chart the transformation.
You've now been with the team for a while. There was some trouble initially, selling your ideas to them. Are you now on the same wavelength?
Chappell I think we are, by and large. There are guys who are a bit tired, or things aren't going as well for them as they like, and they wonder why we're doing a few extra things. Some of the guys have been a bit tired with the extra workload we put on them in the tours of Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka, where we felt we had the chance to push some players a bit harder. But everyone has either experienced for themselves, or seen first-hand, the benefits of what we're doing. So I think they've all pretty much got on board.
You've said over and over, and written in your book as well, that it's not just about bat and ball. It's easy to see the cricketers buying into the actual cricket side of things, but how have they responded to the mental, and other, aspects?
Chappell A lot of the drills that Ian has developed have to do with stimulating the nervous system, the emotions, the mind. From my personal experience, there's a limit to what you can teach. All you can do is create an environment in which people can learn. In a lot of cases problems of technique originate from problems in the mind. Ian's great strength is identifying these problems and fixing them through training programmes. We've come to the understanding, through our research, that you can't teach someone to be better. But you can design training programmes that will make them think in a way that will make them better cricketers.
So you're saying there's not much point telling a cricketer he has a certain problem, and that it's better off designing a drill that addresses that problem, perhaps even without the player knowing?
Frazer Let's say a player is classified as being weak outside the off. That builds on the mind and when he trains he just tries to get better at playing outside the off. This leads to frustration, and a fear creeps in. He becomes cautious in the way he plays. At this level obviously he's got the ability to play. It is how he approaches the game day-in day-out that's key. We spend a lot of time talking to players and telling them that they have a choice about how they approach each day. How they choose to view a situation after a couple of failures, or how they choose to view things after success even. I think that's what coaching at this level is all about.
Greg, would you agree with that assessment? What is coaching at the highest level all about?
Chappell It's about observation. It's about recognising where the problem begins. Coaching cannot be about dealing with the end result. You might have snicked one because your feet were not in the right position, but if you only address the end result - the feet being in the wrong place - it's like using band-aids to treat cancer. Batsmen get out because they've been deceived by the bowler or deceived themselves by planning to do a certain thing that the bowler does not allow them to do by putting the ball in a different area. As a coach you're going to frustrate a player if you're sorting out his footwork when the real problem is elsewhere. This is one thing I learned when I was coach of South Australia - there is a definite limit to how much a coach can teach a player, but there is no limit to how much a player can learn from a coach.
But obviously coaching is not all about problems. Players still need to be coached when they're doing well, don't they?
Frazer Often a player will be very good in one situation. On one sort of wicket someone may play perfectly through the off side. At this level you'd think if someone could play a shot perfectly once, they should be able to repeat it at will. But situations are always changing, and in coaching you have to be giving players a different repertoire of conditions to succeed in.
There are specific drills you do leading up to games. Can you give us examples of batting, bowling and fielding drills that you've worked out for this team?
Frazer In batting there are some variations - pitch, ball, height of bowler, position of delivery on crease, background, time of day, match situation. In bowling there's run-up, ball, position at crease, dew. And in fielding, the possibilities are endless. We ask ourselves, "How can they train so they have an experience in the subconscious to draw from?" We try and make them think not of the conscious mechanical movements, but through exercises and drills we try and make them experience it so they have the awareness when they come across it in a match. A guy who has done this well is Ric Charlesworth, the hockey player.
Chappell To give you some specific examples: in batting, after the Sri Lankan one-day series India were up against South Africa, and the support staff realised that South Africa's bowlers were much taller than the Sri Lankans. To address this Ian first threw balls standing on a table, but that was too high. He switched to a chair but that was too unstable. Finally they got a stepper and then the throwdowns came from the same height as the South Africans. Also, as South Africa's seamers tend to go wide of the crease, we replicated that. This is more to train the mind than to train footwork or bat-swing. Batting is a dynamic art, so if you try to train one aspect in isolation, say footwork, you're not going to have much success.
In bowling, we felt that the length bowlers were sending down was an issue. So we set up target areas on the pitch that bowlers had to hit. First they bowled from a standing position. Then they were allowed a few steps, and slowly got up to a full run-up.
In the field, balls come to you from different angles. So the drill must make you position your body so that you're receiving balls from different angles. We knock stumps into the ground, and put cones on the top of them. Then we hit balls in rapid succession from different positions, through or over the stumps. The player has to catch balls coming at different intervals of time, from different angles, focusing only on the ball and not worrying about cones flying about or stumps swinging this way and that.
So essentially the way you run drills is a reflection of how you want the players' minds to react in specific situations?
Chappell We often slow things down to get the basics right, then speed up to real time. These guys are elite athletes. If a ball is thrown at them at the same speed, they can hit it with their eyes closed. But when we slowed things down and mixed up the pace, they were forced to use their feet. The bottom half of the body sets up good batting. The hands and the arms come in last. By slowing it down we got them to use their feet and set things up properly to play the shot they wanted to play.
What else have you specifically worked on changing?
Chappell Lots of teams work on the opposition. We spend more time dealing with ourselves, working out the things we need to do to be successful. A lot of the players have commented that they've found the team meetings stimulating - because it's relevant to them. We're spending a lot of time talking cricket with the guys. That used to happen a lot in the past where the players would sit around after play and talk about the game. A lot of knowledge was passed on from older players to younger players through those informal chats.
Frazer You have to make it interesting. Take a situation that is perceived as dull and boring - say if a batsman is standing there and blocking it. It can be perceived as very challenging for the close-in catchers. For them the same situation is about looking for different signals in terms of what the batsman is doing, trying to read the play. So it's all about making things relevant to each player.
We look at different scenarios and let the players come up with solutions themselves. It's vital to get them to work as a team and come up with a solution that is better than what we can suggest to them. One of the things that impresses me is that this is now an open group where people can express themselves without the fear of recrimination, without guilt.
Chappell They've often got the answers but don't realise it. Ian's good at asking questions. Ian does that with them and me. He has a knack of drawing things out. Every now and then he'll subtly remind me that I need to change my approach.
So in some ways Ian acts as an intermediary between you (Greg) and the players?
Chappell He's very good at breaking down barriers. Some of the players didn't quite know how to approach me because of my reputation as a player. Ian's been very kind to tell them about my failings and failures (laughs) and bring me down to manageable proportions! There have been a few tantrums and Ian has been able to deal with those well. I wouldn't have liked to have taken the job on without someone of his knowledge and experience. He's a researcher at heart and I think in some ways that's how he views this, as a hands-on PhD in coaching.
When you talk of coaching in terms of solving problems, what do you mean?
Chappell Cricket is essentially about solving problems. When the bowler delivers the ball, he is posing a problem which the batsman has to solve. Great bowlers always talk about how their job is to ask questions repeatedly, which the batsman has to answer - till the bowler comes up with one question that can't be answered. Kumbles talks about it, Warne talks about it, Murali mentioned it the other day. Talking batting with Rahul or Sachin is the same. Young batsmen or experienced ones, the doubts and the fears are the same. Take Sachin. He has such a creative mind - sometimes I think it's too creative. He made a fascinating comment. He said something like, "experience is a two-edged sword"; it's good up to a point but you know all of the things that can go wrong and think about them...
The dirtiest word in Indian cricket these days is "experiment". No matter what the team does, it is perceived as Chappell's latest experiment.
Chappell We do, from time to time, experiment. But we do that away from the main arena. When we started here people told us, India are no good under pressure, they can't chase, they can't be fit - all negatives. We had a choice of whether to listen to that and let it take us down. We deliberately said we won't worry about the outcome for a bit. We'll give players opportunities in different circumstances to test themselves. If you look at it from the right perspective and have some success, just think what it's going to do for your confidence.
Against Sri Lanka we chose to bat second to challenge ourselves to chase. If we were going to get better at this, we were going to have to do it. And better to do it on our own volition rather than being forced to do it and then being overwhelmed and worrying about failing. Some of the guys going in early didn't really realise how difficult it was batting in the middle order. The bowlers had gotten loose, had taken a few wickets, the ball was softer, they were able to apply pressure; these were problems the middle-order batsmen were dealing with which the top order perhaps did not realise. So by making them bat in the middle order and face these problems, it made them better top-order batsmen. They knew they couldn't afford to get lazy or take a few chances simply because they'd gotten off to a good start, and get out.
Irfan Pathan is one of those who has emerged through these so-called experiments.
Chappell In the Challengers I wanted as many of the guys from the Indian side as possible to play. The only way we could fit everyone in was that someone who was not an opener had to open the batting. I went to Irfan and offered it to him and he nearly knocked me over in the rush to accept. That epitomises the fellow. He's so enthusiastic and he so wants to learn and get better that he'll try anything. He tried it and it worked and that became infectious within the group. We used him at No. 3 against Sri Lanka. We knew that the Sri Lankans expected us to play in a certain way because we had already played that way. Here was an opportunity to strategise. It was not an experiment. He has a technique that's pretty reasonable and he can keep good bowling out. Equally he has the ability and the confidence to back himself if they bowl in his areas. He certainly fitted the profile of a person we could use up the order. When I spoke to Rahul he warmed to the idea of challenging guys to do things they weren't used to, to increase flexibility in the team, increase the confidence.
Sending someone up the order, using a bowler first-change, these are strategies rather than experiments?
Chappell We implemented these strategies, which people called experiments, because we knew from our experience in training that these guys could do what was being asked of them. The odds on these strategies coming off was very high. That's what you do when you're batting - you try and keep the odds in your favour. When you decide to up the rate of scoring, you try and hit a ball that's a foot outside the off over cover, not through fine leg. That's minimising risk. As a bowler, you wonder whether bowling a bouncer in a run-chase is a good idea, because it could be hit for six. But equally it could get you a wicket. So it's all about weighing up the risks. I bridle at the word experiment, because we were not experimenting at all. We were taking opportunities to strategise, to confuse the opposition, force them to use bowlers in a different way, throw their plans out of kilter.
Credit has been liberally given to you for many of these strategic decisions. Where does your role end and Rahul's begin?
Chappell I don't think you can say it's black and white. What Rahul and I are building is a relationship. What the team and the coaching staff are building is a relationship. On game days he's the leader. We're support staff. I get a lot of credit for things I'm not doing. As support staff we come up with ideas and take it to the leadership group, especially the captain. He then considers things. If he doesn't agree with something he says it to me. Take how it went with Irfan here in Delhi (second Test). When we had to bat in the second innings, we thought we had not been positive enough first up, when we batted in the first innings. And we thought we might do something to change that. But if we had sent a Dhoni or a Yuvraj up the order and lost him early, that would have been losing out on a player in his key position. But with Pathan it was again a case of weighing up the risks. I spoke to Rahul and he thought about it, and we mutually agreed on it. That's how it should be, because he's the one that's going to wear the wins and losses against his name, not me. If I feel strongly about something, I will take it to him, but he has the final say and I respect that totally because I've been in that position.
Frazer Rahul and Greg work very closely together. They are both very keen to see Team India be the best team in the world.
Sachin's the same. The public and the press try and force him back to some self-fulfilling ends. But his enjoyment is working with the young guys, the team, and making the whole thing a better unit. That might give him greater satisfaction than people realise. He said the other night that winning the World Cup was the one thing left for him to do. For him to say that to the group on the evening when he'd made his 35th, that was pretty special. It was great for the team.
Like Dravid opening in the first innings of the Delhi Test and then coming out in the middle order in the second. Some would suggest that only happened because Dravid was too much of a nice guy to force someone else to open.
Frazer I think one of the great things that has come out of all this is Rahul. What he did in the Delhi Test says a lot. In the first innings he took it on himself to open. He was far from well. But he wanted to make a statement to the team, and to the opposition.
Chappell There are two big experiences here. The first is the obvious one - going out to bat in tough conditions in the first innings. Then he recognised that it might not be in the best interests of the team for him to open in the second innings. There was a job he could do in the middle order that was more important. He could easily have opened again because on this slow pitch the best time to bat, especially in the second innings, was against the new ball. Rahul sent Laxman in at No. 3 because he thought that would suit Laxman's game. The harder role of batting at No. 5 he took on himself. It worked well. He challenged himself to be a bit more aggressive against Murali and hit him in different areas. Rahul's making huge strides as a person and as a leader. His captaincy has been pretty good all along, but it's his leadership that stands out.
When you first started off there was plenty of uncertainty. There was friction with certain members of the team, with the selection committee, with the board; and you shook things up. In some ways you took a big risk and put your job on the line for what you believed in. But did it also occur to you that Indian cricket may not be strong enough for such a shake-up? That you may have been setting things back by your actions?
Chappell We needed the shake-up. The situation wasn't working. The record in recent times was abysmal. If we kept doing the same things we would get the same things. Certain things are not acceptable in my book. I felt very strongly that the team needed that catharsis to come though stronger. There was a chance that things could go backward; there was an even better chance that things would improve. The risk was necessary and worth taking. The timing of it was never going to be good. I've been around a long time and one of the advantages of having lived as long as I have is that you go through a lot of experiences. I've played in, coached and selected teams and seen what's worked and what hasn't. In some areas you can't compromise. You can't say we'll cover this problem the best we can and try and get by.
A lot has been made about the Indian way, how systems are here: the egos, the red tape - there's a lot to deal with.
Frazer The team knew what was going on. What we needed to get through to them was that there was a better way. If they chose a better way, then a lot of the issues that were external would go away. One of the things we said was, "Control the controllables".
We spent a lot of time throwing up examples from different teams in different sports from different parts of the world, to show them that they could actually create something that could take India forward. Everywhere we go people ask us the same question: How is this team looking so much better? That's the thing the team needs to think about. When everyone said it couldn't be done, Greg's character and strength of vision was such that he first had to create a situation that showed that it could be done. He's done that very well. And it is a bit of a can-do team now.
Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Cricinfo