The Wright hand in Mumbai's IPL jigsaw
John Wright is no stranger to India. He may have resigned as head coach of the national team in 2005, but just can't keep away from the "game's heart". For three months a year, over the last two years, Wright, normally used to soaking in the summer sun back home in Christchurch, has been travelling across the length and breadth of India scouting for talent for Mumbai Indians, a job which he feels is "more relaxed and less intense" than coaching an IPL franchise.
One such pit stop is Alur, an hour's drive from central Bangalore, for the league stages of the Vijay Hazare Trophy, the domestic 50-over competition. Wright has a notepad and a pen to mark his observations. "No laptop for a change," he laughs, settling under one of the makeshift tents put up for a handful of scribes. Why here, when he can sit with the officials and selectors, asks one of the venue managers. "Away from the players," he gestures, indicating he's happy to be in the background, like he was for most parts during his time as India coach.
Wright was appointed head coach of Mumbai Indians in 2013, when they achieved the IPL and Champions League T20 double. Two year later, he took charge of their talent scouting wing, while Ricky Ponting took over the top job. Since then, Wright has been running a feeder system that has helped the franchise narrow in on the best domestic talent in the country, even if they haven't always been able to provide opportunities because of the presence of a plethora of stars.
The notepad he has brought along looks like an encyclopedia, its pages clearly detailing players he's impressed by. But sneaking a peek is not easy for he protects it with great care. It seems the diary is his major source of information about the players he's watching. Every now and then, he glances up and jots down pointers. Ask him about cricket's fascination with numbers, and there's a chuckle, which turns into polite laughter, almost as if to say that's not the way it should be.
"The trick is to go beyond numbers, and report to the franchise what the scorecard won't show," he tells ESPNcricinfo. "You want to see if a player has got the X-factor. The challenges of the job are plenty, because unlike in the past where you could sign players outside the auction, here you need back-ups for every player you are keen on because auction dynamics demand that. So, over the last two years, as a franchise, we've worked towards lending that second eye to the owners so that we going into the auction well prepared."
Jasprit Bumrah, who made heads turn in Australia, is a case in point. Three years ago, the Gujarat pacer, all of 19 and with no first-class experience, was picked literally days before the IPL opener on the back of his performances in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, the domestic T20 competition.
Bumrah had 10 wickets in nine matches but stood out, according to Wright, with his ability to bowl at the death and come away with an economy of 6.58. "Bowlers with unorthodox actions are easily noticeable," Wright explains. "That's what struck us first about Bumrah. Back then, not many in the IPL circles had heard about this kid. But there was something about his action and the momentum he generated just as he was about to deliver the ball.
"Now, when you see someone, you know if he has got it or not. They may bat or bowl in a certain way, and you immediately feel it even if it may not reflect on the scorecard. And then we keep an eye on him, and if you're near correct, you will see a performance along the way. There are two ways of going about it. There are those who stand out, who you may or may not get at the auction, and then there are those who you pick going by your gut feel. That's what we did in his case."
Bumrah is just one of many examples. During the 2013-14 Irani Cup, a season that Karnataka dominated, Wright handpicked Shreyas Gopal, who took a hat-trick in his maiden first-class season. He was pocketed at base price, on the same day he took the hat-trick. Later that year, Wright earmarked Hardik Pandya after a sensational 57-ball 82 against a Mumbai side consisting Zaheer Khan, Dhawan Kulkarni and Pravin Tambe. J Suchith, who had played all of one match at the senior level for Karnataka, was picked on Harbhajan Singh's recommendation soon after the Vijay Hazare Trophy final. Suchith's Karnataka beat Harbhajan's Punjab and the left-arm spinner claimed one wicket in eight economical overs.
"The franchise values inputs from senior players and coaches. Like the players, we work in a team too," Wright explains. "Harbhajan, for example, has returned to the domestic circuit, leading Punjab, and has seen a number of players come through. So he has passed on valuable inputs to our support staff group, which may seem huge, but the roles are well defined."
He pauses every time there is a four, six or a wicket, studying the mannerisms of the player in question. An outstanding stroke earns appreciation, a poor one gets a grimace and, as things settle down, he continues.
"We've got Robin Singh as assistant coach, and he has coached a fair bit around the world, and he's instrumental in a few signings. Ricky, obviously, has seen a lot of the Big Bash League and franchise cricket around the world. He then puts forward what he has seen. Shaun Pollock, when he was associated with the team, brought the South African flavour. So we've tried to build a good network, a good scouting network. Anil Kumble, when he was with the franchise, had a lot of work behind the scenes too."
Lendl Simmons, top-scorer for Mumbai in 2014 after playing only eight games, was spotted thanks to this extensive network, which also includes Rahul Sanghvi. Based in Mumbai for most parts of the year, he keeps tabs on the uncapped players like Unmukt Chand, Sushanth Marathe, Apoorva Wankhede and Akshay Wakhare across tournaments such as the Times Shield and annual T20 corporate tournaments organised by Reliance in Navi Mumbai.
Wright is quick to point out that while limited-overs format is their preferred choice when it comes to scouting, India's improved first-class structure has added a new dimension, not just to their methods but to the mindset and attitude of young players. The rise in confidence, he says, is unmistakable particularly among cricketers from smaller centres.
"The transformation in the domestic set-up here is unbelievably good, much different to when I came here first," he points out. "The biggest improvement to me is the manner in which age-group cricket is run, despite the challenges of having the number of teams you do here, unlike in Australia or New Zealand. To have someone like Rahul Dravid mentoring the Under-19s is great too. I'm extremely impressed in the manner talent is streamlined here, especially with the focus shifting towards junior cricket and the A tours.
"Maybe the improvement of infrastructure across the country has played a part too, because that many more people are benefitted. The byproduct of all these is the fearlessness you see among young players in the IPL. I know every franchise wants to have an edge. So we decided the best way to get that would be to go around the country, look for the best youngsters, invest in them and then reap the rewards later, even if it takes us time. We're pleased to see a lot of them mature beyond their age."
As the match draws to a close, Wright's notebook is firmly tucked into his bag as he prepares to leave. It makes you wonder if there's enough in there for a sequel to Indian Summers. If he does decide to write another book, Wright seems well placed to capture the transformation of Indian cricket in its entirety over the last decade and a half.
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo