World T20 2016 March 12, 2016

'I try to sell an idea to a player but I do not force it on him'

Former Sri Lanka opener Marvan Atapattu opens up about the challenges facing him in his new role as Zimbabwe's batting consultant

Marvan Atapattu, the former Sri Lanka opener, is at the World T20 as Zimbabwe's batting consultant. He talks about his role with the team, the need for Zimbabwe to have more exposure at the international level, and the impact of Dav Whatmore on his career, both as player and as coach.

What brought you to this role with the Zimbabwe team?

I am a professional and one of the reasons I left my earlier coaching job [as Sri Lanka's batting coach] was that I wanted to spend time with my family, which I haven't done for, not years, but decades. And this suits me well. This is a consultant job. Also, this is a set-up where I know the personalities that I am working with and so I didn't have much hesitation [in accepting it]. I am not working on a full-time basis but on a consultancy contract which gives me time to allocate to my family.

Were there any cultural changes that you had to overcome?

That was one of the biggest questions that arose when I took up the job. But, honestly, it was not difficult at all. These guys are very easy to work with, and willing to learn and work with a new ideas. As far as I am concerned, no one is a guru in this game. We are all learning. There is always a new experience coming up every minute, as long as you are open to it. Then it's easy to get into different cultures and pass on information.

What were the differences you found between the Sri Lankan players you have coached before and this Zimbabwe team?

It's more my approach than them, to be honest. It was a case of knowing some people from a very young age in my previous job, whereas here that's a bit difficult. Initially, I was not quite sure how these guys would take it, but let me tell you they are very humble people, very willing to learn, trying to explore themselves, wanting to do well. They know that they had a rich cricketing culture before and they value that. So they know a bit of history, how they have gone about their game in the past, which is good, and they want to achieve something better for their country - all that helps.

How do you assess Zimbabwe as a batting unit?

I would like to see them perform at a slightly higher level - that goes without saying. That's one of the reasons we are here playing the qualifiers. If we were any better than this, we would have been playing from the 15th [of March, when the Super 10s start]. You have to accept that. Zimbabwe have not done all that well to get into the main group. It does not mean that you have to write yourselves off; it does mean that you have to work that much harder, and try and get there. Hopefully we all understand that. ICC can provide us with a bit more cricket than what they have provided us with. This exposure won't happen by staying at home. You can talk about improvement till the cows come home but how do you get there? Only by exposure, by playing matches. People need to support countries like Zimbabwe to develop the game.

People like Vusi Sibanda and Hamilton Masakadza have said the mental area of the game is a major area you focus on. Could you talk about that?

I believe when a cricketer gets to a stage - everyone has a limit, not everyone can be Sachin [Tendulkar], Rahul [Dravid] or Brian Lara - but pushing people from their comfort zones to see what levels they reach is one of the main challenges for a coach. You don't know until you push what that limit is. You don't push by having them for just one hour in the nets. You push them by understanding what their thinking is, where they stand in terms of mental stability. So I try talk to them. It's not rocket science. Share experiences, a few ideas here and there, to get a picture of the person.

You spoke about challenging players to get the best out of them. Any specific examples?

Top-order batsmen in most countries today have not been top-order batsmen from age-group cricket, like Under-19, that they have played. It's a challenge for those individuals. The greatest example I can give you is Chris Gayle. He started as an offspinner for West Indies and batted at No. 8. He is one of the greatest openers - at least in the shorter game - the world has seen. It's all about the challenges you present the players and you never know what can happen.

When you were a young player coming up, are there things coaches told you that you did not pay heed to then, but understand better now?

You use that to your advantage. At this juncture, as a coach, the main thing is to sell your idea. You don't walk up to a batsman and say, "Do it". I try to sell an idea which might be right for a person but I do not force it on him. If it's a player who is sure of his place, cemented his place, I might do it bit differently from what I would do with a youngster. I would do it a bit differently for a person who I think is a bit arrogant. It's more personal management and about knowing the players. That's why you need a bit of time with them to know where they come from, how they react, how emotional they are, what their background is - all that needs to be understood before you challenge or present an idea to somebody.

How do you see this Zimbabwe group in terms of temperament?

With [more] exposure, I think they can challenge themselves a bit better. If you don't have enough cricket it's hard to experiment. You are talking about a limited number of games which you need to win. If you don't win you don't get any more matches. But for you to win, you need exposure. It's kind of hard to come to a balance.

"My biggest line is: 'Let your bat talk'. You can say you don't have exposure but when you are going well, make it a day everybody remembers." © AFP

How do you deal with a situation where the best players Zimbabwe produce might leave international cricket for better financial opportunities in County cricket, like Brendan Taylor?

I am not into that. I have worked not even 30 days [with this team] but I have heard some things. That shouldn't be an excuse, I think. If you are a good player, you will be able to manage it. All that can be taken into consideration.

In these 30 days, are there any examples of changes in a player's technique or mindset that have given you a lot of satisfaction?

That's something you have to ask the players, but what I can guarantee is that I haven't kept anything inside. I am a person who gives his opinion. It may not be right every time, but I am not shy at all to give my opinion through correct channels, which is important at this stage.

How would you challenge a player like Sibanda, or maybe even Hamilton Masakadza, who have the skills but haven't reached the levels they are capable of?

My biggest line is: "Let your bat talk". You can say you don't have exposure but when you are going well, make it a day everybody remembers. That was the line when I was playing too. Things have gone well but, hopefully, with time, I will understand them more and more.

You had six double hundreds in Test cricket. When you were going well, you really made it count. Is that something you talk about with these players?

That's always the case with an opening batsman's life. You face the new ball, you don't know what the wicket is doing. There are days when a catch gets dropped, an lbw is not given, you take charge and maximise. There are days when you are given out, days when you get out to a good ball, and times when a bowler bowls an outswinger but it has turned out to be an inswinger. That's cricket. All that happens. So you've got to maximise on days when you get starts.

Do you also speak to players a lot outside training? What kind of conversations do you have?

I haven't done much, to be honest. I must tell you that they are very, very cooperative. For them, somebody bringing in experience must be interesting. Certainly, it would have been interesting if I were one of them. I think things have gone well. It seems people have started to come out with their ideas. That's very important. I can talk for an hour without a problem but if I don't get a response from the person to whom I am talking, it's not a healthy conversation. They have started talking about themselves, about their game, how they play, how they think, how they prepare. It's important as I can know that this person thinks along these lines and I can adjust my approach accordingly. The more open a person is, the easier it is to get across to him to sell my ideas to him. I might say the same thing differently to two people.

To create a bond with players, do you need to know their personal lives well too?

That's one of the key things. When I say personal, I don't have to know personal, personal things. But I would like to know what their education levels are, how attached they are to their parents, what kind of family life they have. Is he a cool person or hot-tempered? What time is he at his best - is it morning or evening? For example, if I get hold of a person at 9 am, and he is not a morning person, he won't like it. If he is a night bird, then I have to make the effort to meet him at 11 pm. That's when conversation gets healthier.

You have known Dav Whatmore for a long time. What is your working relationship with him like?

He is one guy who changed my career, just by talking. I am very grateful to him. It's been very easy working with him.

You said he changed your career. What is that one thing he said to you?

When I made those five zeroes [at the start of my Test career], he said to me that if I made another zero, my mother and father wouldn't change.

You must have learned a lot from him as a coach as well.

My coaching experience at the higher level is six years now, compared to his 30 years. There is a lot to learn from him. He may look an arrogant man, he may look a guy full of emotions while the game is on, but once he gets to the bus or the hotel, he is a different man. He calms down very soon and knows how to talk to players.

Having played against them before, what difference do you see between that Zimbabwe team and the current one?

The consistency is missing, at least in two departments - bowling and batting - compared to the guys I played against. It comes from exposure. And maybe the hunger from the players.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo