'In a T20, at least two of your best guys need to perform'
Managing Kolkata Knight Riders has never been easy, as the Australian pair of John Buchanan and Dav Whatmore will tell you. Last year the side finished fourth, their best showing in the first four seasons, but their passionate fans remained unconvinced, demanding nothing less than the crown. This year Trevor Bayliss, another Australian, decided to fill the position left vacant by Whatmore, who moved to coach Pakistan. Bayliss, a former New South Wales middle-order batsman, recently coached the Sydney Sixers team, which won the Big Bash Twenty20 League in Australia. Before that, he was coach of the Sri Lankan team that finished runners-up at the 2011 World Cup.
You came to the IPL on the back of a successful domestic campaign with the Sydney Sixers, who won the Big Bash. What are the biggest differences you have found between that tournament and the IPL?
From the coach's point of view there is not a lot different. The one big difference, I suppose, is that there are a lot more international players, the wickets are different, and there is probably more hype than even in the Big Bash, as obviously you see some bigger crowds.
Was there pressure when 70,000 people turned up for the opening match at Eden Gardens?
The main thing with crowds that most people misunderstand is that big crowds are what get the players going - that is what pushes those buttons and gets them to perform well, in contrast to when they play in front of no crowds. That is harder.
How do you assess Knight Riders' performance after three matches, including two defeats in the first two games?
We did not play very well at all in the first game, played a little better in the second, and did well in the third game. We have been making improvements. If we make sure we don't play any worse than we did in the first two games, we are going to have a good season. Our top four batters failed in the first couple of matches, except for Manoj [Tiwary]. In Twenty20 cricket at least two of your best guys need to perform, and if they don't there is a lot of pressure on the rest of the team.
You have coached at international and domestic levels. You come to the IPL and the franchise owners tell you you have freedom, but there is pressure to win every match. Do you agree?
There is nothing I can do. We can prepare the guys as much as possible in training and practice, and set a good environment. There is a good feeling around the group. Once that is put in place, it is up to the players on the field. They need to be honest about their own appraisals. If you make mistakes, you cannot move forward unless you are honest.
As far as I am concerned, my role is no different to managing any dressing room. There are guys who need a lot of encouragement, there are guys you don't need to talk to, there are guys you need to kick up their backsides, there are guys that you need to push to work hard. It is setting up a good environment and making everyone work together. That is the trick.
You are possibly spoilt for choice with regard to the number of allrounders and top overseas players in the side. How do you manage a team of stars?
It has certainly got its challenges, but all international players know only four can play. We said at the outset that we will pick teams obviously on form but also on the conditions we are going to play on and the oppositions we come up against. Everyone is clear about how we select teams. And every international and India player understands he might have to miss a game or two.
Isn't that an interesting dynamic - that in the IPL, when you have big players sitting out, it creates pressure of its own, even creates doubt perhaps?
I don't think so. They are all big, mature boys. They are professionals, wanting to play every game, but they are also smart enough to understand they will be left out. And that holds true at all levels of cricket. The players who are able to get over the disappointment of not playing are the ones that do come out when they are selected again and perform. If you are constantly worrying about not being in the team, you create pressure for yourself.
For example, I have had chats with internationals like Eoin Morgan and Brendon McCullum so far, for not playing Morgs so far and dropping Baz for the third match. It is about the combination. Against Royal Challengers Bangalore we wanted to strengthen our middle order and get Shakib [Al Hasan], who could also bowl orthodox spin during the middle overs. I explained that to McCullum and he was happy about letting him know the plan.
In international or domestic cricket, usually only one spot, often none, are discussed. In the IPL you have to chop and change in virtually every game at times.
That is the one big difference, yes. Even in the Big Bash final, Sydney Sixers left out the overseas players to keep the best team to win the match. Actually after Nathan McCullum left for New Zealand, we had only one overseas player, Michael Lumb, for the semi-finals and final. Lumb was disappointed but understood the reasons and took it on the chin.
Knight Riders are led by a passionate man in Gautam Gambhir. What's his one quality you most admire?
Gambhir never gives up hope. He did not score any runs in the first couple of games, and the top order had failed too. But with his experience he created belief in the team. That way he lessened the pressure without pointing fingers at anyone. And you could see in the third match, we managed to keep our nerve despite the collapse during the latter stages of our innings when we batted. In the team meeting he and I just spoke about confidence in our own ability. If you just go out, think good thoughts, have enough guts to play your own game, then failure seems to turn around quickly. And Gambhir showed all that, leading by example with the bat in Bangalore.
Yusuf Pathan is a big-name, big-impact player, but he has not done much yet for the Knight Riders in two seasons. At Rajasthan Royals, Shane Warne gave Yusuf responsibility by calling him the "statement maker". What is your role for him?
His role is, he is a good finisher: get him in in the last seven or eight overs and we can score quickly. That is his primary role. But if we make a good start, we might throw him in a little early, like we did against Bangalore, to carry forward the momentum established early. It did not work then but he is a quality player, and if he is put in that situation a number of times, more often than not he will come good. We just want him to play his natural game, wherever he bats in the order.
Is that where someone like Rudi Webster, the mental-skill coach, can help you out?
We have no specific role for Rudi. We just want him around the group. His principles are no different to Gautam's or mine. He does not call himself a sports psychologist - he is a speaker of common sense. It is about not putting pressure on yourself, and if you can do that, the chances of you performing well are higher. He has struck a chord already with the players, and that keeps spirits high in the squad.
You have the right resources, the manpower, and a large fan base. The Knight Riders finished fourth last year. How do you make sure you move forward?
One of the challenges this year is, every team is strong enough. The tournament is very open, compared to the past four seasons, when only two to four teams stood out based on their strength. But we want to finish first. Sixteen games is a long time. Every team will go through a lull at some point, so my job is to ensure the downtime is as short as possible. It is about keeping the winning momentum. We want to make the semi-finals first and then see how it goes. The challenge is to get there. We don't want to put too much pressure on ourselves, because it makes it harder to actually perform.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo