'I made it clear that I was here to win the IPL'
After losing five of their first six matches, Mumbai Indians have scripted a remarkable turnaround by making it to the IPL final in Kolkata on Sunday. As they prepare to take on two-time champions Chennai Super Kings, coach Ricky Ponting reflects on the season and his own experiences as coach in this exclusive interview.
Coach Ponting, how has the experience been?
It has been going well so far. We are in the IPL finals. After a really slow start, we have played some really good cricket and we needed to in order to qualify. Full credit to all the players; the coaches have worked exceptionally hard but it is the players who are out there getting the job done day after day. It has been a dramatic turnaround after the first six games. To have been the first team to qualify for the final is a great effort. I made it clear to the boys that I was here to win the IPL and not to qualify for the Champions League. We are in the finals now and it is about focusing, preparing well and making sure that we play our best game on Sunday.
Is it easier to prepare for a big final compared to your opponents given that you have had four days to get ready for it?
It probably is. We had a little bit of rest with a couple of days off and had our first training day yesterday. We felt, towards the back end of the tournament, that when we are really busy, we got a little bit of momentum as we just kept playing. There is only a certain amount you can train when you are two months into a T20 tournament. It is more about tactics and mindset rather than the skills. We are playing Chennai and we played them in the last game. So, things won't change too much. It is a matter of execution now.
Is Chennai an opponent you would have preferred less given their success over the years, having been in six IPL finals in eight years?
Our last win was against Chennai. So, we have no worries about playing them. They are a very skilled and well-led team but we won against them in the 2013 final. We have to just look after what we are trying to achieve and have the best preparations and then go out there and play. They are a good team with not too many gaps from number 1 to 11 but we are a good team that can combat against them.
Kolkata Knight Riders play to a template in Kolkata, which is to bat first and get their spinners into the game. Is that something you will work with too?
We need to look at the pitch first. It had a bit of grass last night when we trained. It is early stages of preparation and we will get a better understanding tonight. We played our first game of the tournament here and it was a really good wicket. It had a little bit of grass and the ball skidded on to the bat more than you normally see at the Eden Gardens. It did not spin much and our game plan will be based on the pitch. If you bat first, you have to leave it to the opening batsmen to assess the conditions and indicate it to the rest of the guys.
That is something we have done really well so far. We have known what a good score is batting first and managed to put up some good totals in the first innings. The defensive side of our bowling has been particularly good with Lasith Malinga and Mitchell McClenaghan. Harbhajan Singh has been good as well. We are expecting it to be a good wicket.
What is your method going into a big final as coach?
My method has been same throughout the tournament and I won't change it in the finals. The last nine games we have played have been finals as we have had to win pretty much every game. We have lost one along the way but the build up for us has been positive. We have tried to take the game forward and be nice and aggressive. I like to be well organised and look into the opposition teams tactically and see their keys to success which we can try to break.
I'm a hands-on coach and I like talking to the boys to give them focus. Shane Bond has been terrific with the bowlers and Robin Singh has been around for a long time and knows the players well and understands how we work. As a group of coaches, we have worked very well. The biggest challenge is yet to come.
Can your experience of having played in and succeeded in big finals be passed on or is it something that the players have to experience themselves?
I can help with certain things that I say and what they can expect when they go out there in a big final. Having been there and done that along with some individual success as well, I think I have good little points that I can pass on to the team. The players have a good idea already as I have said a lot of things along the way about facing challenges and playing in big games. At the end of the day, it is not rocket science. You prefer to have players in your team that have done that before as that experience is undeniable and we have got some of those players. There are some really experienced players in this line up as well as in the Chennai line up. They are full of experience and it is going to be a good contest.
Did you find it difficult to assert yourself as head coach given the amount of big names in the support staff?
I found it easy as it was a matter of talking to the entire support staff and not just the coaches. I met them individually and told them about their roles and how I wanted them to operate. I have got complete trust in those guys and so far they have done really well. Shane Bond is in charge of the bowlers and I don't interfere with his work. If he needs any help, I'm always there to provide suggestions.
Jonty Rhodes is an experienced coach and you can't fault Robin Singh as a coach having coached in the IPL and the Caribbean Premier League. I don't interfere in their work but I keep an eye on everything that is going on. If I feel that they are being a little lazy and not preparing the guys as well as they should, I will let them know.
Is it about letting everybody know that Ricky Ponting is the boss?
I don't think so. Everybody is reporting to me and the final responsibility lies with me. It was the same when I was the captain of Australia. I tried to make sure that I had a good understanding with everybody that was operating around the team. I think it has worked out well and we have great respect for each other and we haven't let each other down even for a minute.
What has your equation been with Sachin Tendulkar and Anil Kumble and what is their role in the team?
It is hard to define their roles. They are mentors and help out the guys if required. Sachin has been to a few of our team meetings and so has Anil but they have not been a constant around the team. We want to make sure that there are not too many voices going around and one message is passed to the team and individual players. It is important that the younger guys do not have too many messages going into their minds. They have enough going on in their minds as it is and it is important that they have a clear mind. The fewer voices, the better it is. Full credit to Anil and Sachin for knowing when to take a step back and waiting to be spoken to rather than trying to impose themselves on the group.
Have you found it difficult to ask them to take a step back and let you run the team?
Not at all because if they have got the best interests of the team at heart, they will take a backward step rather than being too far forward. I have got no doubt that they have our best interests at heart. I have not found it difficult as that is one of the jobs I have as a coach to make sure that things are happening the way that I want them to happen around the team. It was a slow start and it took us a while to find the winning way and the winning attitude but all in all the last month has been very enjoyable.
Has getting your marquee overseas players perform at their best been one of your more pleasing achievements?
You need that from your senior players in this tournament. I have been telling the group that the bigger the game the more important it is for the senior players to stand up. You will get a couple of big performances from the younger guys but you can't expect them to be consistently good. You expect your senior players to be consistently good. Lendl Simmons and Parthiv Patel have been excellent at the top. Kieron Pollard is having his best IPL and his work ethic is terrific. His game sense has been better than before. Malinga started a bit slowly but he has put his hand up in the big games and McClenaghan has been a real find. I went really hard for him with the owners at the auction table.
I knew what I was going to get with him and I had also spoken to Bond before the auctions. It is really funny how things have worked out for us because Aaron Finch and Corey Anderson were our first choice players and we were waiting on Cricket Australia to see if Josh Hazlewood would be joining us.
Three of our four first choice overseas players are not with us but we have got good replacements. After the first four games, Rohit Sharma felt that we needed to strengthen our bowling and McClenaghan came in. He has been terrific since then though his last game against Chennai was not his best.
I watched him closely at training yesterday and I'm sure he will have a big impact in the finals. I wanted to have a left armer who can extract pace and bounce out of the Mumbai wicket which is why we went for him. Mitchell Johnson had great success for us a couple of years back and I think that the left arm variation is crucial. He gives his hundred per cent every single time irrespective of the game situation and that is something that I love about him. He gives his all and has got us key breakthroughs. He has had a lot of catches put down off his bowling, 6 or 7 in a row. The balance in any cricket team is maintained by having good opening batsmen and good opening bowlers and we have had that.
Do you think Indian cricket can invest in Rohit Sharma as a leader on the evidence of what you have seen in this tournament?
I do. He has gotten better as the tournament has gone along. We have had a lot of discussions and chats and we both are still learning as captain and coach. All of our players are also learning. You can see the growth in Rohit, especially in the second half of this tournament where he has had to make crucial decisions with the bowling changes and the strike bowlers. He has done well under pressure. He has played at different positions for the team, be it opening the batting or batting at number three and four. He has not had the smoothest of years but you would not know because he is quiet but he has the steely determination to be the best that he can be. If he continues to grow and keeps learning the way he is, I have no doubt that he captain at a higher level.
How has the experience of working with Harbhajan Singh been, another player who you had a history with?
I think when I first came as captain in 2013 there was some animosity. It was upto both of us to stand up as men and break down that barrier. We wanted the best for the team and we did that. We had to put our differences behind us. At the end of the day, we are two really competitive people and I did not hold any grudges away from the field. Those sorts of battles are still going on with the modern players. I took a catch off his bowling in 2013 and we were embracing and hugging each other.
I think that is one of the great things about the IPL; an Aussie having great faith in a Kiwi and two great on field rivals working together as coach and number one spin bowler. I think I was the first one to congratulate him on his selection to the Indian test squad for Bangladesh. There is healthy respect between the two of us.
Would you look to get into coaching full-time in the future?
I have had a great time. I love the game and I love working with other people - trying to make them better technically or the way they think about the game. I think I have seen that through this tournament already. Some of the time that I've spent with the younger guys and then to see them go out and do it on the field, there is nothing better than that. You never say never as far as these big jobs are concerned. If the team starts winning a few IPL's, people might start thinking of me as an international coach.
The cricket runs in my blood and I want to do the best that I can do to enjoy that competitive feeling. You can't go from being a high level of competitor to nothing and you need to have something in your life. Coaching in a tournament like this gets the competitive juices flowing again.
Gaurav Kalra is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo. @gauravkalra75